Whether it’s because people like to be contrary or because time really does heal all wounds, there have been a number of attempts in recent years to rehabilitate the reputations of some of movie history’s biggest debacles.
Probably most notably, there have been gallons of digital ink spilled to let us know that, “Ishtar is good, actually.” And the prestigious Criterion Collection even released an edition of the sprawling 1980 disaster Heaven’s Gate.
I’m not going to re-litigate either of those right now, but there is one of filmdom’s greatest failures that I genuinely do believe deserves rehabilitation—Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 flop One From the Heart.
Even calling it a flop doesn’t do it justice: the movie crashed through the floor, burrowed into the ground, and burned up in the Earth’s core. It cost $26 million to make, a huge amount at the time, more than Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it made all of… $636,000 back. Which means it lost 98% of its cost, bankrupting Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios and more or less forcing him to work for hire for the next decade or so to make up for it.
But watch it and you’ll see: it’s a flat masterpiece. An imperfect one, sure, but the movie is completely dazzling. It tells the story of Frannie and Hank, a couple living in Las Vegas, who may have reached the end of their time together and who go out separately for a night on the town, potentially finding love and wonder in other places—most especially, and not surprisingly, in Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski. Their story is narrated, in a way, by songs written by Tom Waits and sung by Waits and Crystal Gayle.
Now, this central romance is not compelling. In fact, the general consensus—and I agree—seems to be that no one watching the movie actually wants Frannie and Hank to end up together. Coppola must have known this to some degree, the characters are so broadly drawn that he can’t have thought they represented real people. Still, it’s an issue.
But then again, that’s not actually the movie’s central romance. Because—and this is corny to say but it’s true—the love story is between us and the movies. Coppola’s sets, his colors, his camerawork, his sound design, every piece of the craft is jaw-droppingly glorious. It’s an exuberant experience, joyful in every way, and it reminds us what we really love about our entire movie history. Do you remember that scene in Singin’ In the Rain when Cyd Charisse shows up for no reason and we’re treated to an exquisite, dreamlike, extended dance sequence? Coppola remembers that, too.
One From the Heart is available for rental through the usual streaming services.