The concluding chapter of Michael Corleone was the riskiest sure-fire hit possible: A long-delayed final entry for a franchise that changed the course of cinema on its way to achieving iconic status. With Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire returning to the fold, and being joined by exciting younger talent like Andy Garcia and Bridget Fonda, there were a lot of high expectations for a satisfying end to a beloved story. Ultimately, though, several key issues helped deliver a product audiences everywhere were more than okay with refusing for the past thirty years.
Not only was THE GODFATHER, PART III (1990) supposed to be a triumphant coda, it was intended to mark a comeback (of sorts) for its famed director. While the ‘70s were Francis Ford Coppola’s clear heyday (with 1979’s APOCALYPSE NOW ending an impossible to top four-picture run), his output the following decade — although mostly respectable — failed to reach the lofty heights he previously attained.
Looking back, there should have been LARGE red flags from the beginning. For starters, Coppola, as he publicly admitted over a decade later, was only on board because of personal and professional financial concerns. A 1982 musical flop, ONE FROM THE HEART, crippled his once-ambitious Zoetrope Studios. After years of struggling to repay his creditors, Coppola ended up filing for bankruptcy — while filming PART III in Sicily.
By all accounts, Paramount Pictures was not interested in spending money; or a lengthy production, either. With money concerns apparent, Coppola asked the studio for $6 million and six months to write the screenplay. In an effort to meet a Christmas Day release date, Paramount lowballed the director by offering only $1 million and six weeks.
[Paramount had so little faith in Coppola at this point, they actually approached Sylvester Stallone to see if he wanted to direct the third film.]
The budget concerns didn’t end there, unfortunately, as the participation of two key cast members were put in jeopardy. Al Pacino wanted $7 million (plus a percentage of the gross) to return as an aging Don Corleone, but the studio refused to go any higher than $5 million. When Pacino protested, Coppola threatened to rewrite the script; beginning the film with Michael’s funeral. Pacino, then, signed on for $5 million. Similarly, Robert Duvall received an insultingly low offer of $1 million to reprise his role as Tom Hagen; the consigliere who had a rather large role in the original PART III script. After Duvall walked away, the screenplay went through a massive overhaul — and Hagen was written out as having died years earlier.
And, then, there was a questionable casting decision that changed everything.
The road to finding Mary Corleone took many twists and turns. It’s now almost a Hollywood legend how Winona Ryder, hired to play Michael’s daughter, became severely ill the night before her scheduled first day on set. Production was already held up while the young star finished her commitment to MERMAIDS; and Ryder found herself on the brink of complete exhaustion. Following the advice of doctors, Ryder was let go from the role (only to turn up alongside her then-boyfriend, Johnny Depp, in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS the same year).
Before Ryder, the studio wanted Julia Roberts (who was on the verge of PRETTY WOMAN superstardom). Madonna ended up screen-testing for the part, but, at 31, was thought to be too old to play Andy Garcia’s 25-year-old love interest. Garcia, at the time, was 33.
[On an even sadder note, the late actress Rebecca Schaeffer was expecting the script for PART III to be delivered when she answered her door and met her 19-year-old stalker.]
“I had connections.”
The backstory as to how a completely inexperienced Sofia Coppola ended up with the pivotal role of Mary has long been overshadowed by accusations of nepotism, unfair rumors, and cheap criticism. Without question, Francis Ford Coppola choosing to de-age the character to better fit his daughter — forgoing options like Linda Fiorentino and Laura San Giacomo — does look bad. However, the time crunch brought on by Paramount’s insistence on releasing in time for the holidays (and Oscar eligibility) made Sofia’s last-second hire necessary.
It is impossible to ignore the obvious, of course. As a non-actor standing amongst top-tier talent and legendary heavyweights, yes, Sofia Coppola sticks out like a sore thumb. Her plywood flat acting is matched by a vocal performance that ranges from monotoned brat to SoCal ‘Valley Girl’ to monotoned temptress. To expect a novice to hold her own in that situation (let alone with the pressure of being the director’s daughter) is unreasonable, at best.
“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”
Aside from the behind-the-scenes chaos, THE GODFATHER, PART III suffers from direct comparisons to two all-time great films. On its own, however, it’s a serviceable movie that provides an unneeded sense of finality. At the heart of the story, there’s a convoluted reshaping of real events involving the Vatican (an extremely polarizing decision in 1990) and Michael’s attempt to leave his life of crime. There’s also the introduction of Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia); Sonny’s bastard son and Michael’s nephew. Vincent is both hot-headed like his father (something the film hammers home often), and the unusual love interest for his first cousin, Mary.
[19-year-old Sofia being asked to perform a brief love scene with her real life father behind the camera is one thing, but having her initial action in the movie be a scene of her eye-fucking her onscreen relative is *chef’s kiss*]
For all the talk about Ms. Coppola’s Razzie Award-winning performance, there are plenty of acting notes to go around. Joe Mantegna’s Joey Zasa feels like a no-named henchman more than a legitimate threat (at least we got Fat Tony from this), and there are several actors (Bridget Fonda, George Hamilton, and John Savage) who suffered from clearly underwritten roles. Broadway star Franc D’Ambrosio’s theatrical debut (and, to this day, his lone film role) as Anthony Corleone is saved by his ability to sing during half of his screen time. Even Diane Keaton is unable to do much with the script — but she still ends up being one of the highlights.
The two biggest misses are Al Pacino’s Michael and Talia Shire’s Connie. It had been sixteen years since PART II, but the complete change in both characters never felt believable. Michael becoming sentimental and remorseful (let alone ***SPOILER*** physically unwell and diminished) might remind one of watching a once-great athlete in the final year of a career that should have ended three years earlier.
The female Corleone sibling is now a laughable bit (due to no fault on Shire’s part). Connie’s transformation from a battered wife to drunken socialite worked in the ‘70s, but her eventual evolution to cold-blooded and calculating never rings true. The plot needed a familiar face to do certain things, and she was the best of no real option.
Speaking of which, the need for familiarity and nostalgia to sell this film is often so on-the-nose and brutal. Large sections of PART III are outright remakes of the original movies, and there are constant callbacks throughout. Whether or not the release next month of a new edit is destined to change the way we view this movie, it’s, at least, fair to say the current version is not terrible.
Being so uninspired and a clear money grab, it’s actually impressive that THE GODFATHER, PART III isn’t a colossal waste of time.
Two and a Half out of Five Beers.