In Defense Of… “The Godfather Part III”

THE GODFATHER PART III, Al Pacino, 1990, © Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection, GD3 095, Photo by:

“Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III isn’t just a disappointment, it’s a failure of heartbreaking proportions.”

Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

If the popular narrative is to be believed, The Godfather Part III is an abhorrent film, one that has no redeeming qualities and is so awful that it brings shame upon not only the first two films of the series, but also to America and the entire human race.

In truth, it is neither as terrible as you remember or as awful as you have heard. It may not have the level of elegance of the first film or the dark intrigue of the second one, but it is still a fine film on its own, one that brings a unique viewpoint to the conclusion of the Corleone saga.

That’s not just hindsight, either. Upon its release, a fair number of critics praised it – both Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly and Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle gave it perfect reviews and Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four.


This an excerpt from Christopher Pierznik’s 2015 book In Defense Of… Supporting Underappreciated Artists, Athletes, Actors, and Albums 


Although it was not as celebrated as its predecessors, Part III was still nominated for seven Golden Globes and seven Academy Awards, becoming the first trilogy in history to have each of its films nominated for Best Picture.

Commercially, the film was a success as well, grossing $137 million worldwide (which equates to $264 million when adjusted for inflation), and led to plans for a fourth film, one that was scrapped when Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather novel and co-writer (along with director Francis Ford Coppola) on all three films, died in 1999.

It was both profitable and, in some circles, critically lauded, so why is The Godfather Part III remembered as cinematic abortion that should never be talked about?

A combination of factors have led to the film’s excoriation, some justified, others not, but two stand out above all others. The first is timing. It had been sixteen years since Part II and “such a gap only serves to heighten expectations to an unmanageable level, meaning disappointment is an inevitable and somewhat unavoidable consequence of the passing of time.”[1]

Compounding this was the fact that a better mob movie, Goodfellas, had arrived in theaters less than three months before Part III. Whereas Scorsese’s classic about modern mobsters was a quick-cut, fast-paced look at realistic criminals, Coppola’s was a measured, deliberate, romantic telling of a family from another, simpler era. Perhaps Coppola had waited a bit too long to bring back the Corleones.

Moreover, during the interim, the climate and culture of the movie business had also changed. While the first two films were released in the early-to-mid 1970s, during the golden age of cinema, before blockbusters ruled and box office numbers dictated decisions, Part III was created and released in a different time, a “shallower era where financial stakes are huge and artistic gambles minimal. The daringly structured Godfather II probably couldn’t [have been made in 1990].”[2]

Upon Coppola finally accepting the long-standing offer of continuing the Godfather chronicle, Paramount Pictures quickly began to overrule the director, who took the job largely due to his financial troubles. Coppola requested six months to write the script with Puzo. Instead, he was given six weeks. He viewed Part III as the epilogue and thus wanted to name it The Death of Michael Corleone, but that was quickly rejected too. Compounding the stress, the studio, which had no big film planned for the holiday season, decided that The Godfather Part III would arrive in theaters on Christmas Day, 1990, meaning the film had a firm release date before even a word of the script had been written.

These troubles dovetailed with the other major issue that plagued the project: the overwhelming feeling of what it could have been. The film itself has two major flaws, neither of which would have been a problem if the Coppola had been able to make the movie he and Puzo had first envisioned.

Originally, the plot of Part III was to have focused on a falling out between Michael Corleone and his consigliere, Tom Hagen. This would have been a wonderful end to the trilogy, particularly considering the history of the two characters, bringing the entire saga full circle. After all, Hagen has “always seemed indispensable, perhaps even part of some inevitable, slowly ripening climax, a last bloody act where Hagen would play combatant in a final betrayal and clash with Michael.”[3]

Unfortunately, Robert Duvall dropped out of the film over a salary dispute, forcing Coppola and Puzo to completely rewrite the script with only a passing mention of Hagen’s death having occurred between the second and third films. Since Sonny had been killed in I and Fredo murdered in II, Michael and Tom were the only remaining sons (Hagen an adopted one) of Don Vito and not being able to include Duvall’s character stripped the film of what would have been its emotional core and central conflict.

The other, more infamous casting setback occurred when Winona Ryder, who was set to play Michael’s daughter, Mary Corleone, dropped out of the picture on the first day of shooting. Coppola then cast his daughter Sofia in the role. It was a poor decision.

Coppola has claimed he had no other choice, but that’s probably not true. Considering the anticipation surrounding the film, any number of actresses would have been happy to play the part. (There’s even a rumor that Coppola cast Ryder knowing she would drop out, thus allowing him to cast his Sofia.) He has said repeatedly that he viewed the Godfather films as a sort of home movie, filling out the story with his own family history, casting various family members in roles and cameos in all three films, most notably his sister Talia Shire, so it makes sense that he would want his daughter in the role.

11

Regardless of the reason, she was cast as Mary and while the other actors do their best to help her, it’s clear that she is not of the caliber of her cast-mates. Coppola has said that his daughter has been unfairly maligned, becoming the scapegoat for every criticism, and he has a point. While she was overmatched, she was not the abomination that she’s been made out to be. It’s a weak performance, but there have been far worse throughout the history of cinema. “Granted, it’s awkward in parts, even painful in others, but watching the film back now and trying to approach it with a modicum of objectivity, it really isn’t the trilogy-killer it was once viewed as by most.”[4]

The death of Hagen and the poor casting of Mary were impediments, but considering all that he needed to overcome, it’s amazing that Coppola was able to get the film made at all. And although the film as it was originally conceived may have been a masterpiece to rival the first two installments, what was eventually seen in theaters was still one of the best films of 1990 and, unlike many movies from a quarter-century ago, one that still holds up.

The film’s greatest asset – and the reason it can be watched repeatedly in spite of the flaws – is how gorgeous it is. Visually, it is the most beautiful of the three films. “There’s a level of cinematic artistry to The Godfather Part III that the countless mob movies and TV shows that followed the original Godfather have rarely been able to match.”[5]

All three films are dazzling to the eye, but by the final installment, Coppola had mastered his craft, expanding his scope to give the audience an array of breathtaking vistas. Each scene, particularly those that take place in Italy, is panoramic, utilizing the Sicilian countryside as another character rather than simply a backdrop. “As a visual poem about decline, The Godfather Part III looks more stunning with each passing year.”[6]

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The film also boasts an epic climax, one that juxtaposes the violence on the opera stage with the violence happening elsewhere, eventually building to a stunning crescendo and recalling the contrast of the baptism and the killing of the Corleone rivals in Part I. It is “one of the most complexly layered suspense scenes ever filmed, a kind of slow-motion Hitchcockian roller coaster.”[7] This time, however, rather than the ruthless young aggressor that is controlling everything, the aging Michael is blissfully unaware of the events that are occurring outside.

When the scene ends without any harm coming to Michael, it appears that he has once again escaped unscathed. Then, instantly, his world is shattered as an assassin’s bullet meant for him fatally strikes his daughter. After several decades of coldblooded violence in a vain effort to make his family legitimate, Michael is finally forced to pay for his sins in the most painful way possible. “The King Lear-like climax on the steps of the opera house in Sicily, punctuated by Michael’s mostly silent scream, provides a legitimately Shakespearean finish to the saga.”[8]

The scene is so powerful in large part due to the emotions brought to the screen by the actors, particularly Pacino. While it is not the tour de force of Part II, this is still one of his best performances, an achievement in itself considering his career is full of them. “Pacino creates a towering portrait of a man torn between his dreams and his guilt.”[9] For much of the film, he is quiet, trapped by his remorse while trying to remain focused on his ultimate goal as everything around him, as well as his health, falls apart. Eventually, he is pulled back in, culminating in his reaction on the steps of the opera house, an incredibly powerful performance, his scream so agonizing that Coppola and the editors decided to make it mostly silent, bringing, fittingly, an operatic layer of sadness to the scene.

6

The rest of the cast (aside from Sofia Coppola) also turn in strong performances, particularly Andy Garcia’s fiery, Oscar-nominated turn as the illegitimate son of Sonny, “the cocksure young wannabe who turns out to be surprisingly capable in a crisis, and who gradually tames his hair and smartens his wardrobe to fit in with the businesslike Corleones,”[10] and Talia Shire giving “the performance of her life, playing Connie with the dark stealth of a Mafia Lady Macbeth.”[11]

The near flawlessness of the first two chapters will always be a shadow that the third one can never escape, but it should not be penalized for that. While it has its defects and could have been a work of art under different circumstances, it is still a beautiful, graceful work that features intelligent writing and terrific acting. The Godfather Part III is better than people remember and “certainly deserves more credit than it’s been given in the past, and an end to the thinking that the third part was a monumental misstep of ruinous proportions.”[12]

Click to see other excerpts from the book on Louis C.K. and Michael Jordan.


[1] McManus, James. “Is The Godfather Part III Really That Bad?” Den of Geek, April 30, 2013.

[2] Wilmington, Michael. “Movies: Coppola’s Glorious Disappointment: The Godfather Part III Doesn’t Achieve Its Towering Goals, But the Capstone to the Corleone Saga Is Still One of the Year’s Best Films.” The Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1990.

[3] Wilmington, Michael. “Movies: Coppola’s Glorious Disappointment: The Godfather Part III Doesn’t Achieve Its Towering Goals, But the Capstone to the Corleone Saga Is Still One of the Year’s Best Films.” The Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1990.

[4] McManus, James. “Is The Godfather Part III Really That Bad?” Den of Geek, April 30, 2013.

[5] Murray, Noel. “The Godfather Part III.” The Dissolve, May 12, 2014.

[6] Murray, Noel. “The Godfather Part III.” The Dissolve, May 12, 2014.

[7] Gleiberman, Owen. “The Godfather: Part III.” Entertainment Weekly, January 11, 1991.

[8] Smith, Kyle. “Stop Hating on The Godfather Part III.” The New York Post, May 9, 2014.

[9] Gleiberman, Owen. “The Godfather: Part III.” Entertainment Weekly, January 11, 1991.

[10] Smith, Kyle. “Stop Hating on The Godfather Part III.” The New York Post, May 9, 2014.

[11] Gleiberman, Owen. “The Godfather: Part III.” Entertainment Weekly, January 11, 1991.

[12] McManus, James. “Is The Godfather Part III Really That Bad?” Den of Geek, April 30, 2013.


Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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