In case you haven’t heard, they are making a movie about the making of the greatest movie ever made. No, not Citizen Kane – David Fincher covered that in Mank. Francis and The Godfather is about … (spoiler alert) … The Godfather. It looks to be a prestige affair. Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Jake Gyllenhaal (as producer Robert Evans), Elle Fanning (as his wife Ali MacGraw), Elisabeth Moss (Eleanor Coppola) and, as the 31-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, the indecently handsome Oscar Isaac. No wonder the real Coppola has given the project his blessing.
Sure, there is a juicy tale to tell here: the wild-card casting of Marlon Brando, brushes with the mafia, the triumph of New Hollywood. But there is an uncomfortable circularity creeping in when it comes to movies about movies, like a snake eating its tail, or an industry that has run out of ideas and wants to cling to the past.
There are strong incentives to do this. For one thing, actors love impersonating actors, and awards bodies love it, too. In recent years we have had acclaimed portrayals of Walt Disney (making Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks), Alfred Hitchcock (making Psycho in Hitchcock, making The Birds in The Girl), Marilyn Monroe (making The Prince and the Showgirl in My Week With Marilyn), and Jean-Luc Godard (Redoubtable – unlike Coppola, Godard called the movie “a stupid, stupid idea”). Plus jokier takes such as Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name and James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (on cult atrocity The Room). Meanwhile, Mank finds itself in similar territory to the 1999 movie RKO 281, which was also about the making of Citizen Kane.
From 8½ to Boogie Nights, Sullivan’s Travels to Singin’ in the Rain, fictional movies about film-making are some of the very best in cinema. True movie industry tales are never a chore: surely nothing in a Godfather making-of could match the chaos of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shoot, as captured in the doc Hearts of Darkness. But when these stories are fictionalised and processed back through the machine that made them, they are prone to mythologising and general self-congratulation about how great Hollywood is.
That will not be the case if things carry on in this vein. As well as a sign of creative bankruptcy, perhaps these movies represent a last stand for a system in which stars don’t matter as much as they used to. To compete with the likes of Marvel and Star Wars, Hollywood is effectively turning itself into a franchise.
The snake is also running out of tail to eat. The Godfather was less than 50 years ago, The Room less than 20. So here’s hoping Francis and The Godfather goes very wrong. Maybe that will put a stop to this trend, or it will generate enough material for its own “making-of” movie down the line. Wonder who’ll play Oscar Isaac?