[12 July 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
THE GODFATHER: PART III
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Bridget Fonda, Sofia Coppola, Joe Mantegna
(Paramount, 1990) Rated: R
DVD release date: 24 May 2005
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Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.
—Don Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), The Godfather: Part III
Violence is a hard thing to do without repeating yourself… In the end it’s about flesh being torn, and blood. I hate it.
—Francis Ford Coppola, commentary, The Godfather: Part III
You get pulled back into something of your youth. The past is always having a war with the future…. No one is ever interested in the future except artists, really. Artists are the ones who want to step forward, move on. Every other part of society wants them to stay back where everyone is huddled against the storm, the past. They call it the present, but it’s the past.
—Francis Ford Coppola, commentary, The Godfather: Part III
“It was a film that I never particularly thought that I wanted to do.” Remembering how he came to make Godfather II for the commentary track on Paramount’s latest DVD version, Francis Ford Coppola remains conflicted. Though he had been much lauded for the first film, the famously beleaguered filmmaker insists that he resisted the turn to franchise. “The head of Paramount, Harry Bluthorn,” says Coppola, “used to say to me, ‘You’ve got the recipe of Coca-Cola,’ he said, ‘And you don’t want to make any more bottles.’”
No, Coppola insists, he really didn’t. And yet, he did. And not only the intricate and award-winning sequel/prequel, but also, some 15 years later, the third Godfather film, which he wanted to call The Death of Michael Corleone. The studio had granted him the first sequel’s title (he chose “Part II” at least partly to signify resistance to the whole sequel idea, that is, to name it for what it was). Both sequels track the descent of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), as he replaces his father (Coppola recalls his earnest efforts to bring Brando back for Part II, and the actor’s resistance to working with Paramount again, no matter how much the studio offered to pay this time around) and then turns increasingly paranoid. In his efforts to secure his own safety, Michael methodically has all of his enemies murdered, including family members.
As Coppola recalls, his decision to make the second film was galvanized in part by the studio’s many concessions, primarily not to interfere with script or shooting. “One handle I had,” he says, was “the material from the original Godfather book that dealt with the story of Vito Corleone from his days in Sicily through coming to America and becoming the character who we remember as Marlon Brando in the first Godfather film.” This idea turned into the sequel’s much-lauded dual structure, cutting back and forth in time and place (Lake Tahoe and new York’s Little Italy) to show the child Vito (Oreste Baldini) see his mother murdered, arrive at Ellis Island, and eventually become the young, practical-minded, and selectively generous and brutal godfather (Robert De Niro).
The second film begins with imagery designed to evoke the first (that is, Connie’s [Talia Shire] wedding), a lavish Vegas celebration in honor of Michael’s own son’s confirmation, with big skirts and a big band, appropriate to 1958. While the party goes on outside, Michael, like his father before him, conducts business in a dark-wood-walled office, specifically, schooling Connie, who’s rather fallen apart since Carlo and Sonny’s murders in the first film (Coppola says she’s “now really kind of a wild dame”). When she demands that Michael accept her latest conquest, the gold-digging Merle (Troy Donahue, Coppola’s former schoolmate), her brother is disgusted, more because of her resistance to his absolute authority than because of any of his own feelings about Merle. With her “all-powerful brother who’s the murderer of her husband and who seems to have this power over her,” Coppola says, “she rebels by becoming one of those sloppy women of the ‘50s who drink too much or carry on too much or have a lot of money, smoke too much.” Those sloppy women.
The other major business of the afternoon concerns cutting deals with about-to-be-busted Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) and a U.S. senator, Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), whose sheer ugliness makes him almost seem deserving of his awful fate: “I’ll do business with you,” he snarls, “But the fact is I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself, yourself and your whole fucking family.” Michael gives as good as he gets, always with an eye to protecting the Corleone name: “We’re both part of the same hypocrisy, but never think it applies to my family.” Scant hours later, Geary pays dearly for his effrontery, via one of those notorious un-refusable “offers,” only Michael and his consigliere, Tom (Robert Duvall), have graduated from bloody horse heads to a bloody prostitute’s corpse. Though he repeatedly sounds resentful of pressure to repeat himself (the dead girl, the intercutting of murders and ritual at film’s end), it’s also clear that Coppola understands his own strengths as a storyteller. Though he laments “using the same tricks over and over again, putting a series of murders around one central event,” he also suggests that this violence—typically marked by a detail, to bring it back to a visceral, frightening level, beyond the sensational—illustrates Michael’s sense of loss, his immersion in a world where “honor is a thing of the past.”
Even as Michael descends into what seems an awesome moral abyss, Coppola observes that Pacino “had really found the character, and had been partly inspired by of course the latter scenes of the first Godfather... Al started to take on some of the attributes in terms of, ‘I’m the main guy’ and playing it and kind of coming to the set in a way that heralded the importance of it.” Coppola had a hand in this development, in part because he came to the set with actual scripts, not the “notebooks” he used for the first movie. “Al is very good at being explosive and he loves to do it, you know.”
Coppola recalls that Michael’s murder of Fredo (John Cazale) troubled Mario Puzo. The director, however, “felt it would be dramatic, I don’t know why exactly.” The novelist finally agreed, on the condition was “that he wouldn’t kill his brother while his mother was alive. And that was great, I thought, because at the point in the movie when the mother dies, you really know that you’re in trouble.” By this point, he adds, Michael is surrounded by ice, metaphor for his internal state following his mother’s death and Kay’s (Diane Keaton) revelation that she has had an abortion (“This Sicilian thing,” she cries. “This must all end”). For Michael, it can never end, and this is at once his tragedy and Coppola’s point: Michael is “doing all this to persevere his family, but he was destroying his family at the same time and that was the central theme of that character.”
For Part III, Coppola’s commentary becomes even more personal. In part, this seems a function of the film’s status as a “reunion” project, bringing back so many of the previous players 10 years later. At the same time, as he recounts quite candidly, he feels the need to defend his decision to cast his own daughter, Sofia, to play Michael’s fractious, sultry, and doomed daughter Mary. That’s not to say that Coppola is humorless about the project that ignited so much controversy (“The most heated debate,” he says, “was over Al Pacino’s hair in this film… When I cut Al Pacino’s hair, it was almost like cutting Samson’s hair”), but he is upfront about his own feelings at the time: “I was in a crisis, so I was very much like Michael Corleone,” he says, “I was trying to understand really, what is important in a man’s life. What does fulfill is your children, and seeing the life of the family go on.”
Coppola’s focus on his family, in the film and his memory, could not be more poignant or more public. As he remembers, “Sofia came in for tremendous criticism because she was plunged into an important role without really having the credentials.” He defends his choice more than once, with a Michael-ish grandness.
Since I meant Sofia to be the vulnerable one who would ultimately express the great tragedy of Michael Corleone, I chose to give my own, and indeed just as in the story, it was Sofia that they shot the bullets at, but they were really shooting them at me and I knew that. But I’m thrilled to have captured the reality of the family by having Sofia play this part, despite really what was a conspiracy on many people’s behalf and all culminating in the article in Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair, that just pointed the world at Sofia, as if to say, “Look, he’s vulnerable here, kill him here.” And that is what the film really ultimately is about, that there is no worse way to pay for your sins than to have your children included in the punishment.
Brilliant, strange, wholly compelling, such passionate belief (or delusion, depending on your point of view) plainly drives Coppola’s art. Indeed, many critics derided Sofia’s effort (the New York Times’ Janet Maslin said her “flat, uneasy performance… seriously damages Mary’s impact as the linchpin of this story”; the Washington Post‘s Hal Hinson called her “hopelessly amateurish”), but in the commentary, Coppola seems ignited by the criticism. Understanding himself as an artist put upon by commercial demands. He insists, “To be told by those who own it, who make money with it, who buy jewelry for their wives with it, that ‘No, you can’t, anymore, experiment with it, you can’t take it into new territory, you must do the same thing over and over again,’ that is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow.”
That he turns this pill into gorgeous, complex art is all to Coppola’s credit. For all its faults—awkward plotting, Sofia’s performance, third-time-around repetition of images and themes—Part III also includes moments of breathtaking genius. Idealistic Vincent (Andy Garcia), though in mortal conflict with the more traditional gangster boy Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) wants to take up the next stages of the family business, integrating legitimate and illegitimate angles, bringing it into the fast-paced global economy of 1990, via the Vatican Bank and international corporations, more powerful than nations, more frightening than military forces. He exploits the trust of a reporter, Grace (Bridget Fonda), plainly in over her head, even as he rejects Mary, because her father deals for that rejection.
Michael, for one, knows that the line between legitimate and illegitimate businesses is so thin as to be invisible, especially when convenient for those looking to remain in power. He understands his own part in the cycles of violence, but continues to maneuver, hoping to stay a step ahead. “I betrayed my wife,” confesses, “I betrayed myself. I killed men, and I ordered men to be killed.” But no matter the formalities of the church (or his payments to Rome), Michael cannot forgive himself. By film’s end, as Coppola says of his own formula, “So everyone’s trying to kill everyone, which is typical for [this] kind of people. I’ve always enjoyed working with Italian actors.”
Self-critical as well as self-important, ahead of his time and in love with at least a segment of history, Coppola used his Godfather films to interrogate and also celebrate the past, to reconsider traditional values, to trace the corruption of ideals. “As I look back on this film,” he says at last of Part III, watching bodies crumple and twitch on a gigantic stairway, “There’s a hell of a lot packed into this opera.” Amen to that.