By John H. Foote
Let me be clear, this film does not, in my world, exist. I am writing this at the request of a few loyal readers curious as to why I loathe the film entirely and have chosen to erase it from existence in my world. Michael Corelone’s fate is what we see at the end of the great masterpiece The Godfather Part II (1974), utterly alone, memories of his brothers and father washing over him as he sits alone, completely isolated.
I hated Part III the first time I watched, and the four times since, the fourth and final in preparation for this article. It is nothing but a pale shadow of the original masterpieces and insults their legacy and memory with its very existence. The first two films represent American film-making at its finest, this third represents how corporate greed kills what is unique within the artist. Promising freedom, Paramount betrayed Coppola on several levels, ruining any chance the director had of making a great film.
I accept nothing in Part III as part of the Corleone narrative, nothing because, it does not exist.
While interviewing Francis Ford Coppola several years ago I mentioned my disdain for the film which brought a smile to the great director. He told me the story behind the making of the film, the betrayal from Paramount after their enticing promise of absolute control, the bitter fight to get Robert Duvall a fair amount of money (which did not happen), and the terrible mistake casting his daughter Sofia in a key role.
The pressure on Coppola was staggering, as he was expected to deliver an Oscar caliber film to the studio, something at least as good as the first, but the truth was he never had a chance. He took the job for money, not out of passion for the story, and the moment the studio pushed him around because they could, it was doomed.
Hurting for money through the eighties, Paramount had asked him about a third installment many times but he always refused, truly not interested in making a third film. But hard times, bankruptcies, failures of films and watching his personal wealth dry up forced him into doing a third film. Debt free, he agreed to five million to direct, five million to produce with complete control and a little less to co-write the film with Mario Puzo, it was a huge and much needed payday. After dominating the seventies with brilliant films, he could no longer make magic on the screen, and hoped the third Godfather film might allow that.
Between them, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) were nominated for a combined twenty one Academy Awards, winning nine and each winning Best Picture. Coppola won the Directors Guild Of America Award for each film and for Part II he won three Oscars personally. Paramount wanted a third Godfather film to claim Best Picture.
He assembled the cast with Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Robert Duvall all agreed after reading the script to return, and he filled the cast with outstanding actors and actresses including Andy Garcia, Bridget Fonda, Joe Mantegna, Eli Wallach, and Winona Ryder as Pacino’s daughter Mary.
Then Paramount balked at what Duvall wanted to portray Tom Hagen, an integral character in the two previous films and again in the third.
“Don’t offer me a third of what Al is making! He is getting 10 – fair enough he is the lead, but two million for me? Paramount should remember I have an Academy Award, Al does not, I am insulted. At least give me half of what he is getting” roared the actor.
Coppola, in a panic, Flew to his ranch in Virginia to implore him to take the role, but Duvall was set in his ways and, already insulted, declined the part. Now Coppola and Puzo were forced to shut everything down while they wrote Duvall out, reshaped the story and looked for an actor to replace him. Knowing they could not possibly replace Duvall, they killed him off in the story, and George Hamilton was hired to be the lawyer, looking slick and expensive. I cannot begin to explain how the film suffered without the Pacino-Duvall dynamic. It altered the very fabric of the story in every possible way. Ironically it cost Paramount more than five million to shut down production while the new script was hammered out, so in the long run they would have been smarter to just pay the gifted actor.
New script finished filming began in Italy where Winona Ryder arrived with boyfriend Johnny Depp looking terrible. Diagnosed as exhausted, the actress tearfully withdrew from the film, leaving Coppola and Paramount in a terrible predicament. Do they recast right away? Do they shut down and audition actresses? Without a beat Coppola cast his daughter Sofia, who had done a few small roles in his films but was hardly a heavyweight.
Both Pacino and Keaton went to Coppola expressing their concerns, not for themselves, but for the film and the enormous pressure on the actress. Coppola assured them his daughter would be fine, she was up for the challenge. Realizing they had blown the Duvall situation after promising full control, Paramount allowed him to cast Sofia, but not before recommending Madonna. Coppola found the idea of casting the pop singer grotesque.
With all casting issues resolved, Coppola set about making the film. Hollywood was abuzz with anticipation, believing Coppola was creating a masterpiece to complete the trilogy. The entire film world looked to December for the release of the film, all hoping and expecting another masterpiece.
Earlier in the year Martin Scorsese blessed the film world with his crime drama Goodfellas (1990) which was simply extraordinary, laying claim early in the year for the Academy Award. The Coen Brothers, still new on the scene, gave us Miller’s Crossing (1990), another superb crime epic that could have conceivably challenged for Best Picture.
Cover stories in Premiere Magazine and Film Comment trumpeted the upcoming release of the third film and excitement was at its peak. Rumours from the set stated Pacino was giving the performance of his lifetime and would be the man to beat for the Oscar. Would Coppola win another Oscar for the film? Was he making one of the greatest American films of the decade?
Finally, opening night.
Sherri and I took our seats, by invitation only, the lights went down, that haunting music filled the theatre and the movie began.
Just under three hours later I sat stunned. But understand not in a good way.
“Is it me or was that really bad?” asked my wife. With a look she understood it was not her, the movie was awful.
I felt numb.
How could it be this bad? How could Coppola have made such a mess of it all?
Where to begin?
It began well enough, with the camera tracking about the ruined Las Vegas home near Lake Tahoe, where it is falling apart. The ghost of Fredo seems to call out from the boathouse, the home holds painful memories. Then we cut to Michael, grey, his hair short, like a brush cut, walking up an aisle to accept an award.
When we last saw Michael (Pacino) he had ordered the killing of his brother Fredo, lost his wife who left him but consolidated his power as the most powerful crime Lord in the country. He accomplished this at a terrible price, his very soul, his morality, his humanity. Now 20 years later, he is striving to be legitimate, having earned an award from the Vatican. Tom Hagen is dead, Kay (Keaton) has remarried, Mary (Sofia Coppola) works within her father’s organization, while his son longs to be an opera singer, citing “too many bad memories” while close to his father. Kay tells Michael clearly, “I dread you”, though later in the film as they explore Sicily together she confesses her love for him.
The main narrative has Michael buying legitimacy through a deal with the Vatican though he discovers they are as corrupt as he is. Seeking forgiveness for having his brother executed he confesses his sins to a priest, not realizing that priest will soon be voted Pope. Incredibly Connie (Talia Shire) grooms Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent (Andy Garcia) to aid Michael and eventually become Don. Too ill to properly run the crime organization, Michael gives it over to his nephew.
There are so many incredulous, laughable moments to recall, but I will try.
Michael jumping into the drivers seat of the car to take Kay around Sicily. Think about that: the most powerful crime figure on the planet out without bodyguards in plain sight. I mean come on. He jumps into the car wearing the hat of a peasant and, no kidding, a smile.
Mary is having an affair with Vincent, her first cousin. Incest much?
Vincent glowers a lot, has bouts of temper but does nothing to suggest he can run the family.
Connie orders executions, yes, you read that right. Connie is a killer, and yes, it makes no sense.
A plot to assassinate Michael is in motion during the opera, and is so evident the assassins might as well wear matching shirts that scream “assassin”!
Connie poisons a treacherous Old Don pretending to be friends with the Corleone, but she does so without the blessing of Michael. When did she become a killer?
On the steps of the opera house comes the most ludicrous moment, the attempt on Michael that results in Mary being shot and killed. Pacino is given a huge actor’s moment, a silent scream at losing his daughter to the violence which exists in his world. Shot, Mary turns and says in a dead voice, “Dad?” before falling dead. We feel nothing because by this point we are no longer familiar with the characters within the film, they are from an alternate Godfather universe.
Beautifully shot, the technical aspects of the film are superb, but even One from the Heart (1982), one of Coppola’s greatest failures, looked great.
The story was silly, made sillier by how serious everyone takes it. Connie turned murderer? Michael suddenly giving it all up to Vincent, who has done nothing to prove he is capable? The foolish romance between Vincent and Mary? Michael trying to woo Kay with that insane trip around Sicily? Unprotected no less? It is one thing not to protect himself, but Kay?
The performances veer wildly from terrible to OK.
Sofia Coppola was brutalized by critics for her work, which is not near as bad as they said it was. She was not an actor! How was she supposed to compete with Pacino and Keaton, give the girl a break. Sofia Coppola went on to become an Oscar nominated director and Oscar winning screenwriter.
Andy Garcia does a lot of glowering, trying to look dangerous. He does not. Instead overacting trying to portray his character as the hothead son of Santino, his rages looked like a child’s temper fit compared to the volcanic fury of James Caan.
Eli Wallach was trying so hard to portray innocent treachery, he gave himself away with that silly sing song delivery and playing coy. It was just embarrassing for the veteran actor.
Diane Keaton actually gave a decent performance but her part was so under written she really had little to do.
Pacino, what to say about Pacino? This was to be his mafia King Lear, the role that would finally bring him an Academy Award for Best Actor. He deserved the award for his superb performance in the second film, but was passed over.
Something happened to Pacino. Electrifying in the seventies, he radiated an intensity that was fascinating to watch. But after Scarface (1983), one of his most iconic performances, he took a role in Hugh Hudson’s period drama Revolution (1985) for which he was crucified by the critics and rightly so, it remains the worst performance of his career. He left film, moving to the stage to feed his soul as an actor but when he came back in the late eighties there was something different in his work. It was broader, much bigger than it had been ever before. That quiet intensity was gone, replaced by a brash “watch me ma I’m acting” that became tedious as it became louder. We see elements of it as Michael in Part III, as he swings from moody intensity to wildly over the top Olivier style ham bone acting. He has his moments, I cannot deny that. His confession to the priest is the finest scene in the film, but it is a single scene and does not a performance make.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, to the eternal shame of the Academy, Pacino, thought to be a sure thing, was snubbed. Truth be told he did not deserve a nomination, nor did the film for Best Picture or Coppola as Best Director.
When I discuss The Godfather films I make clear the third film does not exist, because in my world it does not. The haunting conclusion at the end of The Godfather Part II (1974) the greatest American film ever made, ends the Corleone story.
And for all those reasons The Godfather Part III, in my universe does not exist, was never made, I have erased it from my mind. But oh, had Coppola shot that original screenplay with Duvall? What a film that might have been.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.