UNJUST

Why Is ‘Godfather III’ So Disrespected?

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the mob sequel. Was it a trainwreck, as many claim, or a flawed masterpiece?

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

I’m not a fan of Hollywood sequels. I have no gripe with big blockbuster movies, but I’m skeptical of the film franchise, the dubious process by which a cinematic concept is turned into a brand—and gets diverted into the endless quest for brand extension.

But there’s something even worse than the Hollywood sequel, namely the dreaded ‘three-quel’—the third film in a series. This usually represents the moment when the inspiration that generated the initial movie success gets boiled down to a formula, predictable pablum for moviegoers who value familiarity over artistry. A handful of three-quels live up to their legacy—rarities such as Goldfinger or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Much more common, however, are the embarrassments of Jaws 3-D, Terminator 3 or Porky’s Revenge!

But the most infamous three-quel of them all has now arrived at its 25th birthday, and perhaps deserves a second look. I’m referring to The Godfather Part III, which had its world premiere on December 20, 1990 at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills. This is The Godfather movie that doesn’t show up on TV or get mentioned in all-time best lists. It’s the offer that movie fans find all too easy to refuse.

In this instance, audience disappointment was all the greater because director Francis Ford Coppola had defied the odds with his sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), a movie that not only matched its illustrious predecessor but, in the eyes of many, surpassed it. The Godfather Part II became the first movie sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This unexpected triumph led many to wonder whether, 16 years later, Coppola could pull it off again.

He didn’t. The third Godfather movie is now remembered as a cinematic trainwreck, tainting the legacy of its two forerunners. Pauline Kael, lambasting the film in The New Yorker, called it a “public humiliation.” The Washington Post announced that the film “isn’t just a disappointment, it’s a failure of heartbreaking proportions.”

Yet these comments hardly represent the consensus of most of the movie’s viewers at the time of its release. The Godfather Part III earned nominations for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture—and that was back when only five movies made the cut for this honor. The now venerated mob film Goodfellas, released that same year, only got six, and also trailed The Godfather Part III in box office receipts. Coppola’s film also picked up seven nominations for Golden Globes.

Roger Ebert gave it higher ranking than The Godfather Part II. Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, proclaimed the film “inevitable and irresistible.” Variety boasted that “Part III matches its predecessors in narrative intensity, epic scope, socio-political analysis, physical beauty and deep feeling for its characters and milieu.” The Los Angeles Times chimed in with a cautious review, but nonetheless admitted that The Godfather Part III was “one of the best American movies of the year—a work of high ensemble talent and intelligence, gorgeously mounted and crafted, artistically audacious in ways that most American movies don’t even attempt.”

Which of these two assessments is correct? Was The Godfather Part III the artistic and inevitable conclusion to the great American Mafia saga? Or was it just an embarrassing attempt to extend a money-making cinematic brand one time too many?

***

I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Godfather films a few weeks ago when I read about the death of critic and social thinker René Girard. Girard’s influential concept of “reciprocal violence” interprets human history as kind of never-ending Mafia war. The transgressions of one clan lead to violent responses from rival clans—a spiral of conflict spurred on by our ingrained human tendencies to engage in imitation and rivalry.

Anyone who reads the newspapers will find plenty of support for Girard’s declaration that “in a truly global world, the renunciation of violent reprisal is bound to become, in a more and more obvious way, the indispensable condition of our survival.” Some, however, might even be more impressed by tech wizard Peter Thiel’s claim that he drew on Girard’s theory of mimesis in making an early-stage investment in Facebook that generated a billion-dollar profit. Whether you measure Girard’s views for the sociocultural insights or merely their return on investment, he demands serious attention.

I don’t know if René Girard ever saw The Godfather Part III, but he would have immediately understood why this three-quel was, as Janet Maslin insisted, “inevitable and irresistible.” Girard would have grasped that the two previous Godfather films, for all their brilliance, did not complete the story. The tale of Michael Corleone demanded a final, tragic chapter.

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Those earlier films celebrated the triumphs of the Corleone family over its enemies. But reciprocal violence always comes back to destroy its originator. The only way to put an end to the circle of violence, in Girard’s schema, is by the sacrifice of an innocent victim. The scapegoat does not deserve this fate, but plays an essential role in the resolution of the story.

Coppola grasped this same truth, namely that his saga of American rags-to-riches gone bad couldn’t end with the killing spree at the conclusion of The Godfather Part II that established Michael Corleone as the Don supreme. Corleone must now pay for his transgressions. Even more brilliantly, Coppola realized that an innocent victim must be sacrificed at the climactic moment of his tale—in this instance, Corleone’s daughter Mary.

But at this point, our esteemed director reveals his own tragic flaw—the risks of the nepotism that led him to enlist his sister, mother, and father in the previous Godfather films, and now inspired him to cast his daughter Sofia in the role of Mary Corleone. She too would become a scapegoat.

I can’t help smile on this tendency in the famous director. My own father, a proud Sicilian-American, always hired family members whenever possible in any business venture, irrespective of their qualifications or experience. Blood is thicker than the bottom line. Even so, the bottom line can look awfully thin with the extended family on the payroll. But that’s just the Sicilian way—in fact, the Corleone family does the same thing in The Godfather films.

In Coppola’s case, the casting of Sofia Coppola, only 19 years old at the time, may have been the fatal move that turned many of his fans against him. In recent years, Sofia Coppola has established her own bona fides in the movie business, most notably through her directorial success with Lost in Translation. But in The Godfather Part III, she played the part of “lost on a movie set.” I’m not sure how the other actresses considered for this role (including Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts and, most intriguing of all, Madonna) might have fared, but they must given us something better than Coppola’s flat and unconvincing portrayal of a role that was central to the drama of the story.

Other casting choices compounded the problem. Coppola’s unwillingness to meet the salary demands of Robert Duvall forced him to remove the character of Tom Hagen from the film. The substitution of George Hamilton as the new family consigliere only reminds us of how much we miss Duvall. Even Al Pacino seems lost at moments in this film—the same actor who triumphed in playing the shrewd, vengeful Michael Corleone of the previous installments is clearly less comfortable as the ailing Don, suffering from diabetes, remorse, and a Hamlet-like indecision. It’s a sad commentary on this fine actor that the most famous bit of dialogue in the third installment of The Godfather is Pacino’s painfully overwrought declaration (often parodied—see here and here): “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

But other casting choices here were inspired. Who would have guessed that Cuban-born Andy García could be so convincing as a Sicilian-American gangster? His performance as Vincent Mancini (later taking on the name of Vincent Corleone) is compelling, and his rivalry with Joe Mantegna as Joey Zasa stands out as one of the highlights of the film. Eli Wallach is persuasive as Don Altobello—although I can’t help wonder what would have happened if Frank Sinatra, who had considered taking on the role, had been in his place. Donal Donnelly, best known for his work on stage, is equally impressive as the chain-smoking, double-talking Archbishop Gilday. When these characters take center stage, Coppola’s vision is confident, and the movie proves worthy of the legacy of his illustrious predecessors.

And The Godfather III has so many memorable scenes. The first conflict between Mancini and Zasa, ending with the former biting the ear of the latter during a fraternal embrace, is both mesmerizing and repulsive. The Atlantic City massacre, with a heliocopter hitman taking on a penthouse full of gangsters, is outlandish yet unforgettable. The last 30 minutes of the movie rank among Coppola’s most ambitious sequences, and stand out as the quintessential cinematic depiction of Girardian reciprocial violence. Above all, the final tableau of the decimated Corleone clan on the steps of the Palermo opera house is one of the most haunting images in the entire trilogy.

***

A lesser known Coppola movie helps us understand the director’s worldview, and also why the the third Godfather film was not just an exercise in brand extension, but a necessary conclusion to the saga.

In Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), released four years before The Godfather, Part III, the title character faces a mid-life crisis. She is stuck in an unhappy marriage, filled with doubts about the choices she made. Perhaps she should have married Michael, the artistic boy she knew in high school, or maybe even the school nerd destined to become a millionaire. Instead she tied the knot with Charlie (played—surprise!—by Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage), the boy who got her pregnant and would be such a disappointment in subsequent years.

But here comes the peculiar twist for a romantic comedy: Coppola turns Peggy Sue into a time traveler, and gives her a second chance. She is transported back to her senior year in high school, and given an opportunity to make different choices.

Yet at this juncture, the Coppola worldview takes center stage. Peggy Sue cannot escape her destiny. Even blessed with foreknowledge, she ends up making the same decisions all over again. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to Nicolas Cage, the man who will cause her so much anxiety in the future.

How strange! Yet this is the bottom line of Coppola’s vision of human existence: Destiny controls our fate, and is more powerful than our ambitions or self-interested calculations. This ingrained attitude emerges, in various ways, in every one of the director’s best films. Even when Coppola delivers a romantic comedy, it is infused with Calvinist predestination.

This sense of an overriding destiny pervades the Godfather films. Many have seen these movies as a kind of underworld variation on the American Dream, but they miss the fact that they actually tell the opposite story. The Corleone family never achieves its dream of legitimacy. Both father and son are haunted by destiny. In these films, the American Dream is a false promise, a beguiling lure down the path to self-destruction.

The triumphs of the previous Godfather films—in which the family’s enemies are repeatedly whacked—cannot hide this larger message. When the family is destroyed in the final installment of the trilogy, this is merely the inevitable resolution that we should have anticipated from the start. The Corleone story had always embodied a tragic sensibility, infused with elements of Shakespeare and Unamuno. But the key ingredient of tragedy, the protagonist’s final fall, is merely hinted at, never fully realized, in the first two films. Coppola’s worldview required a third installment, and even with its flaws, it provides the necessary endpoint of the story.

But Coppola did the one thing you aren’t allowed in a movie franchise. He renounced the accepted commercial formulas. Instead of brand extension, he took his story to its intended conclusion. He abandoned the memes of the glamorous mob epic, and stuck to his artistic vision, his tragic sense of life. Yet that’s the very reason why he should be applauded.

***

I suspect that the biggest factor in the dismal reputation of this movie goes back to René Girard’s insights. The general public prefers rivalry and revenge—they are caught up in the adrenalin rush of the mimetic violence that animated the first two Godfather movies. The third film, which ends not with Michael Corleone getting revenge, but seeing violence destroy his own clan and self-delusions, may offer a profound commentary on the human condition—and, indeed, on our own times—but doesn’t cater to this desire to see vengeance unleashed upon the other.

In the current day, the other is still demonized. (If you doubt it, you haven’t been listening to the candidates running for political office.) Even so, audiences today are more willing to accept popular entertainment that takes on the dimensions of tragedy. The most striking example is the TV show Breaking Bad. Viewers were fascinated by a hero who appears, in episode one, as a basically good person, but gradually turns into a source of evil because of a tragic flaw.

It’s worth noting that this type of “hero” didn’t exist on television in the ’80s and ’90s. Viewers would have rejected it—just as many rejected The Godfather, Part III at the time of its initial release. But we now live in an age that has gone beyond heroes and anti-heroes in our populist narratives. The idea of the tragic hero has finally gone mainstream. As a result, we are perhaps now ready to accept the concluding chapter of Coppola’s grand American tragedy.

I readily admit that The Godfather Part III does not live up to the standards of its two predecessors. But it is hardly the disaster that some make it out to be. It is a flawed masterpiece, with a handful of obvious disfigurements, but still one of the most ambitious and riveting American movies of the ’90s. This final installment in the life of Michael Corleone needed to told, and even in this less-than-ideal form, it serves as an essential coda to the most famous immigrant story in cinema history. Re-evaluating it, a quarter-century after its debut, I am inclined to ask, parroting the words of the first Don Vito Corleone: What did it do to deserve this disrespect?