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Family Matriarch Played Quiet But Vital Role

To outsiders, Eleanor Coppola, who died Friday at age 87, presented as soft spoken and unassuming, yet as someone who always understood exactly what was going on. When I first met her she was playing the role of the perfect ’60s “hippie chick” who hung with young filmmakers, tolerated their ego trips but also had a keen sense of talent.

She herself had a degree in design from UCLA and had landed some good startup jobs when she met an ambitious if socially awkward wannabe director named Francis Coppola. He was struggling through a haphazard horror flick titled Dementia 13 and he clearly needed both a girlfriend and some savvy in navigating the system.

He shortly delivered his first movie and she their first son.

Some two decades later her husband hit an anguished impasse while shooting a pricey war movie, inevitably turning for stability and sanity to Eleanor. She’d been quietly making a documentary about their cinematic nightmare, Apocalypse Now, which had neither full financing nor a finished script. Her perspective helped them survive a typhoon and a stoned crew, he with awards and her with a brilliant film called Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaking Apocalypse that would itself develop a cult following.

At the time of his wife’s death, Francis Coppola was in midst of final details of postproduction on yet another massive self-financed epic, Megalopolis. Eleanor had previously been scheduled to be at the New York premiere of a movie directed by her daughter Sofia. That movie, Priscilla, was dedicated to Eleanor, with mother and daughter planning to share opening-night raves.

As usual, Eleanor was playing an important, if quiet role — opening night was even going to feature the new vintage of red wine, called Eleanor, from the Coppola wineries, one that was itself winning strong reviews.

Thus on twin fronts, Eleanor was again both in, and out, of the limelight, an ambiguity she coveted. She was not the star. Or was she?

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