Compared with the usual Hollywood junk food, the third chapter in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster saga is a pretty impressive piece of work. So why was it deemed a failure by critics and movie-house audiences alike? In short, who killed The Godfather part III? The suspects:
Paramount Pictures. Coppola is on record as blaming corporate pooh-bahs for forcing him to rush-edit his baby. That’s why the appearance of Godfather III on video is worth your notice: It’s nine minutes longer than the one seen in theaters. Coppola has taken the time to fine-tune his movie, so this video version represents the true final cut — maybe. Most of the additions merely clear up exposition, but a critical scene in which Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) attempts a reconciliation with ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton) has been expanded to benefit the movie as a whole. What before was an incoherent face-off is now a rueful look back over the wreckage of a love that makes the ensuing tragedies cut a lot deeper.
The screenwriters. Where The Godfather was a supremely resonant gangster film and The Godfather Part II was an epic of American pessimism, III is constructed as a dark chamber tragedy, with echoes of King Lear, the Borgias, the 1932 Scarface. The problem is that the script, cowritten by Coppola and Mario Puzo, also encompasses the Vatican bank scandal, corporate takeovers, and the death of Pope John Paul I. The family stuff is great whenever Pacino and Andy Garcia, as a rising Corleone hothead, cut loose, but you’ll need a scorecard for the overplotted rest. Worse, the dialogue is occasionally purple, and that’s a sin of which the first two films were never guilty.
Sofia Coppola. You want to like her, really. The sad fact remains that the character of Mary Corleone is the linchpin of Godfather III’s operatic vision — she’s Cordelia to Michael’s Lear — and Sofia has the dramatic force of a lightly thrown sponge. In her defense, I can’t think of any young actress now working who’d be up to this part-not Winona Ryder, who left early in the production, and certainly not Madonna, who at one point was considered. But at least they’d be interesting.
The modern movie audience. Hmmm. Consider that III shares the same smoky texture of its predecessors, alternating broad tapestries of Italian-American social ritual with hushed, back-room business. Consider that such a style makes demands on an audience’s attention span, which has been squished to an MTV minute by years of channel hopping, fast-forward buttons, and buddy flicks. Who knows? Maybe audiences would have taken Godfather III for the solid wrap-up it is if it had been released in 1974, when depth counted for as much as dazzle.
And quite possibly it will look better in years to come, when the noise surrounding its making has been forgotten. III was never really meant to stand alone anyway; that’s why Paramount is releasing the trilogy in a $150 leather-bound set. In other words, the reports of The Godfather III’s demise might turn out to have been premature. B+