Francis Ford Coppola has said that every movie he made in the decade after One from the Heart was made for money. It’s hard to believe that’s true with 1988’s Tucker: A Man and His Dream. The project had been a passion for Coppola since his days at UCLA, where George Lucas got on the bandwagon. After a few false starts and an abandoned notion of turning the story into a musical, Coppola made the movie with Jeff Bridges in the lead role.
In previous articles I’ve been building on the notion that Coppola’s films starting with The Outsiders consists of stories about nostalgia. The posture of this period is one of looking back in attempt to resurrect or at least understand past pleasures and successes. Tucker represents the penultimate effort, all the more so because it was an old project, a period piece, and a film intended to pay homage to the Americana vibe of Frank Capra.
There’s a way in which Tucker could have been a great leap forward for Coppola’s work. The original intention for the film was a kind of dark, experimental musical that fused the lives of great industrialists of the 30s and 40s. Leonard Bernstein would have written the score, Gene Kelley would have been the choreographer, but none of that happened. Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope filed for bankruptcy after the one-two punch of One from the Heart and The Cotton Club, and Coppola instead made the far more marketable Peggy Sue Got Married.
Somewhere around the time Coppola was shooting the Disney/Michael Jackson extravaganza Captain E/O, George Lucas came to Coppola with an idea. He suggested that Coppola turn his experimental epic into a kind of automotive Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Lucas, well known for his own lust for cars, offered to produce the film with full support of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic. Coppola was still in the hole. Still looking back. Maybe he felt he didn’t have any choice. So he made the movie in the way that Lucas suggested.
For my money Jeff Bridges is the most believable actor of his generation. He can do anything, portray any character, and I immediately believe anything and everything that he does – it doesn’t matter whether he’s playing a computer program, the President or a dude from Southern California, I buy what he does. Which is one of the many reasons Tucker is such an astonishingly bland film. Next to The Cotton Club, is the Coppola film I like the least – and it is exactly because I don’t believe a moment of it.
Coppola excels at emotional clarity and vulnerability, so when something so one-note, so bland, and so lacking in any of the intimacy usually so preeminent in Coppola’s work I just have a hard time watching.
Next week we’ll finally get to the movie that ends Coppola’s nostalgia phase. And one that I’ve avoided because I’m so afraid it’s going to cast a nasty pall on my feelings for its predecessors. That movie? The Godfather Part III.
See you next week.