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Sunday, August 17, 2008

The 5 Most Underrated Simpsons Characters



Recently, we noticed that our old friends from Yankee Pot Roast had written a book called Underrated: The Yankee Pot Roast Book of Awesome Underappreciated Stuff. At first we assumed that they'd misspelled overrated, and that their book making fun of lame stuff had an insanely ironic title. But as we got deeper into the book (or rather as our interns read more of it to us while we lifted weights), it became increasingly clear that they had gone and done something totally and utterly insane. They were writing about things they ... liked. In a daring move that will probably break the internet (which is overrated anyways) we decided to let them try it on our website. Behold, for maybe the first time on the internet: nice things being said about stuff.

If you're thinking Comic Book Guy or Moe are underrated, you're obviously not a Simpsons fan. Wacky supporting characters of that sort are cult-classics, universally recognized and beloved. They're rated exactly where they should be. We're running down some of the truly underrated Springfieldians: those who remain underused and are still rife with potential for unexpected hilarity.

#5.
Gil Gunderson

Aw, c'mon, do it for ol' Gil! Essentially a parody of Jack Lemmon's desperate, beleaguered real-estate agent from Glengarry Glen Ross, poor old Gil is the ultimate sad sack: A salesman whose only asset is his expired charm. The poor guy's an inch away from losing his job, wife, house (that is, his shitty job, cheating wife, and whatever roof he currently calls home). All he needs is one more sale--just one sale, please, pretty please?--but he is completely unable to seal the deal. He practically sweats desperation.

Gil is great because he makes you feel good about yourself. No matter how miserable your life, at least you're not that guy. Like many of The Simpsons' finest characters, Gil fills a niche you didn't even know was empty till he appeared. He's like a grownup version of the Squeaky-Voiced Teen in that he pops up any and everywhere, never holding the same crappy job twice. He sells shoes, used cars, doorbells, even Coleco computers ("Now, let's talk rust-proofing. These Colecos'll rust up on ya' like that, er ... shut up, Gil. Close the deal ... close the deal!").

Gil is best when used sparingly; the perfect one-joke cameo. Pop up, make us laugh, disappear. Of course they gave him a starring episode--even Crazy Old Cat Lady is due her leading role--where he moved in with the Simpsons (and who hasn't yet stayed at that house?), but we like Gil best when he's tried to sell us something obsolete, failed, and limped away, dejected but eternally optimistic he'll nab the next one.

#4.
Arnie Pye

If you're saying "Who??," Arnie Pye in the Sky is Springfield's traffic-copter newsman with the perfect closed-nose news voice. ("Look out at the corner of 12th and Main because I'm going to be sick!") Arnie is hilarious as a second-rate reporter with an inferiority complex and a chip on his shoulder; he's jealous of Kent Brockman and so desperately wants his job. (In fact, Arnie once got to take over the anchor's desk, whereupon he instantly dropped the nasally newscaster voice and adopted the smooth tones of trustworthiness.)

Arnie Pye's best moment (fleeting as it was) was an early sign of the budding rivalry. Flying above Homer's disaster with a van full of kids, Kent asks him "How are the children, Arnie?" to which he snaps "I can't see through METAL, Kent!"--yes, it loses something on paper, but old Arnie Pye spits it out with such venom, such acidic hatred, you get years of professional and personal contention in those seven syllables. Kudos to Dan Castellaneta's greatest vocal performance. We want more Arnie Pye in the Sky and we want him now.

#3.
Lou the Policeman

Springfield can be a dangerous place to live. Between the two-bit criminals (Snake), organized crime (Fat Tony) and the random shysters that swing through (monorail guy?), there's a veritable Rogue's Gallery of Villains inhabiting the town at any given time. And that doesn't even include some of the normal citizens who seem to regularly commit felonies, like Homer, Moe and Mr. Burns.

Keeping the order and protecting the town is a woefully understaffed and ineffective Springfield Police Department. They're essentially a three man show: Chief Clancy Wiggum, the rotund blunderbuss with extremely poor marksmanship and a talent for making clever, on-the-spot puns; Eddie, the white patrolman who barely utters a word, presumably there to make the Springfield Police Department look slightly more robust from a personnel standpoint and an underdeveloped recurring character if there ever was one.

And then there's Lou: rock steady, the man that keeps the whole thing going. He's fully aware of Wiggum's incompetence and is constantly angling for his job, going so far as to write letters to the editor of the Springfield Shopper (under the pen name "Worried in West Springfield") calling for the chief's resignation. Lou has no reservations about making fun of the chief to his face either, insulting his poor deductive skills and making fun of his ill-fitting pants.

#2.
Luigi Risotto

He's the chef that looks like he jumped off the pizza box, constantly belittling his staff and conversationally berating his customers, doing it all with a misleading smile and sing-songy Italian accent. Being an asshole isn't confined to his restaurant, either: when Marge entered a cooking contest with her "dessert dogs," Luigi sabotaged her oven with "how do you say, malice of forethought." He's a complete jerk, but he comes off as lovable because he sounds happy and he's kind of roly-poly.

He pops up in episodes here and there. During the Springfield Mayoral recall election, Luigi threw his hat in the ring, promising to "make you the good government, just how you like it." Luigi's character works because he's used often enough that you know who he is, but sparingly enough that his "Italian chef as Italian stereotype" act and his being a total dick don't get stale.

But in the end, there's only one thing to know about Luigi: his English isn't bad because Italian is his first language. He doesn't even speak Italian. Luigi's first language is "how do you say, fractured English. It's what [his] parents spoke at home."

#1.
Lisa Simpson

Bart and Homer are the crowd-pleasers, no arguing that: their misadventures dominate the show, and their faces hog the merchandise. But it's Lisa, the second-grader reading at a 14th-grade level, who is the heart and soul of both the family and show.

We love Lisa because she yearns for something greater. She wants to better herself, her family, her town. Sure, she's a nerd--who among Simpsons fans isn't? And without this little overachieving genius and hopeless do-gooder saving the day (on a weekly freaking basis!), our favorite family would've been killed a dozen different ways, the town of Springfield would've been destroyed, the very earth itself lost.

Let's hear it for Lisa! Nobody's favorite character, but the most UNDERRATED SPRINGFIELDIAN OF THEM ALL.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still Remake Is Pure Sucky Evil

For years I got blank stares when I told people that The Day the Earth Stood Still was my favorite movie. "It's this black-and-white science-fiction film from the 1950s," I'd say, and when they just gazed back at me, I'd finish with "look, just watch it, okay?" Little did I know that something far more sinister was in my future — now when I talk about The Day the Earth Stood Still, people will think I'm lauding the performance of one Keanu Reeves. The very thought makes me want to hurl the contents of my stomach all over my keyboard.

There is no reason to remake something that is absolutely perfect. A big reason for that is that there are hundreds of thousands of unproduced screenplays which will never see the light of Harvey Weinstein's desk, and there's a good chance that a couple thousand of those screenplays are actually brilliant. But there's another reason nobody should ever remake a movie as wonderful as 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that's because it is an affront to everything good about humanity.

Remakes insinuate that there was something deficient about the original movie, that it's somehow necessary to update the film for today's audiences. The vast majority of the cinema-going crowd will watch the version with the actors they know in an instant, and never bother to rent the first one. I'm no exception: I've never seen the 1960 Ocean's Eleven, 1969's The Italian Job, or even every episode of the British The Office. In those cases, that's probably okay — heist flicks work better with shinier cars and newer cameras, and the American workplace has its own set of unique frustrations and comedic opportunities.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, however, is still painfully relevant in every way. Julian Blaustein, its producer, read over 200 short stories in the science fiction literature of the day; his selection of Harry Bates's "Farewell to the Master," and screenwriter Edmund H. North's adaptation, doesn't miss a beat. We're still fighting all the time — the petty squabbles of our nation's leaders still prevent us from reaching any kind of agreement that would, say, stop genocide in Darfur, for example. A culture of fear and greed persists, especially in Bush's America, making it entirely plausible that an alien landing in D.C. would be subject to imprisonment, thievery, and — oh, yeah — hasty gunshots. We might be afraid of terrorists now instead of communists, but we still haven't managed to end nuclear proliferation and create lasting worldwide peace. I think there's still quite a lot to The Day the Earth Stood Still's message that we might pose a threat to the rest of the universe if we can't get a grip on our violent tendencies; and I think Klaatu's non-destructive way of shocking humanity into action is even more brilliant today.

Sometimes the reason to remake something is that the idea is still golden, but the execution of it was limited by the times. Well, I really don't see anyone convincing me that that is the case here. The special effects did just what they needed to do; maybe Gort vaporizing military weapons wasn't as advanced as liquid metal crawling its way up Neo's body, but Gort's thing shot a chill through my spine much faster. The seamlessness of the spaceship, which was recreated with the painstaking application of putty for each shot, added such a fantastic thrill — that simple effect is more meaningful than a thousand flashy explosions.

The attention to detail reaches an admirable level that I almost never see in entertainment today; for example, Professor Barnhardt's chalkboard equations actually contain terms that are relevant to momentum conservation and dynamics, and Klaatu's explanation of his error makes total sense. Most filmmakers today would simply throw up a sine and a cosine and call it done.

The rest of the production was a cut above, too. Bernard Herrmann's amazing soundtrack marks some of the first use of electronic instruments in film, and those theremins have my ears ringing with sci-fi delight years after my first viewing. Even the cinematography was gorgeous; the use of shadow and light patterns created a delightful spooky mood to most scenes, and nobody can miss the visual hilarity of watching doctors chainsmoke while wondering how the hell aliens live so much longer than we do.

Michael Rennie's alien, by the way, is an example of a truly flawless and understated performance; anyone who thinks that Keanu Reeves can show that up should stop reading now to go smack their head against a wall a few times. I don't want to see any current child actor try to replace Bobby Benson; Billy Gray's adorable portrayal of The Most Fifties Boy Ever will warm my heart for all time.

I suppose the one complaint you could have for a 1951 film is about sexism and racism — except for the fact that there were certainly world leaders of all races in the final scene, and the character of Helen Benson is crucial to the plot. She's a bit of an annoying mother, perhaps, but she stands up to her way-more-annoying boyfriend to save the day — and the world. As far as diversity goes, there's only one non-white star in the 2008 cast, so I guess things haven't changed much.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a treasure; it's one of the best films we humans have ever managed to produce. It was fabulous in 1951 and it's only matured with age, like the finest sci-fi-themed wine in all the world. The movie packs a huge amount of vision about human identity and aspirations — in fact, it's almost impossible to believe it was made eighteen years before we Earthlings reached the moon. So why in the name of everything beautiful would a person want to taint those waters with a totally unnecessary rehash?

Apparently this remake is happening because 2008 director Scott Derrickson admires the work of 1951 director Robert Wise. Hey, Scott, you know what would be a good way to pay your respects to Wise's work? Tell people to watch his movie, and then stay the fuck away from it.

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Who Wants To Watch Three Hours Of Watchmen?

It's already calling itself the movie adaptation of "the most celebrated graphic novel of all time," but if a certain group of masochistic fans have their way, "visionary director" Zack Snyder's version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic may also be the longest comic strip movie ever made - But is the general public ready for three hours of watching the Watchmen?

We've previously told you that Snyder is apparently fighting the studio over the length of his movie, but now a fan petition has appeared online attempting to help Snyder in his fight. The petition, entitled simply CAMPAIGN FOR 3 HOUR WATCHMEN MOVIE FROM WARNER BROS, exists to try and put pressure on Warner Bros. to release an almost full-length (Snyder has previously mentioned a full 210-minute cut of the movie) version of next summer's much-hyped masterpiece:

We, the ‘Minutemen’ below, respectfully demand a 3 hour running time for the forthcoming movie ‘Watchmen’ from Warner Bros. Directed by Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead), Watchmen is a film adaptation of what is widely regarded by comic fans as the greatest superhero story ever... As with any movie Warner Bros have a responsibility to make ‘Watchmen’ a commercial success and to appeal to a broad audience, many of whom will not be familiar with the story – and therein lies the issue. While discussions with WB studio executives are ongoing about the running time of the movie, there is pressure to ensure that it comes in at below 2hrs and 50 minutes.

We, the ‘Minutemen’ below, submit that Watchmen must be a 3 hour movie and ask WB to respect and extend the courtesy of this longer running time to the giant of all superhero stories.

That's right, people. The people behind the petition have already come up with their own fangroup identification, just like Trekkies, Browncoats and People-Who-Want-To-Have-Sex-With-Ewoks (Admittedly, that last one isn't very catchy). But that's not all they've come up with; they've also worked on reasons why this film shouldn't be edited down to a reasonable length:

1. The Watchmen experience isn’t just about big events and characters in the story, it’s also about small things, the ‘minutiae’. Minor characters and their dramas are part of the meticulously constructed whole - removing any one piece of Watchmen means losing part of its essence

2. Some tough choices have already been made and elements of the story have had to be left out. Previous draft screenplays from David Hayter and Alex Tse have shown the difficulties in making such decisions. Cutting down the movie further will only dilute Watchmen and its potential value as a unique experience for cinema audiences in 2009

3. Watchmen is a landmark work in the graphic medium which is venerated by comic fans and respected by the literary establishment. No other comic book series has ever been accorded such status, for this reason it should be treated with the level of respect any great epic literary work is afforded, not like the average superhero movie. A longer running time of 3 hours, which allows the story to breathe, will tease out what makes Watchmen truly great and different to any other superhero movie released so far.

4. There is only one opportunity for Warner Bros and Zack to get this right. There will be no sequel to Watchmen - it is a stand alone work. Cutting down the running time because of conventional views about audiences having short attention spans could be disastrous. No one wants a Watchmen movie that is rushed, incoherent and ultimately forgettable. Recent years have shown there is great appetite among the cinema-going public for dark, epic heroic stories which are LONG (Lord of the Rings, the Dark Knight, King Kong, etc.) and of great quality.

5. Zack Snyder and WB are waiting to hear how much we want a 3 hour movie. In an interview with MTV on 12 August 2008 Snyder stated that he is interested to see how much online support there is for a 3 hour running time (source: http://www.mtv.com/movies/news... “Right now it runs at around two hours and 50 minutes”, He stated, ”I just don't want to lose any story line, because you know eventually that's what happens. You start to have to cut characters out, and I just don't want to do that”.

It's an interesting series of arguments, especially because... well, they don't really stand up to that much attention. For example, don't the first and second points contradict each other? "You can't cut something out of Watchmen without destroying the whole thing, and they've already cut a lot out've Watchmen." Doesn't that mean that they've already undercut the integrity of the story, and the entire argument is pointless?

Leaving aside the third and fifth points as pretty much useless (The third being "It's an important book, so don't cut anything out," which seems to miss the point that almost all - if not all - adaptations of famous works of literature have had swathes of material cut from them when adapted into movies, and the fifth point being less an argument for not cutting the movie as a random statement), that seems to leave the fourth point as the crux of their argument... which is somewhat unfortunate, in that it's blatantly untrue. "There is only one opportunity for Warner Bros and Zack to get this right"? Which opportunity are they referring to? The theater release of the movie? The DVD release, that was already planned to be longer? The inevitable "Director's Cut" DVD that would follow that one, if the original DVD was successful enough? These days, it's not as if there's only "one" version of any movie anymore, so the idea that there's only one opportunity for any movie to "get it right" is ridiculous. And what does getting it right actually mean, anyway? Making the best movie you can? Being slavishly devoted to the source material, even if it means the movie is overlong? If you're going to demand that something be done "right," it's worth trying to come to some kind of agreed definition of "right" beforehand.

I'm tempted to start another petition about the Watchmen movie. I could call it something like CAMPAIGN FOR A GOOD WATCHMEN MOVIE FROM WARNER BROS, and the body of the text would go something like this:

We, the people who sign this petition below, would like to ask that Watchmen is whatever length it needs to be to make sense and be successful as a movie as opposed to a piece of fan service. Ideally, we'd like that to be less than three hours because, come on, three hours for a movie? That wasn't any fun for any of the Lord Of The Rings movies, and at least they didn't feature radioactive glowing blue men showing off their man junk. Most people don't really like long movies; look at Robert Downey Jr.'s reaction to The Dark Knight. Do you really want to make a movie that'll confuse Robert Downey Jr. even more than The Dark Knight?

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Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Kids Will Love It, Geeks will Shudder

By Vincent Janoski

Clonewars Well, Star Wars: Clone Wars was released, and though it was a much anticipated event (or ploy) to get every Star Wars geek to the theater for something a little different, you might spend your money better on the Genndy Tartakovsky versions.

The action picks up shortly after Episode II: Attack of the Clones and owes a lot to the aforementioned Tartakovsky versions in voices, style, and tone. But that is where the similarities end. We're thrown smack in the middle of the narrative with no explanation of character or setting, because, well, you know it all by now, don't you? Obi-Wan and Anakin are deep into battle when they are called to action to find and rescue Jabba the Hutt's little "punky muffin" (yes, that is what Jabba called him). The message is delivered by Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's new padawan learner, a whiny, vacuous little twit who, if she wasn't a force-wielding Jedi who kicks some serious Droid behind, would fit right in as a character on Hannah Montanna. I knew we were lost when Anakin called her "Snips" and she called him "Sky-guy" and R2D2 "Artooie." With the introduction of Ahsoka, one can almost forget Hayden Christensen ever happened. But there are some neat new characters who make appearances and, of course, plenty of aliens.

As far as the animation rendering goes, there are some stylistic choices that give the whole thing a "dirty," monochromatic feel with the look of papier-maché sculptures. The animation was supposedly done to resemble Japanese anime, but methinks they confused anime with Supermarionation. I felt like I was watching an episode of Thunderbirds.

Let's be clear. It's Star Wars, and it satisfies your yearning for clone trooper-on-droid action and light saber duels. We get to see lots of armored and unarmored clones do their business and big spaceships battling in the void. My 5-year-old simply loved it and would not have let me hear the end of it if he was forced to wait until the DVD, or worse, the TV show. There are some very silly things about this Clone Wars such as the fact that the battle droids all sound like Erkle from Family Matters, and Zero (Cero?) the Hutt sounds more like Capote the Hutt. But there are some very cool things about this version of Clone Wars too which should add some real variety to the mythos. Ventress is one of these things. This character is one evil Sith witch and is the best carry-over from the Tartakovsky toons. She should make the subsequent TV episodes fun to watch, if the show lasts that long for her to become a major feature that is. I also can't wait to see more Jedi and General Grievous.

In short, see it if you or the geeklets can't bear the wait, but you might spend your money better somewhere else waiting for the inevitable repeat during the TV release.

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New ‘He-Man’ Is A ‘Batman Begins-ification’

He-ManIf you go back a little ways, there was an incredibly positive script review of Grayskull: Masters of the Universe, the new take on the ultra-nostalgic world of He-Man. If you didn’t read about the script review, I suggest you check it out (see A Glimpse Of ‘Grayskull: Masters Of The Universe’).

MTV talked to the film’s screenwriter Justin Marks, who had some things to add; things that might just give you a wet willy if the script review didn’t do it for you.

Marks calls the movie a re-invention, explaining it as similar to (as Latino Review’s El Mayimbe compared it to in his script review) a “Batman Begins-ification” where a character/franchise is completely done over in a much more realistic, much less cheesy way. We saw this in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and this is what is planned for the upcoming remakes for Robocop, Red Sonja, and Conan.

On the project, Marks also said:

I grew up on the ‘He-Man’ cartoon and watched ‘He-Man’ six days a week. The notion that I think we most took from the cartoon are the characters, and trying to find a way that is true to them. Now, at the same time, we had to come up with why that is the way it is. I mean you’re talking about sword-and-sandal meets science fiction meets fantasy meets everything, and how does that all kind of blend into the same world? And so we had to come up with very specific rules that explained why Trapjaw looks the way he looks, and why Cyclops — who is awesome — looks the way he looks…. The script is very true to the characters — we’re not talking about putting nipples on the Trapjaw suit. But we had to come up with a reason again why Trapjaw would actually not just be something that’s totally absurd, but why he would need those bionic parts added to him; which gives a sort of sense of where [the movie] is going in some way.

I was always a huge He-Man fan when I was but a wee-tyke, jumping on my father’s back, making him be that bad-ass green tiger thing and I even liked the first live-action attempt, but only because I was still a kid when that came out, too. But here and now, in my mid(ish) 20s, the more I hear and read about this project, the more psyched I am. I don’t even remember anything from the storylines — just a few characters — but if they really tear at this thing and make it a true fantasy built for the now-adult fan base that is has, man, look out for this one.

I just really hope they stick to the name Adam in this one; the name He-Man alone is a little too cheesy for what it sounds like they’re doing here.

Oh, and did you hear? That dude from American Gladiators auditioned for the role 14 times and nailed every one of them!

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Dark Knight Inspires Copycat Crimes, Over-reactions

It's taken four weeks, but it's finally happened - Fans of The Dark Knight have started to take some of the Joker's methods into the real world, and are paying the price. But, considering what was actually done in the Joker's name, the price being paid may be far too high.

According to the Roanoke Times, two teenagers from Pembroke, VA, have been arrested and admitted to creating "a series of playing cards that were defaced with threatening writing and left at stores in Christiansburg and Pearisburg — a gesture police said the teens admitted had been inspired by this summer's Batman movie, 'The Dark Knight.'" However, what police are charging them with seems more than slightly excessive: conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism.

Don't get me wrong; I'm sure that the cards were upsetting to those that found them (even though all they apparently said was "Joker"), and I agree that they should be charged with something for placing them. But conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism? Really?

The Roanoke Times story makes it fairly clear that the two 18-year-olds, Justin Colby Dirico and Bryan Eugene Stafford, are much more aimless Dark Knight fans than terrorists:

The teenagers "were real remorseful. They said they never had any intentions of harming anybody," [Police Chief JC] Martin said after talking with them. He said it appeared to be "a prank that kind of got out of hand."

In The Dark Knight, authorities and moviemakers alike are quick to label the Joker a terrorist, but he does much more than leave playing cards for people to find. Is this just a case of real life dumbly following art?

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The Coppolas: Behind the scenes with America's great film-making clan

Keeping it in the family: (from left) Roman, Eleanor, Francis and Sofia step out at last year's Rome Film Festival

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Keeping it in the family: (from left) Roman, Eleanor, Francis and Sofia step out at last year's Rome Film Festival

Eleanor Coppola has never revealed the personal cost of raising her remarkable film-making family – until now. In exclusive extracts from her memoirs, she recalls the envy she felt towards her daughter Sofia, the battles with her husband Francis and the grief caused by the violent death of her eldest son

May 15, 1998, Los Angeles

I am outside having brunch in the courtyard of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Francis and Sofia are seated across from me talking intently. Yesterday was Sofia's birthday. She turned 27. She is beautiful in an imperfect way. The bump on her nose is prominent in the light falling on her face. Her brows are pinched together as she concentrates on what Francis is telling her and writes notes in the red leather agenda he gave her for Christmas. She is going to direct her first feature film starting next month. It is a low-budget production with a script Sofia wrote from a book called The Virgin Suicides. I can hear Francis say, "Sit right next to the camera so the actors see you; see you're in control. Remember that the actors' hands are almost as important as their faces. Hands are very expressive. If you cut hands out of the frame you're losing 30 per cent of the performance."

I am very happy for Sofia, happy that Francis is being such a good father and mentoring her, but I also feel a hot, aching jealousy in my chest. I'm trying to just notice my emotions, the way I was instructed in Zen meditation, to neither wallow in them nor push them aside.

Francis and I married quickly in Las Vegas. I hadn't met Francis's parents. When I did I learnt he was from generations of Italian men who believed a woman's life work was caring for home and children and supporting her husband's career. Francis knew I had artistic aspirations but expected they could be pursued at home in my spare time. By the early 1970s we lived in a big house with our three young children.

In Roman's nursery-school car pool, I discovered another mother was artist Lynn Hershman. She thought my ideas were interesting. We had intoxicating conversations and created several conceptual art events together. One of our more infamous was held in 1975 in our 22-room Victorian house in San Francisco. Fifty board members from the Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Museums of Modern Art came.

When they arrived, Lynn and I were out of sight, downstairs in the screening-room with a closed-circuit television connection to the living-room. We spoke to our visitors over a large monitor. They could converse with us but only interact with our electronic images.

We invited them to take a self-guided tour of rooms in the house where we had placed exhibits. I knew the audience wasn't as interested in our art as they were in coming to Francis Ford Coppola's house, where it was known he kept his five Oscars. In those days when a man won an Oscar, a miniature Oscar was given to his wife to wear on a chain around her neck. I had a jeweller file off the little loop for the chain at the top of the head of my five tiny Oscars, then removed Francis's from the lighted glass case where they were always kept and displayed my miniature gold statues in their place. In the kitchen the guests were directed to peel a potato and then read a quote from the artist Joseph Beuys, which said, "Peeling a potato can be a work of art if it is a conscious act."

There were two large cooking pots labelled "Art" and "Not Art". Each guest had to decide whether his or her peeled potato was art or not and drop it in the appropriate pot. Francis was out of town when Lynn and I staged this event.

From what he heard about it, he saw neither the art in it nor the humour. His feelings were hurt. He thought I was making fun of him, his Oscars, our house. He worked long and hard on his films, and thought conceptual art was too easy. "So some guy shoots himself in the arm [Chris Burden] or pisses off a ladder in a gallery [Tom Marioni] and that's a big deal?" The only thing Francis finds OK about that period is a Joseph Beuys sculpture I bought him that he didn't like at the time but is now worth 30 times what I paid. I was not a good wife, by his definition or mine.

29 May 1986, Washington DC

My mind keeps jumping back to Memorial Day afternoon; I was at home in my little room on the third floor looking out into the branches of the giant old oak tree trying to understand why I felt ill for no reason. The telephone rang. Sofia answered it downstairs and I picked up the extension. We both heard the strange, strangled sound of Francis's voice, as if he were speaking without breathing: "Ellie, we've lost our beloved son. Gio is dead." My cries lifted me out of my chair. Sofia went to the other line and called Roman, then she came to my room in agony. I pulled her into my arms. She sobbed, "I never heard Roman cry before."

We learnt that Gio and a friend were in a speedboat crossing the South River [in Maryland] late on Memorial Day afternoon with the sun in their eyes. The friend drove between two boats without seeing that they were joined by a long tow rope submerged in the water. The rope snapped out of the water, broke through a railing and knocked Gio with such force against the back of the boat that he died instantly.

The other young man was unscathed.

That night Sofia and I flew to Washington DC. The next days are memory fragments. I can see Sofia and Roman crying on the rented sofa in the apartment, Francis doubled over on the floor, the pain of seeing the family devastated layered on my own grief, the meeting I had with the priest to arrange a memorial service.

For him it was just another appointment to schedule: "Yes, it can be in the late afternoon but not later than five. I have a dinner engagement at seven". The first evening in the apartment, friends trying to comfort us, the phone ringing... looking in the mirror, seeing my face so changed, no longer looking vibrant and excited, younger than 50, now seeing an unrecognisable old woman, drawn, red-eyed and frail... suddenly sinking to the sidewalk in front of the Hyatt, sobbing hysterically, having to be supported by two of Francis's cousins... standing in the small side-room at Arlington Chapel reserved for family... seeing Francis standing in his grey suit next to a bouquet of miniature white roses with a card from Bobby De Niro... sitting in the first pew of the chapel filled with family, friends, cast and crew, banks of flowers and afternoon sunlight beautiful enough for a wedding... friends speaking about Gio... Francis's father's music playing on the organ... the priest reading from Khalil Gibran... a personal celebration of Gio's life rather than the packaged service I had feared.

25 December 1989, Rome [Francis Coppola is filming The Godfather: Part III at the Cinecittà studios, staying with his family in a run-down apartment]

It is cold. There is a fire in the fireplace. The Christmas tree is shedding needles on the grey carpet.

Francis is in bed listening to news in English on his short-wave radio. Roman and Sofia are asleep on the scruffy leather sofa. I am so completely happy they are here. Around noon, Tally [Francis's sister, Talia Shire] and her family arrived. We were 20 people spending Christmas Day together in our two-bedroom apartment.

At 1pm, I put the 12kg [25lb] turkey in the oven. There was no baking pan. Our friend Paula told me to set the turkey on the indented floor of the oven. Her advice has been so helpful to me, I decided to cook the turkey in the Italian way. After several hours of roasting, the grease overflowed and caught fire. When Francis lifted the turkey from the flaming oven it slipped out of his hands and slid in a pool of grease across the kitchen floor. I wiped up the grease with paper towels but the floor was still dangerously slippery so I mopped it by hand with a cloth and hot soapy water.

With a bottle of our wine from California under my arm, I went out to a local restaurant and asked the owner to lend me a lasagna pan in exchange for the wine. Finally, I got the turkey back in the oven. By four in the afternoon all the sodas had been drunk and the carpet was a sea of nut shells, Christmas candy and wrappings.

Members of the family pitched in to clean up a bit now and then, but there was a continuous messy chaos to the day. Somehow everything got done, more guests arrived and 25 of us sat down to Christmas dinner.

28 December 1989

I woke up with little fingers in my hair and the faint acrid smell of wet diapers. [Gian-Carla Coppola was born seven months after the death of her father, Gian-Carlo] Gia was standing next to my bed. She had stayed overnight.

Francis left for work early. He seemed relieved to have Christmas over, with all the relatives and guests, and go back to work. I played with Gia for a long time in the bathtub, making desserts with foamy bubbles in her plastic dishes.

Sofia got up late. Around noon the phone rang. She answered it and said it was for me. I took the phone in the kitchen, standing in a patch of sunlight on the tile floor. I was surprised to hear the voice of the assistant director [AD] calling in the middle of a shooting day. He said very quickly that the production doctor had just returned from seeing Winona Ryder: "She is too sick to work and is being sent home. Francis has decided to cast Sofia in her part." Winona was cast as Mary, the daughter of Michael Corleone [played by Al Pacino]. Francis had read Sofia for the part of Mary. He thought she did well and looked like a real Italian daughter rather than an actress, but the studio pushed for a box-office name.

The assistant director asked if Sofia could come to the studio immediately because a scene with her character was scheduled to shoot in a few hours and there would be a costume-fitting right away. I told Sofia as evenly as I could, but tears of emotion welled in my eyes. She was very excited at first; then as it sank in, she became anxious. I said, "I know Dad would never cast you if he didn't believe you could do the part really well." I could see how worried she was; she didn't want to let him down.

While Sofia got dressed, I tried to feed Gia and find her shoes. The AD had asked us to come the fastest way. The traffic was so bad I thought it would be too slow in a taxi. We took a bus to the subway. Gia's stroller got caught in the bus door. Sofia held Gia while I struggled to get it out. The subway took us to the station in front of Cinecittà and we fast-walked to the costume shop.

10 January 1990

The last few days have been exhausting. Francis and Sofia are under enormous pressure, which I feel acutely. A number of people on the production think Sofia is too young and inexperienced for her part in the film. They have been very vocal about their opinions. Francis has been shooting a difficult scene with Sofia. Every moment she isn't on the stage she is taken to costume fittings, the hairdresser, or to a diction teacher.

Several times she has burst into tears. Well-meaning people tell me I am permitting a form of child abuse, that she is not ready, not trained for what is being asked of her and that in the end she will be fodder for critics' bad reviews that could scar her for years. I am told that Francis can't afford to take a chance on a choice that could weaken his work at this point in his career.

The night before last, Francis went to sleep in a cold sweat and got up at five in the morning to go to the studio. By the time his new production manager arrived at eight, he had made a plan to hire an editor immediately and put a scene with Sofia together and made a final decision based on what was actually on the screen. During the day his lawyer called to tell him that in his contract, he has final artistic control.

I took very seriously the accusation that I was being a negligent parent. I could see that at times Sofia felt courageous and excited and wanted to do it and at other times she was tired and utterly miserable. But she wasn't asking me to help her get out of it and I wasn't ignoring her or pushing her on.

17 November 1992, Guatemala [Francis's first film since completing the Godfather trilogy, Bram Stoker's Dracula, was released in the US on 13 November]

Francis didn't want to be at home caught up in tension, waiting for news about what the film grossed on its opening weekend. To get far away we travelled to Antigua in Guatemala and stayed with John Heaton, an expat friend who has an extraordinary house decorated with fine antiques and textiles from the region. Francis thought we would have relaxed days out of touch with US news but he discovered John had CNN and of course a telephone. So we drove further to the town of Panajachel and stayed in a little cottage overlooking Lake Atitlá*with no phone and no television. On the Monday after Dracula's opening weekend Francis couldn't contain his excitement and curiosity any longer and sent me down to the little town to call his producer Fred Fuchs.

On my way back I decided to tease Francis. I wrote down a series of numbers on little scraps of paper. When I got to the cottage Francis was anxious; he was excited and scared and said, "OK, tell me." I gave him a little folded piece of paper with the number 17 written on it. He opened it. "It made 17?"

I could see him reconciling himself to the news. It was OK but not really great. I gave him another paper. He opened it. "Four. What does that mean?" I said, "Add it up." "You mean it made 21?" He looked brighter. I gave him another scrap of paper and another until the last one and he said in excitement, "It made 34 million?" "It did!" We both knew this meant the film would pay off all our debts and earn even more.

The opening weekend was huge. Bram Stoker's Dracula became the ninth-biggest box-office-grossing film in history at that time. When the profits were distributed we paid all our debts, which had been hanging over our heads since 1981; then Francis said, "Ellie, I'm putting any additional money in very conservative investments so we won't ever have to worry about our finances again." In 1995 the property adjacent to ours, which had originally been joined with our estate, came on the market. It had a beautiful historic château built in 1880 that was the home of award-winning Inglenook wines plus 90 acres of fine vineyards. Francis said, "I know what I told you, Ellie, but we can't pass this up." The property was purchased with our savings and our winery began its growth from a small endeavour in an old coach house next to our home to a major Napa Valley wine estate.

10 July 2004, Napa

Marlon Brando died last week. Random memories of him have been coming to mind.

When Francis started shooting Godfather in the spring of 1971, I didn't meet the film's fabled star right away. There were major production difficulties, with rumours that Francis would be fired or Marlon would be. I was occupied with our two young boys Roman [five] and Gio [seven] and very pregnant with Sofia. We were living in a small, cramped apartment in New York City. It belonged to a relative and we were there rather than leasing a place in case Francis lost his job and we suddenly returned to California.

When she was about three weeks old I took Sofia to the Godfather set. The production was shooting in the garden of a big house on Staten Island. It was the wedding party scene. Marlon was waiting in an upstairs bedroom. His make-up man and hairstylist were with him. Francis introduced me. It was the first time I really understood what charisma was. Marlon took my hand and looked at me with such charm. He spoke with "that" voice. I felt as if I were standing in a special beam of light and he found me utterly fascinating. It was a fleeting moment, as I imagine a hit of heroin to be: stunning, short-lived and dangerously seductive. Then Marlon turned to Sofia. He lifted her out of my arms so tenderly, holding her with an ease that comes from experience. He looked at her with intense interest, examining her long fingers and tiny toes.

A few days later a little gold bracelet arrived. The card said, "Dear Sofia, Welcome to the world. Love, Marlon." Somewhere over the years the card and bracelet have been lost but I still write "Welcome to the world" on baby gifts I give.

I am thinking of a time in the Philippines during Apocalypse Now when I asked Marlon to do an interview for the documentary film I was shooting. I waited for a moment when he was not working, and relaxed. We were at the production designer's house together for Sunday lunch, Marlon was sitting by the window. He had been talking intently about the life and habits of ants, as he could do in a spellbinding way. When there was a lull in the conversation I hesitantly asked him for an interview. He said, "What do you want to make a documentary for?" I felt as if a giant school principal were grilling tiny me. Whatever my answer was, it seemed insufficient. As the documentary film-maker, I felt as if I was a nuisance, in the way of the main production, asking for favours.

Marlon reluctantly agreed to let me film an interview with him after he completed shooting his part in the movie. As soon as he finished I arranged a time to do the interview. He didn't show up. When I called to set a new date I discovered he'd already left the Philippines.

Extracts taken from the book 'Notes on a Life' by Eleanor Coppola, © 2008, published by Nan A Talese, an imprint of The Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Additional research by Marina Bradbury and Rhiannon Harries

Eleanor Coppola

Born Eleanor Jessie Neil in California in 1936, she married Francis Ford Coppola a year after working as assistant art director on his directorial debut, Dementia 13, in 1962. She won an Emmy for Hearts of Darkness, her 1991 documentary charting the fraught making of Apocalypse Now. Her other artistic projects include installation artwork, photography, sculpture and costume design. She also helps run the family winery

Sofia Coppola

Born in New York in 1971, Sofia made her first screen appearance as a boy in the christening scene of The Godfather (1972). Aged 18 she co-wrote the short film Life Without Zoe with her father, who a year later controversially cast her as Mary Corleone in The Godfather III. Now a writer-director, she won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation (2003). Her other films include The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Marie Antoinette (2006)

Gian-Carlo Coppola

Also known as Gio, Eleanor and Francis's first child was born in 1963. He had childhood appearances in his father's movies, including The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Rumble Fish (1983). Gio's sudden death in 1986 occurred as he was beginning a career in film production

Roman Coppola

Born in 1965, he made his cinematic debut aged eight with an uncredited role in The Godfather: Part II and began his film-making career on Bram Stoker's Dracula. An award-winning music-video maker for artists including Arctic Monkeys and Fatboy Slim, he has also worked on movies such as his sister's The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, as well as The Darjeeling Limited (2007). He shares his parents' passion for viticulture

Francis Ford Coppola

Born in Detroit in 1939, the film director is best known for his Oscar-winning Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now (1979). A series of critical and commercial flops followed in the 1980s, and it wasn't until the box-office success of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) that he was able to pay off his debts and develop a winery in Napa Valley, northern California, several restaurants and three luxury hotels in Central America

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