The Godfather Part III\Coda: Coppola’s tweaks to his flawed yet fascinating epilogue to the classic Godfather duology is trivial, self-serving and unnecessary

Francis Ford Coppola’s recut version of The Godfather Part III(1990) has an overlong title, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, but his ambitions are limited to that of a petulant child (or a parent), who wants to foist his originally conceived title on the film and to enhance his daughter’s performance.

When Francis Ford Coppola was offered the moon to do a second ‘Godfather’ film after the astounding critical and commercial success of the first The Godfather(1972), he turned it down flat; he later relented and offered to produce it with Martin Scorsese directing; but when the studio, Paramount Pictures ,balked at the offer, he made three conditions under which he would direct the sequel himself; one: he wanted a hefty salary, somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars which was a huge sum at the time; second: he wanted absolute creative control; and third: he wanted to call it The Godfather Part II. Paramount accepted Coppola’s first two conditions, but refused to accede to the third; those days sequels had stand-alone titles like “the son of Frankenstein” or “Bride of Frankenstein”, Paramount was planning to call the sequel, “The Son of Godfather”, but Coppola held out and prevailed, thus the second Godfather was the first sequel to have roman numerals in its title. That was absolutely the correct decision, mainly because Coppola was nearing the zenith of his creative and commercial powers at the time and his instincts were bang on; on top of it he had the clout to implement it. It’s vindicated by what a great film The Godfather Part II(1974) was; with the film Coppola achieved the impossible, in many ways, the film topped its original, and the original Godfather maybe the greatest film ever made. Post the success of The Godfather Part II, Coppola, at the age 35, became the most important and powerful filmmaker in the world. He could do anything at the time, but with such unprecedented success, his ego inflated to herculean proportions and the stage was set for his downfall. He almost went under with the monumental, Apocalypse Now(1979), into which he poured almost five years of his life and all his fortunes. The equal parts bizarre and brilliant film barely made it through, Coppola managing to retain his fortune and reputation by the skin of his teeth. But that didn’t stop him from, first buying a studio, and then making a highly experimental musical love story, One From the Heart(1982) that went way over budget and failed miserably at the box office. Coppola was bankrupted and lost his studio to creditors. To pay off his debts, Coppola became a “Gun for hire” and started making films for the very studios he despised; reduced to being a corporate employee again, Coppola churned out highly stylized, but artistically compromised commercial films throughout the 1980s: The Cotton Club, The Outsiders, Peggy Sue got married, Gardens of Stone, Tucker: Man and his Dreams etc.. none of which was particularly successful, either critically or commercially. Thus, almost a decade in artistic and financial wilderness, Coppola was given a lifeline back to former glory days by Paramount Pictures: an offer to make a Third ‘Godfather’ film; Coppola demurred, but finally accepted as he realized the offer would save him from bankruptcy once and for all. As in the case of the second film, Coppola negotiated a hefty salary; something like six million Dollars and fifteen percent of the gross- an astounding sum for a director who hasn’t had a box office hit for more than a decade. He also won total creative control to make the film the way he wished to. The only problem was the story; Coppola wanted the third film too to feature Michael Corleone as the central figure of the story, the only problem being Michael’s story was finished in Part II; He has already been turned into a lifeless ‘Zombie’, who lurks around only in darkness and feels no emotion whatsoever, so how can you have a whole film around such a character again. To get around this problem, Coppola decided to change the third film from a proper sequel to a stand-alone epilogue, which may deal with themes and characters already visited in its prequels, but have an individuality that can be disconnected from them. And to emphasize this, he decided not to call the film, The Godfather Part III, but “The Death of Michael Corleone”. When he suggested this to Paramount Picture, they balked like before, but the interesting thing is that this time the studio may have been right. By this time, the sequel culture was firmly established and there was no way the studio could market a film with such an independent title; who would go watch a film with that title?, I wouldn’t. The studio was going to spend some $60 million to $70 million on making a long awaited second sequel to “The Godfather” and they weren’t going to throw al that money on something called “The Death of Michael Corleone”; it’s a testament to Coppola’s waning clout that he didn’t prevail this time and the film came out as “The Godfather Part III”. So what we have here is the director making a film that is limited in ambition, scope and scale than the other two movies and the studio marketing it as a film molded form the same epic greatness as the first two. Hence the film, despite possessing some great virtues, was a disappointment for both the studio and the audiences; the film barely broke even at the box office, and though many a viewer and critic admired the virtues that the film possessed, it left everyone unsatisfied. The main reason obviously was that we expected an epic conclusion to an epic trilogy, but what we got was a small scale epilogue, devoid of much of the greatness in story, characterization and scale, which was not what we expected or wanted.

One of the main issues with The Godfather Part III was the characterization of Michael Corleone. As played by Al Pacino – in what i consider to be two of the greatest screen performances of all time (maybe even the greatest)- Michael in the first two Godfather films is the most fascinating, intriguing, interesting and brilliantly drawn character i have ever seen. The descent of the fresh-faced, idealistic War-hero into a cunning, tightly coiled, cold-hearted Mob Boss was nothing shot of miraculous in its conception and execution. The Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III has absolutely no correlation with the Michael of those two films. The Michael in Part III is as warm, emotional, over the top, morally strong and lovable as the Michael in the first two films were cold, taciturn, subtle, ruthless, immoral and hateful. Michael in Part III jokes about taking out his Tony Bennett records when forced to listen to Johnny Fontane; he makes anguished outbursts about having to deal with the ‘Borgias’ again when confronted with corrupt Vatican officials; he begs his son to finish his law degree; and he desperately tries to reconnect, and begs forgiveness from his estranged wife, Kay(Diane Keaton), who murdered one of his sons in her womb. Things that Michael from the first two movies would never do, even if 20 years have passed- the third film is set in 1979, while the second ended in 1959.

So what happened?. Surely, Coppola who showed such brilliance in crafting the character in the first two movies wouldn’t have been so utterly clueless about what he was doing here. I believe it was a combination of necessity: of building a full movie around the character of Michael that forced Coppola to open him up; as well as natural depreciation in the talents involved, especially Coppola and Pacino. It goes without saying that Coppola was not the director he was in the 1980s and 90s that he was in the 1970s- when he could do no wrong. His instincts were not the same as before; also, he always wanted to be a maverick filmmaker doing original work, like Woody Allen, so it must have hurt him like hell that he had to go back – against his own wishes- to mining from the same ‘Godfather’ mine, which he had already exhausted by now; and also he was doing it only for the money, and for someone who considered himself an artist that’s like self-flagellation. Naturally, his creative judgements regarding the film were mostly wrong. Also, while making these Godfather films over the years, he had personalized the story and characters to such an extend that they had become indistinguishable from his own. The third Godfather film could very well have been about the generation of Corleones after Michael, but Coppola identifies so closely with Michael that he could not imagine a Godfather film without Michael, and by third film it was less Michael Corleone and more Francis Coppola that we are seeing on screen. The gregarious, over the top , lovable-father figure we see on screen is Coppola and not Michael. Like Michael in this film, Coppola had lost a child- Coppola lost his son, Gio, in a boating accident just a couple of years before he started working on this film. Like Michael, he had lost all the idealism of youth and had got corrupted, so he looked at Part III as a sort of redemption and hence his obsession to redeem Michael in this film; an absolute impossibility, because Michael is a character who cannot or would not want to be redeemed, which leads to many labored sequences, like the excessive emphasis on his diabetes and the long drawn out confession scene. And then the casting, apart from Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire, playing Michael’s sister Connie- who has a much bigger role in this film; for added emotional impetus, he ended up casting his own daughter, Sofia, as Michael’s daughter Mary; a very controversial casting decision that almost ruined Sofia’s life and career, as the critics and the viewers were very hard on her performance. To be fair, Coppola cast her after his original choice Winona Ryder had to bow out at the last minute due to exhaustion; but after that Coppola vetoed all other choices of young actresses put forth by the studio and impulsively cast his daughter; it was because, i suspect, more for the personal connection that this allows him to make with the film (his thinking might have been on the lines like: this is not just a cynical cash grab for me, this has deep personal resonance for me) than for what she can bring to the role. I have a feeling that Coppola himself was aware that Sofia was not up to the demands of the character and hence he had cut down the role dramatically; If Winona had played the role, i am sure she had a lot more to do in the film. Sofia’s role was never big enough or important enough in the big scheme of the film that it would irreparably damage the film. So the criticism that she ruined the film – as a lot of critics made at the time – was ridiculous; Sure, she looks really confused throughout the film; always tentative, and gawky, but sometimes it works in the film’s favor because the character of Mary is confused about how she feels towards her father and his motives and her love for Andy Garcia’s character, Vincent, etc. Though i genuinely wish Coppola would not have subjected his daughter to this misery. It appears to me a purely self-serving decision intended to benefit himself and no one else. One thing i am baffled by the character is, that in The Godfather Part II, Mary is shown to be around 4 or 5 years old, so in Part III she should have been in her mid twenties, but both Sofia and Winona were teenagers when cast in this role; looks like Coppola lost track of their age, or rather he was so much into molding Michael out of himself that Michael’s daughter (miraculously) is the same age as his daughter, and remember, Sofia was born during the making of the first ‘Godfather’ and she was the baby boy who was baptized at the end of the film.

Now regarding Pacino, he was also not the same actor he was in the 1970s; from a brooding, intense, subtle actor, he had become a highly theatrical, ‘histrionical’ actor- who shouts, waves his hands, etc… His heavy drinking and smoking had altered his appearance and voice to such an extend that he was a shadow of his former self. So as opposed to the first two films, where he is literally ‘living’ the character, here he is building up a ‘performance’- like an English theatre actor- altering his face with makeup, altering his voice, his body language. Not that it’s bad; it’s very entertaining, but it looks soulless and artificial and doesn’t have the depth and poetry of his performance from the first two films. I found that gravelly voice extremely annoying, though i could live with his hair and makeup. These were also devices that Pacino and Coppola were indulging in to separate this film from the first two, but the final product is unsatisfying. I suspect that even if Coppola had conceived Michael in the same form as the first two films, Pacino could not have played him as before. he had changed irreparably as a performer. The hangover of playing “Big Boy Caprice” in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (from the same year) is very visible in Pacino’s performance. Pacino would go on to give a much better and even a very brilliant performance as a tragic, over-the-hill gangster in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco(1997) opposite Johnny Depp.

Another major issue i have with the film is in its plotting; so Michael’s idea of liberating or purifying his family (business) was by linking it with the Vatican, but as shown at the end of the first film, where the baptism sequence elevates Michael’s evil to the next level, he must have known by this time that these religious institutions and figures are as corrupt as other institutions. If he could “purchase” the “Cross of St. Sebastian” at the beginning of this film, how honorable these people are going to be in their business dealings. Hence his moral outrage at being swindled comes across to me as improbable and even laughable. Now the international level of conspiracy that Coppola and Mario Puzo has cooked up for this film is interesting and in keeping with the “sequel” dynamics (and not the epilogue ambitions) of this film. In the first Godfather, the Corleone family operation is more on a City-level, completely centered in New York; in the second film, it graduates to a national level, with the film moving from New York to Nevada to Havana to Washington, with Michael emerging as a powerful figure in the country- senators in his pocket and a nationwide operation, so it’s fitting that the third film takes the family operations to an international level. But unlike the first two films, were Michael is cunning and immoral enough to outsmart everyone, here Michael is the innocent, morally pure lamb surrounded by cunning wolves, and he has to wait for a straightforward pope to be elected and then depend on a him to get his business deal through; which means that much of the drama surrounding this plot device is uninteresting and dramatically inert. This is one of the big issues with this film; the first two films were stately paced, but they were brimming with life and vitality in every frame; but here, most of the scenes are lifeless; there is a big difference between slow movies and boring movies; all three Godfather movies are slow-paced, but the third one is really boring. The first hour leading up to the Atlantic city massacre is very interesting, but the moment Michael suffers a stroke, the films becomes comatose. It livens up after the film gets to Sicily, but not to the extend of the first hour or so and never to the extend of the first two Godfather movies. The absence of key characters like Tom Hagen- Robert Duvall did not return due to salary disputes- may have also added to the film lacking vitality. Also, in the first film, the emphasis was on the ‘sons’, Marlon Brando’s father figure was deftly pushed aside or kept in the background as the main dramatic arc of the film proceeded, but here Coppola has no interest in the sons; he made Michael’s son an artist and had Sonny’s bastard son materialize out of nowhere to take over the family business. Of course, he identifies only with the father, and the daughter and perhaps his sister too. He could have done so much dramatically interesting stuff with the son characters, but his perspective was screwed on this, and it hurts the film a lot.

The themes and stylistics of the Godfather films, which mixes Luchino Visconti’s classical filmmaking styles with Shakespearean drama and Mascagni opera is much more overt in the third film, especially with the full staging of “Cavalleria rusticana” in the climax as well as with copycat scenes like ‘biting of the ear to draw blood’ and depiction of an illicit love affair. While Shakespeare’s King Lear and Visconti’s “The Leopard” were major inspirations for the first Godfather, there were just that, “inspiration”; in the third film, there are scenes and characters drawn directly from these sources. From King Lear, the character of the bastard son or the death of Lear’s favorite daughter, Cordelia, are all directly referenced here; for added Shakespearean influences, Connie is modelled on Lady Macbeth. Also, the uncle-nephew dynamic from “The Leopard” is ported wholesale, with the famous “mirror shot” of Vincent appearing as Michael’s image in the mirror while he is shaving duplicated directly from the Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) – Tancredi (Alain Delon) scene in The Leopard. Coming to Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana“, the best usage of the opera (or its music) in movies i have ever seen is in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull(1980), where the opera’s music cues plays over the title sequence (and also the boxing montages in between) of the boxer getting ready to fight; it’s one of the brilliant representation of underlying themes of the movie- rustic Italian machismo, jealousy, suspicion and self-destruction- that it had in common with the opera. For The Godfather Part III, Coppola brings the opera into its front and center; by doing this, Coppola may have been aiming to establish the link between the themes of Italian masculinity and violence as portrayed in The Godfather films having their roots in this Nineteenth-century rustic drama (or opera), but it’s just too expressionist, too in your face, and goes against the grain of The Godfather films; it’s no match for the way Scorsese uses it for Raging Bull. All this to say that in the post Godfather Part II phase when Coppola should have been the king of American film artists, it was actually Martin Scorsese who seized the moment and belted out one masterpiece after another and emerged as pre-eminent American film artist; so by 1990 when Coppola- having very much run out of ideas- was retreating to the tired old formulas and appropriating other artistic works for his final Godfather film, Scorsese was smashing his way through with the spellbinding “Goodfellas” which would take the gangster cinema to the next level.

So when i heard that Coppola was going to improve The Godfather Part III by cutting 15 minutes and adding a new beginning and ending, i wondered “How the hell is going to do that?”; because, as i listed above, the problems with the film are fundamental, they cannot be corrected by adding or reducing scenes. Also, the film was not something that was taken away from him and recut by the studio, he made the film he wanted to make, so why put out a new cut?, but when i heard that the new cut was going to be called “The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone“, things became clear to me: he wanted to reinstate that one thing that was taken away from him by the studio, and that’s the title; since nobody is going to buy a new DVD or Blu-ray only for a change in title, he has tried some superficial tweaks to the whole film, which, most of the times, if you blink you’ll miss it. Oh boy!, this turned out to be a bigger cash-grab than the one released in 1990. The beginning has been changed, but all he has done is to take the scene where Michael meets up with Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) that comes about 30 minutes of the film and put it in the beginning; the scene in its full form has been available in bonus discs of Godfather DVD and Blu-ray sets for decades. Worse, Coppola didn’t even use the full scene, he has taken exactly the scene that was in part III, so the lines where Archbishop quotes Dante- which i found interesting- is not there. What is also lost is the original beginning of The Godfather Part III, which i thought was really good; it was different from the opening of the first two films and yet it recalled the endings of those films in a unique way. So we have Michael being conferred with this great honor by the church in a religious ceremony mirroring the climax of the first Godfather; and we get inserts of scenes from the second Godfather where Fredo is murdered; linking the duplicity of a man being honored for his charitable work with his past evil deeds- the after effects of it he carries as scars on his soul and which is now fully visible on Michael’s age-ravaged face. It also had shots of the decaying Corleone family compound in Lake Tahoe, which signified how the life that Michael lived there has become extinct and he’s now starting a new life back in New York. If the idea was to to make this film more of a ‘Stand alone’ film without connecting it with the earlier films, then the “Coda” opening scene is a pale carbon copy of the opening scene of the first Godfather film- much less effective and interesting. Again, the choice to open the third film by stressing on the family theme (and not the business deal with the church) was the suggestion of his great editor, Walter Murch (according to Coppola’s DVD Commentary), and Coppola went along with it, so i don’t know what possessed him to change it now. Does he think now that Murch was wrong?. So now with the opening church ceremony out of the film, later, when Kay tears into Michael and calls it “a shameful ceremony” where he was disguised by the church, you’re left wondering “What ceremony?”. Rest of the changes are negligible, like a couple of shots of Michael’s reactions when Joe Zasa and his “Ant” intrudes upon the celebration, though Coppola’s “Save Sofia” mission is very much visible; a lot of Sofia’s irritating reaction shots have been cut out; the one i noticed particularly was in the scene between her and Pacino after the “Immobilaire” deal is voted upon, the “I am doing this for my children and you’re doing this for your children too” sequence had Sofia’s worst acting moments, which Coppola- in his DVD director’s commentary- blamed it on his assistants who didn’t give him sufficient time to prepare her; that scene is now truncated to concentrate more on Pacino. I wish Coppola had trimmed some of the film’s uninteresting middle section, like that a ridiculous love scene between Sofia and Garcia-all that rolling of nyokis. I wish he could excise that “cousins” love story all together, but you see the Coppola family is supposed to be a product of union between cousins (courtesy: again Coppola’s DVD Commentary), so this is very personal for Coppola. Also, wish he had gotten ridden of some of the scenes where dialogues are overdubbed in the postproduction, which is very visible in several scenes, where there is very little relation between actor’s reactions and what they’re saying, with lots of continuity errors as well. Ah! But that kind of improvement was not what was on Coppola’s mind. when he set out to make this version. Now coming to the title and the ending, in this cut, Michael does not (literally) die, his spiritual death is emphasizes, but hell!, he has already died a thousand spiritual deaths in the first film and in the second film, so what’s so special about it in third film, where he is actually a moral and even a spiritual man. maybe this time its the death of the daughter, but I’m unconvinced. All in all, “Coda” was a crushing disappointment. Coppola’s recent modified cuts of “The Cotton Club” and “Apocalypse Now” had something to offer, this one is totally pointless.

Nevertheless, Francis Ford Coppola remains one of the greatest directors in movie history. The 4 masterpieces he churned out in the 1970s will forever bear testimony to his talents. Even his 1980s output like “Rumble Fish” and “Tucker” are extraordinary in their own way. Hell!, right after the disappointment of “Part III”, Coppola would turn out the dazzling critical and commercial success, “Bramstoker’s Dracula” which plays to his strengths as a filmmaker that he had become in the 1990s; a man high on visual inventiveness and low on plot and characterization; a heady cocktail of a film that i love to death and his love for making that film is visible in every luscious frame. If anything, The “Godfather Part III” showcases the pitfalls of forcing an uninterested artist into making something he doesn’t want to by throwing a lot of money at him. In Hollywood, Movies maybe commercialized products, but what makes cinema different, is that there is a point at which it ceases to work purely as a commercial product, and Part III is a perfect example of that. The new “Coda” version by Coppola points to another deeper problem: artists way past their prime, who’re delusional enough to think that they can fix another flawed film in their filmography by some nips and tucks. This is what Oliver Stone does with his “Alexander” film, which now exists in four or five different versions or Ridley Scott does with his every film. This is where (again) one want to bow down and worship Martin Scorsese who always make definitive films (he never made a director’s cut, not even of New York New York or Gangs of New York). The circumstances: the technology, time, money available, as well as the director’s instincts at the time when a film is made has a lot to do with how it finally turns out, it should be preserved and the filmmakers need to respect that; unless the film was taken away from its maker by the moneymen and butchered out of shape- as it happened with several of Sam Peckinpah or Orson Welles films- a new cut of an existing film should not be assembled. I like to forget that i ever saw this “Coda” nonsense, for me the Godfather Part III- however flawed but still fascinating- is the conclusion (or epilogue) to the Godfather trilogy (or duology).


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