America, Rise and Fall: Why THE GODFATHER PART III Is Much Better Than You Remember

Jacob Q. Knight defends the much-maligned sequel. 

Francis Ford Coppola was done with The Godfather, and Paramount Pictures was done with Francis Ford Coppola.

The Godfather Part II (which just turned 40 years old on December 20th) is as close to a perfect motion picture as there ever has been. Even if you remove personal taste from the equation, the sheer formal elegance that floats the film for 200+ minutes is nothing short of awesome in the truest sense of the word. However, placed on a pedestal via generations of fanatical praise, it’s easy to forget that Coppola’s first Godfather picture is a rather contained, intimate affair, opening in a wedding, climaxing during a baptism and closing with an office door swinging shut. The Godfather Part II adds sprawl and scope to a tale steeped in self-manufactured legend, spanning decades in the life of Vito Corleone as it simultaneously chronicles the damnation of his son Michael. The word “masterpiece” is thrown around willy-nilly nowadays; a devalued marque thanks to over- and misuse. Yet The Godfather Part II earns it in a way few films ever have, becoming a template for future series that unfortunately rarely rise to the occasion.

Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Coppola didn’t want to return to the exploits of the Corleone family in the first place. While he wasn’t committed to a creative anxiety-induced Jeff Mangum-style self-imposed exile from the medium he so loved, it was time for the writer/director to tell other tales. Directing The Godfather had taken a toll on the artist, to the point that he pushed for Martin Scorsese to take the reins on the initial sequel. The studio disagreed, rejecting the young Little Italy filmmaker and insisting Coppola return to the director’s chair. Paramount wasn’t keen on letting the mastermind behind their commercial and critical juggernaut slip through their fingers, as The Godfather was not only the studio’s highest grossing picture of 1972, but the highest grossing movie of all time, period. What resulted was a motion picture in which the key creator had complete control, a luxury Coppola didn’t enjoy on the original*. He was never going to get a chance to shoot a movie that good that smoothly again; irrespective of the fact that he rejiggered the entire narrative structure of Part II after initial critics’ screenings, to the point that Coppola and his editors were cutting right up until the movie’s release date. The director had to move on.

Over the next decade, Coppola would jump genres, churning out eight features and three shorts**, becoming a veritable cinematic workhorse. One of these was a genuine masterwork (Apocalypse Now, which famously almost killed the man), while others were formally daring failed experiments (One From the Heart, which led to Coppola declaring personal bankruptcy). A few became youth movie staples for generations to come; his pair of S.E. Hinton adaptations, The Outsidersand Rumble Fish, helping kickstart the careers of a new gaggle of movie stars. Few of these were actual commercial successes, and his anthology movie with Scorsese and Woody Allen (1989’s New York Stories) was labeled a “mystifying embarrassment” by critic Hal Hinson. To wit, Coppola needed a hit and he needed it bad.

Meanwhile, Paramount had moved on, going as far as to try and green light a proper sequel without Coppola’s involvement. Roughly twelve scripts were drafted, most of which revolved around Michael’s son, Anthony, and his war with the CIA, Fidel Castro and the cartels of South America. The studio even recruited Mario Puzo, author of the pulp source the original picture was based on, in 1978 to produce a draft that revolved around Anthony being recruited to assassinate a Latin American dictator. Future Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner and hard-living action picture mogul Don Simpson also penned their own takes on the further adventures of cinema’s most famous Mafioso. But none of these projects were ever brought to fruition, as Coppola even went as far as to doctor some of Puzo’s drafts before abandoning one version of the project in 1980. The roster of directors sought to helm the rest of these never-were hypotheticals included Scorsese, Sydney Lumet, Michael Mann, Michael Cimino and even Sylvester Stallone. Yet none ever made it to the silver screen, as if it were destiny for Coppola to complete his trilogy.

Released twenty-four years ago on Christmas Day and originally titled The Death of Michael Corleone (before a studio-mandated change to the traditional Part III***), the first voice we hear in the movie is Michael’s, as he pens a letter to his estranged children. Ceremony, like all the Godfather pictures, is what ushers us back into the arms of the family. Just as the first made us RSVP’d guests at the wedding of Don Vito’s daughter and the second let us bear witness to Anthony taking his first communion, the beginning of the end grants us a seat at the table with our Italian brethren. Gordon Willis’ usual wide frame is stuffed with information and bathed in his trademark browns and shadow. This is 1979. These are our people. It’s good to be back.

Only in Part III, the Corleones are a fractured unit. Michael (Al Pacino) is being honored and blessed by the Catholic Church for his philanthropic work, all while eyeing Kay (Diane Keaton) and her new husband from atop the altar. One of the most triumphant aspects of the earliest moments in Part III is that it truly captures an air of reunion. We know these people and are eager to see where the past two decades have taken them. However, the scorched earth of Michael’s life informs us of just how different his role in the clan is now. The old Tahoe estate stands empty, driftwood gathering at the dock as holes have rotted through the floorboards. Though we may be back with family, we are certainly far from home.

“Every family has bad memories,” Michael says to his son in his first of many, typical backroom meetings. In a way, this simple statement sums up the first act of Coppola’s third Godfather picture. Though the faces are familiar, there’s a loss and distance in each of their eyes, none of who carry the weight of guilt quite like Michael. The most noticeable difference between the first two films and the third is in Pacino’s performance. Where Diane Keaton plays Kay with the same guarded dread she contained in Part II, eyeing the man she once loved from afar, Pacino’s Michael is no longer the naïve Marine or Faustian killer from the first two installments. Part III is very much a Pacino 2.0 picture (think Scent of a Woman or Heat); grave gruffness in place of silky, hawk-eyed, cold. But where the later stage of Pacino’s career is mostly defined by Brechtian bombast, 1979 Michael Corleone is a marriage of muted violence and grousing loneliness. He is a shadow of the man we once knew, but that darkness is simply a veil of age. Pacino’s eerily controlled body language and patented vocal explosions are still there, but the actor is all too knowledgeable of the ways time can remold a human being.

Being a Godfather picture, there’s always a new pack of wolves beating down the Corleones’ door, and Coppola yet again casts these fresh sinister faces with an eye for menace. Joe Mantegna brings the same casual smoothness he did in David Mamet’s House of Games to Joey Zasa, causing Michael to look into the eyes of his former, ambitious self. Bridget Fonda feels like she stepped out of a Billy Wilder noir with her sexy snake-in-the-grass reporter Grace Hamilton. Eli Wallach adds nothing but class to the proceedings, his grandfatherly manner reminiscent of Robert Prosky in Michael Mann’s Thief; brutal hoggishness with a cardigan draped over its shoulders. But none are as welcome an addition as Andy Garcia, whose proto-Moltisanti, Vincent Mancini, sparks every scene with vibrant, theatrical electricity.

Becoming Michael’s right hand man as he pursues the avenues of lawful, Catholic banking, Mancini is a much like his father Sonny -- a rabid dog, constantly yanking at the end of his leash. Michael’s seeking of absolution through the complete dissolution of his illegitimate familial business conflicts with Vincent’s want to simply kill all who stand in their path and rule as barbaric kings of New York. The constant friction between the new blood and the old is what pulsates through the heart of Part III, and watching Michael groom the hothead is a joy. He wants Mancini to be a son molded in his own image, since his own blood either rejects his lifestyle absolutely or was aborted before it could see the sun. So much of the Godfathertrilogy revolves around Michael navigating power structures (the Five Families in the original, the federal government in Part II), and Part III is no different. Only instead of just having to grapple with the acceptance of an institution (the Catholic Church), Michael also has to retain his edge against a new generation of power hungry paper chasers, dashing after the American Dream achieved by the Don and his immigrant father before him.

The picture’s elephants in the room have always been Sofia Coppola and George Hamilton, which also seems slightly unfair given the circumstances under which each performer joined the film. Hamilton feels like the lesser of the two evils, as he filled the shoes of a character obviously written in to replace Robert Duvall’s family consigliere, Tom Hagen. Duvall’s departure from the series was the result of Paramount refusing to meet the actor’s financial demand to reappear. And though Hamilton brings a stately, square-chinned charisma to new family counsel BJ Harrison, he lacks the bullish bravado Duvall injected into the German-Irish lawyer. Yet however lacking Hamilton is compared to Hagen, the character still feels like the best result of a forced compromise, never truly distracting from the proceedings at hand.

Sofia, on the other hand, is a little harder to excuse. Before committing what is still viewed by many as possibly one of the worst acts of Hollywood nepotism (though, in reality, that’s a true impossibility to determine), Coppola went through numerous other, probably better, choices. Julia Roberts was originally cast as Michael’s debutante daughter Mary, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Madonna actively pursued the director for a chance at the role, but Coppola considered her too old for the part. Rebecca Schaeffer was set to audition for the movie, but her life was tragically cut short by a gun-wielding stalker. Winona Ryder ultimately won the role, but during her first day of shooting in Rome, pulled out due to her doctor’s advice that she was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Sofia was the right age and had the right look – a blend of WASP and Italian. Already behind schedule and over budget, Coppola (no stranger to casting family members in his films at this point in his career) put his daughter in the role, despite her not having one single substantial screen credit to her name.

To be completely honest, Sofia’s actually passable for the first half of the film. Always wooden and feeling like she’s been blocked to pose instead of act, Sofia nevertheless avoids stumbling. She mumbles a bit; a marble-mouthed Upper East Side princess delivery that never quite feels like genuine emoting, but (like Hamilton) is never distractingly poor. It isn’t until the movie’s back ninety minutes, when her incestuous romance blossoms with Vincent (adding a kind of icky extra-textual layer to Part III), that Sofia’s performance begins to unravel. The love between Sofia and Vincent almost feels Shakespearian; star-crossed and representing the dual avenues of the future Michael wants to pursue. Sadly, Sofia never rises to the occasion. The awfulness of her performance has certainly been conflated into legend over the years (her death scene isn’t half as bad as you’ve probably been told), but she is still very much a poor actress.

Stylistically, Coppola’s epilogue is both an obvious kin to its predecessors while also breaking away and feeling like it belongs to the class of New Hollywood directors from which the auteur hails. His camera still lingers too long, letting the Willis’ 1.85 frame soak darkness in the same way Arthur Edeson’s once did. All that’s truly missing in certain scenes is the dripping black and wide of Hays Code-governed gangster pictures. But with the jump in era comes the playful addition of modernity, both in the staging and weaponry used during the movie’s elaborate action set pieces. Violence in the previous Godfather pictures was always sudden and only occasionally operatic. Here it’s actually thrilling, as Coppola shoots a helicopter machine gun slaughter with an eye for kinetics that would make Brian De Palma proud. Though they are unified in basic vision, the sixteen-year gap between the last two movies allowed Coppola some time to develop something of a taste for and perfection of over-the-top bloodshed.

It’s easy to understand why many prefer the tone of the first two films. They combined the mythological and the Machiavellian, where Part III is overwhelmingly maudlin. Easily labeled a tragedy, we’re asked to sit for three hours and watch as a possibly irredeemable soul seeks to cleanse himself of a past that often overtakes him in Proustian waves. The outcome feels fixed, with Coppola acting as a vengeful God, guiding us toward inevitable sadness for a family he’s raised us for decades to love and become a part of. It may not have been entirely the movie he wanted to make****, but is nevertheless a fitting end to the most fundamentally sound cinematic trilogy ever committed to the screen. In the beginning, he believed in a country that held endless possibilities for those who sought refuge from foreign poverty. In the end, he gave us “King Lear” filtered through a fine glass of Pinot Noir.

This is America -- rise and fall.

*Paramount fought him tooth and nail regarding every decision, to the point that a replacement director shadowed Coppola during most of production.

**It’s debatable whether or not Hammett is counted in this figure, as though Coppola only retains an Executive Producer credit, he reshot most of co-director Wim Wenders’ footage.

***Which itself is rather ironic, seeing as Coppola had to originally convince Paramount to use “Part II” for the first sequel, as they didn’t think an audience would want to return for a continuation of a story they’d already experienced.

****Coppola has copped, on many occasions, to wanting more time to perfect the script for Part III but was pressured into early production by Paramount in order to make a Christmas release date.