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The Contender:The Godfather, Part III (1990)
Number of Nominations: 7 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Andy Garcia), Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Cinematography (Gordon Willis), Art Direction/Set Direction (Dean Tavoularis & Gary Fettis), Original Song (“Promise Me You’ll Remember,” music by Carmine Coppola, lyrics by John Bettis), Film Editing (Barry Malkin, Lisa Fruchtman & Walter Murch)
Number of Wins: Zero
(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for a movie that’s over twenty years old. You’ve had your chance.)
Time can do strange things to a movie’s reputation. Case in point: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. While there are those who consider it an underrated masterpiece, it’s more often remembered as one of the most unnecessary and disappointing sequels of all time. And yet it was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture. Did the members of the Academy see the word “Godfather” on their ballots and just vote for it out of habit? Or is the film worthy of its accolades and deserving of a reevaluation?
The early 1990s found Coppola at a crossroads in his career. He’d spent most of the previous decade gambling and losing on expensive, risky, personal projects like One From The Heart and his utopian independent film studio, Zoetrope. The closest he’d come to commercial success was the fantasy-comedy Peggy Sue Got Married, a work-for-hire gig he’d stepped into at the last minute. Paramount had been trying to convince him to return to the Corleone family for years and Coppola had turned them down flat every time. But after the financial failure of Tucker: The Man And His Dream in 1988, Coppola was no longer in a position to say no. He needed to recoup his losses and a new Godfather movie was the closest thing he had to a sure bet.
Things didn’t get any easier once Coppola signed on. He and Mario Puzo were given just six weeks to put together a script, which then had to be substantially rewritten when Robert Duvall refused to reprise his role as Tom Hagen over salary demands. Winona Ryder was cast as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary, then dropped out after arriving on set. Her doctor had diagnosed her with exhaustion after shooting several back-to-back films. Instead of delaying the production to find a replacement, Coppola simply cast the nearest warm Italian body he could find, namely his own daughter, Sofia.
Considering all the drama behind the scenes, it’s a bit of a miracle that The Godfather Part III is even watchable. And to be fair, Coppola himself had created a legacy that was virtually impossible to live up to with the first two Godfather films. Still, it’s no accident that most of the nominations for Part III were in technical categories (all of which were richly deserved...this is a beautiful looking film).
Perhaps the biggest shock came when Al Pacino was snubbed in the Best Actor category. Instead, the Academy recognized him in the Best Supporting Actor slot for his work in Dick Tracy, a nomination that may have influenced Pacino’s decision to become increasingly cartoonish in the years that followed. This put him in competition with Part III’s only acting nominee, Andy Garcia. Both lost to Joe Pesci in GoodFellas.
There are redeeming qualities to The Godfather Part III, notably Garcia’s performance as the hot-headed son of James Caan’s hot-headed Sonny Corleone. But the movie stumbles badly in many key areas, most notably in Coppola and Puzo’s script. They can’t seem to decide which story they want to tell. Much of the movie is concerned with Michael’s attempt to gain a controlling interest in a European conglomerate but there are digressions involving other mafia dons unhappy with Michael’s decision to go legit, Michael’s declining health, his children, and on and on, none of which gel to form a cohesive whole.
Of course, the most savage critical remarks were directed at Sofia Coppola. It’s true, her performance is pretty bad, but it’s impossible to not feel a little sorry for her. In many shots, she looks like exactly what she was: a girl doing a favor for her dad that’s taking much, much longer than she expected. For a family-first guy like Francis Ford Coppola, the critical beating Sofia took must have been especially painful. But it was irresponsible of him to cast her in such a prominent role, both as a parent and as a filmmaker.
Sofia Coppola isn’t the only actress adrift in Part III. Diane Keaton waltzes in and out of the movie as Michael’s now ex-wife Kay but she’s given almost nothing to do. Bridget Fonda has a thankless role as a journalist who falls into bed with Garcia, then vanishes from the rest of the picture. She’s on screen just long enough for you to think, “Hey, that’s Bridget Fonda” and later, “What happened to that journalist I thought we were supposed to pay attention to?”
Coppola attempts to tie Part III to the previous films but his methods are heavy-handed and self-conscious. There are quite a few flashbacks (in other words, recycled footage) and like the first one, Part III opens with a lengthy celebration at the Corleone home. But the biggest misstep is saved for the final moments. After his daughter is accidentally killed, taking a bullet meant for him, Michael has a heartrending breakdown. We then cut to an unspecified time in the future, where an aged Michael dies alone in Sicily. The shot is clearly meant to echo Marlon Brando’s death in the original, but it’s so abrupt and lacking in context that it turns into a joke. I half suspect that Pacino and Coppola decided to film this just to get it out of the way so they wouldn’t have to make Part IV.
After The Godfather Part III, we should have learned not to expect too much when filmmakers revisit their past triumphs. Movies are products of their time and consciously attempting to reconstruct magic too often results in a chaotic mess. The Godfather Part III certainly isn’t as egregiously terrible as the Star Wars prequels or the most recent Indiana Jones misadventure. But the series deserved a better coda than this rambling, intermittently engaging epilogue.
The Godfather Part III is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.
- Adam Jahnke
(Originally published on The Morton Report June 21, 2011)