June 2008

Marisa Atkinson

nonfiction

Notes on a Life by Eleanor Coppola

Coppola family matriarch and documentarian Eleanor Coppola, a self-described “observer at heart,” is not new to the art of reporting on her famous family’s many filmmaking excursions and endeavors. Coppola routinely shoots documentaries and “making of” featurettes for her husband Francis Ford Coppola’s films, as well as for her filmmaking children Roman and Sofia Coppola. Coppola’s previous published work, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, was a collection of reflections she recorded during the three years her family spent making her husband’s blockbuster, and she also filmed and narrated the award-winning documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. In her latest publication, however, Coppola turns the camera inward, exploring her and her family’s personal lives through a selection of her notebook entries that spans from the late '70s through June 2005.

Though multitalented, it is clear that Coppola sees her most important roles as those of wife and mother, and her interactions with her children are especially touching (even when Sofia is a grown woman filming her third movie, Coppola sneaks a doctor onto the set to examine her after she has spent the week coughing). But Coppola also reflects candidly on her struggle to nurture her extremely gifted and prolific Hollywood family while attempting to find time for her own creative life. “I have an ongoing internal war,” Coppola writes, “a conflict between wanting to be a good wife and mother and also to draw, paint, design, write and shoot videos. I focus on my family and imagine there will be a time for my interests but there rarely is.”  

Coppola has an artist’s eye for the world around her, describing each new locale’s landscape, culture, and art in exquisite poetic detail. The Coppolas’ Napa Valley winery serves as the family’s home base, as well as Coppola’s personal sanctuary and “a welcome shield” from Hollywood life. Coppola’s entries from Napa are content and introspective, and her descriptions of the vineyard and its nature consistently reflect her most peaceful moods. At the same time, many of the foreign countries that Coppola and her family travel to, either for business or pleasure, while exciting and creatively stimulating, create a sense of anxiety and homesickness in her writing. Flying home to California from one of Francis’s film shoots, Coppola writes, “…my toes are twitching in my shoes, anxious to be walking in the garden at home; my fingers tingle in anticipation of holding pencils again and working on some unfinished drawings in my room.”

Early in the memoir, the Coppola family is struck by tragedy with the loss of son Gio, twenty-two at the time of his death. Here Coppola’s entries are her most raw and heartbreaking, and also her most courageous. Coppola is any other mother suffering the unexpected loss of a child when she opens her heart to the reader following the incomprehensible event: “I am in an unspeakable rage. How could life so utterly and excruciatingly sabotage me…” And while her and her family’s grief carries on, Coppola finds strength in honoring Gio’s memory throughout her writings, finally acknowledging that the “deep volcanoes of searing emotion erupting without warning” are merely reminders “that I had a son whom I treasured and lost and won’t forget.”

While Coppola’s memoir is intimately personal, it is important to note that she sticks to exploring her own emotions and experiences, and never presumes to speak for any of her family members unless repeating a direct quote. This is a dignified and respectful choice when you consider the growing class of flashy celebrity tell-alls that have been recently springing up more and more. And though famous celebrities are featured throughout her entries, Coppola’s never resorts to tacky name-dropping. It just so happens that, as a member of a celebrated filmmaking family, celebrities play a role in the backdrop of Coppola’s life (and provide several amusing anecdotes for the reader). Coppola admits that she has never really gotten used to the more glamorous aspects of her life. At time she seems almost awed (and always gracious) when musing about the way her life turned out: “Moviemaking, which as I grew up seemed so exotic, [is] now a way my family [spends] an evening together.”

What emerges from these “notes” is a portrait of an extraordinary woman who, while traveling the world, renovating huge estates, making award-winning films, and rubbing elbows with celebrities, is also just a woman like any other, struggling to balance work and family, dealing with unexpected grief, and trying to achieve spiritual and creative fulfillment. It is Coppola’s words alone, however, that make these reflections on life so thoughtful, imaginative, and completely absorbing.

Notes on a Life by Eleanor Coppola
Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 9780385524995
290 Pages