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Sofia Coppola: A Mills Woman

Sofia Coppola on the set of Somewhere (2010). Photo courtesy of Nowness.

In 1989, Sofia Coppola studied photography at Mills College for only one semester before dropping out to replace Winona Ryder as Mary Corleone in the third film of her father’s “Godfather” saga (imagine trying to tell the M Center that!). A decade later, she came out with her first feature film, “The Virgin Suicides,” to critical acclaim. By 2004, she had won an Academy Award for screenwriting and was the third woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for her second film, “Lost In Translation.”  In 2010, she became the first American woman to win a Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival’s top prize, for “Somewhere.”

Although she has rarely discussed her time at Mills, Coppola remains a Mills woman. One only has to view a film of Coppola’s to know that she possesses a perspective that is focused on accurately depicting the complexities of being a woman, something that is encouraged at Mills but an oddity in the mostly male sphere of film-making where female characters are often reduced to archetypal props used to bolster the leading male. Even when men are meant as the main characters in Coppola’s films (Bill Murray’s Bob Harris in “Lost In Translation,” Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco in “Somewhere,” perhaps even Israel Broussard’s Marc in the recent “Bling Ring”), they are outshone by their glittering female counterparts (Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, Elle Fanning’s Cleo, and Katie Chang’s Rebecca, respectively) because of how well Coppola writes her women. Though there are certainly problematic aspects — “Lost In Translation” as a racist depiction of the Japanese, her main characters as always white and usually incredibly wealthy, and so on — to Coppola’s work, it is certainly true that all of her films are dominated by women— and this is incredibly positive.

Viewed retrospectively, Sofia Coppola’s second short film (and, unfortunately, the only one accessible to the public), “Lick the Star,” which focuses singularly on a group of tween girls that plan to poison the boys at their school with arsenic, etched out the beginnings of Coppola’s interest in creating actualized female characters in cinema, which has been cemented by her treatment of women in her later work. The fact that her films are often dismissed for concentrating too much on “mood” and “feeling” (read: feminine actions) rather than solid plots or dialogue speaks not only to the sexism found in the world of film-making but in society as well. Further, the validity of her work is sometimes wholly denied by (nearly always male) critics because of accusations of “nepotism.” While this is not unfounded (as her father is Francis Ford Coppola for heck’s sake, so DUH she’s privileged in that way), I have never read a piece that attributes her brother Roman Coppola’s (albeit lesser) success to nepotism. The reason? Sexism.

Sofia Coppola is a Mills woman because despite working in an industry that sometimes attacks her work and makes its money from peddling caricatures of women, she — as Indiewire eloquently put it — “understands the scary raw power of young women transitioning to adulthood,” and incorporates this understanding generously and beautifully into her work, creating complex female characters that maybe aren’t badass bombshells but still contain a quiet inner strength, unseen in much of cinema. Here at Mills we are challenged and encouraged to think critically about women and gender within society. While Coppola may not lay claim to her identity as a Mills woman, her work is imbued with the tenets that we depart Mills knowing.