''It's a mass delusion,'' insists Walter Murch, who along with other film editors, Barry Malkin and Lisa Fruchtman, vehemently denies there was any last-minute cutting at all. ''There were refinements for the soundtrack, but there are no missing minutes of the film. The negative was not cut after the critics saw it.'' (Roos says one brief close-up of Pacino was added, but nothing was dropped.) Murch thinks the confusion is over edits made the week before the press screenings, after a sneak preview in Seattle to which critics were not invited, and says the changes, which are common after test screenings, were made solely to speed up and clarify the plot.
As for the letters Coppola supposedly sent inviting critics to see the movie again, a Coppola spokeswoman denies they exist, and a survey of leading critics failed to find a single recipient.
In the midst of all this controversy, there are some who feel Sofia's presence was a blessing for Coppola. ''It was fortunate Francis didn't have to close down the picture for two and a half weeks (to find a new Mary),'' says Roos. ''It's clearly not a performance of a smooth, vastly experienced actress we all admit that but I would like to thin her innocence and vulnerability make up for that and make it work.'' Shire takes Sofia's contribution a step farther. ''Sofia brought her extraordinary love for her father, but what she really brought was something no one will ever see in the movie,'' she says. ''By having her there, Francis was able to structure some of his own anxieties, to explore things more deeply in the character of Michael, and therefore have a greater Al Pacino. It's the things you don't see that she brought.''
Coppola himself is plainly grateful to his daughter, and sorry about any pain she may have suffered. ''She is not an experienced actress, that is not her career goal,'' he has said. But once press reports on the casting began to appear, ''I realized that my daughter had been singled out basically to get creamed. So I said, 'Will it hurt your feelings if people didn't think you did it as good as you could have? And she said, 'No, if you think I did it good, then it wouldn't hurt my feelings.' So I am very proud of her. She did exactly what I wanted.''
The neophyte actress has other defenders. ''A lot of people used Sofia's performance to bash Coppola because it made them feel like insiders,'' says Entertainment Weekly critic Gleiberman. ''Among much of the press, there seemed to be more interest in what was going on offscreen than in whether the movie was actually any good.'' And when emcee Rex Reed let fly a nasty crack about Sofia at a recent awards ceremony of the New York Film Critics Circle, his comment was greeted by hisses from the audience, including a very audible Madonna.
Has the Godfather III affair destroyed Sofia Coppola's future as an actress? Scorching early notices have derailed many performers for years but not everyone is ready to write Sofia off. ''I'm sure if she wants a career in the acting business, she can have it,'' says Army Archerd, columnist for Daily Variety. ''There are a lot better actresses than her who are working, and a lot worse. She's just a kid.'' Anyway, she may be more interested in working on the other side of the camera; her real love has never been acting but costume design. Three years ago she had her first try at the job in ''Life Without Zoe,'' an episode of New York Stories she wrote with her father; the next month her designs will be on view in The Spirit of '76, a film featuring her boyfriend, Redd Kross' bassist Steve McDonald, and his brother and band member, Jeff.
Sofia is now living in Los Angeles, and she seems to be taking her 15 minutes of infamy in stride. ''I speak to Sofia every day, her best friend is our little boy's nanny,'' says Roos. ''She almost never talks about the movie. She talks about other things, like her boyfriend, and she just kind of gets on with her life.'' Mills College expects her back this month to continue her studies in art history, and, according to Aunt Tally, she may to on to study costume and scenic design at Yale.
''Sofia has what I call 'Coppola courage,''' Shire says, ''and no one will ever know what that is unless you are in a family with our chromosomes, our karma, and our intensity.'' Shire sees a parallel between the family crisis and the film. ''She was just so innocent in a ridiculous situation. It was very much what the character Mary was dealing with the controversial father, Michael Corleone, and her desire to bring her innocence to help him forget his sins. But then, of course, the cost of that is herself.''