As you’ve no doubt noticed from the last few entries in this series, the waning days of 1988’s summer didn’t feel quite like the blockbuster season we now see extending all the way up to September. Opening on August 12, 1988, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream was the kind of prestige project you’d more likely associate with awards season. For Coppola, it is among his most personal films, not only because it spent the longest time in gestation, but because it’s the closest the filmmaker has ever come to a confessional about the professional betrayals he’d contended with in his career, and the virtues and flaws of mounting a creative collaboration.
As Coppola recounts in the DVD commentary, he had been fascinated with Tucker ever since childhood, when his father had invested in the iconoclast’s auto company. Coppola had conceived of a Tucker musical biopic while still in film school at UCLA. His initial vision was as ambitious as Tucker’s was for his automobile. In the years after the Godfather films, Coppola had attained sufficient clout, enough to invite Gene Kelly to choreograph, and to offer the lead role to actors like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and even Burt Reynolds. Coppola wanted composer Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) to score, with Singin’ in the Rain’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green writing the lyrics, and the collaboration produced at least one song. But this iteration of Tucker was ultimately scrapped after the failure of Coppola’s experimental One from the Heart (1982).
It wasn’t until five years and many artistic compromises later that Coppola would finally have the chance to shoot the version of Tucker we know, with a more offbeat actor in the lead. Played by Jeff Bridges with a Jimmy Stewart-style earnestness, Preston Tucker is an entrepreneurial wunderkind who develops the “Tucker Torpedo” in 1948—the most innovative U.S. car design since before our entry into World War II, sporting a rear engine, a headlight that turns along with the front wheels, a windshield designed to pop out in a car accident, safety belts, and more (many of these are standard features today). But Tucker runs afoul of the Detroit auto industry when he and business associate Abe Karatz (Martin Landau) start persuading dealers and consumers to invest in the company. Tucker purchases the largest manufacturing plant in the world, located in Chicago. It’s a move that raises the ire of Michigan Senator Homer S. Ferguson (an uncredited Lloyd Bridges) who trumps up phony charges of stock fraud, effectively shutting Tucker down after production has barely begun.
Oscar-nominated Landau has a wonderful bit of dialogue once Karatz realizes Ferguson is bringing the full force of the federal government down on his friend. He tells Tucker, “When I was a little kid, maybe five years old in the old country, my mother used to say to me… she’d warn me… she’d say, ’Don’t get too close to people. You’ll catch their dreams.’ Years later I realized I misunderstood her. ’Germs’ she said, not ’dreams.’ ’You’ll catch their germs.’ I want you to know something, Tucker. I went into business with you for one reason: to make money. That’s all. How was I to know that if I got too close I’d catch your dreams?”
Perhaps here is where we begin to see the kinship Coppola felt with Tucker. After a mad five years spent getting Apocalypse Now from concept to screen, the tales of Coppola’s megalomania began to circulate, frightening investors about potential films in ways very similar to those that led financiers to abandon Tucker. Coppola had moved his whole family to Manila during the principal photography of Apocalypse Now, and one can glean a bit of the madcap hilarity that might have ensued during the opening scenes of Tucker. Tucker’s wife, Vera (Joan Allen), sees her husband approaching their Ypsilanti farm with a convertible full of Dalmatians, ready to join their kids (Christian Slater, Nina Siemaszko, Corin Nemec) and various design engineers (Frederic Forrest, Mako, and, later, Elias Koteas) already crowding the family home. Vera asks, “What are we going to do with a dozen trained dogs, Preston?” It’s something one might imagine Coppola’s beleaguered wife Eleanor saying back at their Napa Valley winery, after hearing whatever the filmmaker’s next grand scheme might be.
Producer George Lucas saw the parallels between Coppola and Tucker. Coppola’s ambition had always been his best friend and worst enemy. He possessed a keen eye for talent, not only giving young actors like James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino their big breaks, but also fostering the genius of Lucas, another young, North California-based filmmaker with whom Coppola co-founded American Zoetrope. A San Francisco-based production company, Zoetrope was conceived as a Hollywood alternative that would allow its filmmakers creative freedom. It ended up serving as a sort of creative think tank—the one behind a good deal of the most avant-garde and uncommercial films of the ’70s and ’80s. The passionate, self-promotional manner in which Coppola tried to steal Hollywood’s thunder with Zoetrope might have undercut its own potential success, much in the same way the Ypsilanti farm and the Chicago plant spurred Detroit to hurt Tucker’s chances to capitalize on his inventions. It’s a lesson Coppola’s protégé Lucas obviously learned, deftly guiding his own ILM and Skywalker Ranch to the top of the post-production-house heap in a considerably subtler manner. Coppola never really learned to work within the system like Lucas did. Coppola said, “...if you let them they’ll just make it into something totally regular. Just like everything else, it’s incredible how innovation will get worn down by bureaucracies.”
After his success, producer Lucas offered his mentor the chance to finally realize his dream film when he approached him about reviving Tucker. And the final film is a wonder to behold. Polished and gleaming (as lensed by The Conformist DP Vittorio Storaro), the look of Tucker is inspired by an industrial film produced by the Tucker Auto Company to promote their new sedan (it’s included on the DVD). Storaro employs a whole array of theatrical lighting trickery, making it appear as if a character is walking out of one location and into another, or conducting a phone conversation from one location with a person in another, though shooting both on the same soundstage. Shot transitions are accomplished by Capra-esque wipes and match cuts. And though Tucker is not a musical, Joe Jackson’s confident swing score dominates to the extent that Tucker feels like one in its aural and visual rhythms. It’s a forerunner of movies like Coppola’s own visually complex, but still stagey, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and Warren Beatty’s candy-colored comic-book musical, Dick Tracy (1990). Like both its filmmaker and its subject, Tucker reaches further than its grasp, and it’s the kind of motion picture you probably won’t ever see open in summertime again.