One From the Heart (1982, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Ambition in filmmaking is a dangerous tightrope. In the 1970s, there was a cascade of filmmakers who were highly ambitious and succeeded. Many of them (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese) continued their successes into the 1980s. Others were not so successful. Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Shampoo) became increasingly addicted to drugs and faded away. Michael Cimino translated his enormous success with The Deer Hunter into the bloated critical and box office failure of Heaven’s Gate. And there’s Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are held is such high esteem and Apocalypse Now has garnered a similar appreciation in the decades that followed its release. But something happened in the 1980s that caused Coppola’s star to dissipate. One From the Heart is widely considered the moment everything collapsed, but it’s more complicated than just one movie.
One From the Heart is set in Las Vegas, particularly one evening in the city as strained couple Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr) explore what life could be like with other partners after five years with each other. Hank meets Leila, a circus performer (Nastassja Kinski) while Frannie is swept off her feet by Ray (Raul Julia). Each of our protagonists has a best friend (Harry Dean Stanton and Lainie Kazan) who try to steer them in one direction or another. Backing the film, almost nonstop, is an original score written and performed by Tom Waits with Crystal Gayle. The songs serve as an inner monolog between our couple, so it’s a musical though not one where characters break into song spontaneously.
The reality of the film is intentionally ultra-heightened. It was shot on the soundstages of Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios and meant to evoke the golden age of Hollywood with its production design. It cannot be argued that One From the Heart lacked ambition. Its entire production was high-risk and experimental. Waits’ recording studio shared space with production designer Dean Tavoularis, causing the two artists to bleed into each other’s work. You may not personally enjoy the aesthetics of the music and design, but they are definitely partnered together very well. The artifice of the production is also emphasized, and in some scenes, you can intentionally see the ceiling painted like a starry Vegas night. Mood lighting is used to point out shifts in character emotions and tone in the film. The director also chose to play with film composition and digital elements in the picture. Rear projection was used to merge simultaneous character moments occurring in separate locations. Also, Coppola played with the use of digital storyboard, shooting and editing the outline of the film and using it as a reference during filming. One From the Heart is a film where you can obviously see where the money went. It is all on screen.
While the technical elements are stunning what causes One From the Heart to fail so spectacularly is the lackluster script and the terrible acting from its leads. There is absolutely no chemistry between Forrest and Garr so when they split in the first act there isn’t a sense that they belong back together. However, for all its experimentation, the film is attempting to recreate a certain classic cinematic experience, so it is forced to deliver its “Love Conquers All Ending.” The people Hank and Frannie end up with for their one night away are much more interesting and likable. Kinski is giving her all in this performance and comes off as very sympathetic when she realizes that she’s just a one-night fling for Hank. It is pretty sad when your audience ends up hating your male lead when he’s trying to get back with his long time partner. Julia is very dashing and charismatic. You immediately understand why Frannie would be drawn to him. He isn’t more successful than Hank, he works as a waiter at a 24-hour buffet. However, his character is more ambitious and thinks more about his aspirations for the future. This is why I found myself rolling my eyes in the third act when Frannie chooses to rush back home in the rain to Hank. But then again, I felt relieved for Julia’s Ray that he didn’t have to continue life with the dud that is Frannie. I guess in the end Hank and Frannie, in all their dull narcissism are meant for each other? I couldn’t help but imagine the miserable life they had into the mid-1980s when, after having a couple kids, ended up in an inevitable bitter divorce.
When watching a film like this at this current point in time, it is almost impossible not to make a comparison to La La Land. Both films have a goal of presenting a “realistic” romantic relationship that will contrast with the composed, artifice of traditional Hollywood. They both employ non-professional singer/dancers in the leading roles. Where they part is that La La Land has two actors that actually feel like they are in love with each other, so the heartbreak stings that much worse. While One From the Heart wants to have its cake and eat it too by tearing its couple apart but shoehorning them back together, La La Land isn’t afraid to break with tradition. People can have an influence on your life, and you can even still hold a flame for them, but life may not lead you back into their arms. In the case of Hank and Frannie, I can’t quite decide if they would be happier elsewhere or if they are too toxic to be with anyone else.
Coppola chose to independently fund the film while settling on Paramount as its distributor. The budget grew to $26 million for a movie that didn’t necessarily have a set audience waiting for its release. Investors began to pull out, and Coppola found his fledgling studio slipping into bankruptcy. The film would fail to please nearly anyone and only gross a little more than half a million dollars. The director has said that the rest of the films he made throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s were done in part to pay off the debt Zoetrope accrued from One From the Heart’s failure. While Coppola has never quite reached the heights of his earlier successes, he’s a filmmaker that had weathered the risks and failures of going his own way. His ambition, while sometimes colossally terrible, has to be admired. He just doesn’t care what audiences think, and he wants to make art on his own terms. Isn’t that the definition of a real artist?