By Patrick Crain
Not too long ago, Michael Feldman’s weekly NPR radio program “What Do You Know” came to Oklahoma City and did their broadcast from Oklahoma City Community College (or, as we call it here, O-Triple C). One of the guests was Gray Fredrickson, erstwhile film producer and OCCC’s artist-in-residence. Oddly, Feldman began his interview by taking a tired crack at the Frederickson-produced Godfather Part III to which Fredrickson replied that, in 1990, it was a box office hit and was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, and that he wasn’t too ashamed of it.
Good for him.
Today, Godfather III is the butt of some joke, remembered as a misfire, and seen as an inconvenient addition to the Godfather legacy. Some movies that are critically panned grow in stature over time. Godfather Part III seems to have suffered an reverse fate. Upon its release, it had its detractors but it garnered mostly very good reviews, Rolling Stone being particularly kind to it as was Roger Ebert. It grossed nearly $137 million (quite something in 1990) and was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director making it the only three-part franchise in film history which has matched its Best Picture nominations with Best Director nominations. One of its more under-remarked milestones is that it garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Andy Garcia which gives the franchise a mind-boggling seven nominations for Best Supporting Actor. So it’s not quite like Godfather III was equitable to, say, Going Ape with Tony Danza which is what its sullied, contemporary reputation might suggest.
I guess it’s important to say that I don’t find Godfather III a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination nor would I even suggest it’s even close to the level of the first two films. Riding hard against it are a number of issues. First and foremost, it’s a horrible period piece; set in 1979, Godfather III doesn’t look a day younger than 1990. There seems to be the most limited of care given to the just-barely dressed New York scenes evident mostly via a haircut here or a big, blocky 1970’s sedan there. In the face of the meticulously designed period detail in Goodfellas (also released that year), Godfather III couldn’t help but look a little embarrassing in its negligence.
Another flaw of Godfather III is the sense of disconnection. In one of the shrewder moves between Godfather I & II, Coppola refused to succumb to the outrageous demands of Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza. Coppola simply killed his character off and rewrote his story with a whole new character, Frankie Pantangeli (Michael V. Gazzo). We buy this because not only is Gazzo so good in the role but the plotting of his appearance seems reasonable. However, in Godfather III, Eli Wallach’s Don Altobello just never connects with us on a level of friend or foe. He oils the mob portion of the plot but he never quite hits the poetic sadness of Gazzo or, on the other side of the loyalty line, the serpentine coolness of Lee Strassberg’s Hyman Roth (another character who feels just as familiar in II as if he were a character in the original). Don Altobello simply feels disconnected from the other two movies, only tied up by loose lines of expository dialogue.
A raging issue with the film is in its casting, but I’m not fully in the anti-Sofia Coppola camp. When the film was released, she was raked over the coals many times over, almost to the point of cruelty. Even now, people lazily shrug the entire movie off while delivering an ad-hoc attack on her performance. All of this is incredibly unfair as its hardly Sofia Coppola’s fault that she had to step in when Wynona Ryder had to drop out at the very last minute. And, in any event, her character is supposed to be a naïve, clueless rich girl who is mercifully kept in the dark about most everything bad that’s ever happened in her family. And while a few of her lines fall flat and she sometimes seems a bit out of her depth, Sofia Coppola does about as fine a job as Wynona Rider probably would have at that point in her career (or maybe you think Wynona Ryder’s performance in Francis Coppola’s follow up, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is good). I find that Sophia has a real chemistry with Andy Garcia which is pretty crucial to the role. When he turns on her in the finale, it’s very apparent that she feels it deeply. She looks every bit like the crushed schoolgirl that she’s supposed to.
For my money, the biggest miscast of the film is Bridget Fonda. Even though she’s not in it much, her Grace Hamilton feels like her character from Singles plus five years into a newspaper job. Her tone, her timbre, and her asides are all wrong for the film and she ruins every second she’s on the screen (which, really, aren’t many seconds). Also, for the record, I kinda dig (and completely buy) George Hamilton as the ultra-chic corporate lawyer. And while I miss Robert Duvall, the notion of Tom Hagen having probably worked himself into an early grave is completely plausible (“that’s where sticking with Michael gets you,” is the implication).
And, true, Godfather III was a rushed production and it totally shows. It’s rife with tell-tale post-production tricks and editing tomfoolery. Running the gamut from copious amounts of ADR to wonky editing, this was a production somewhat on the fly which did result in many shortcuts. But, to be fair to Coppola, had the studio been a little more reasonable and not pushed the Christmas deadline on him, I’m certain that different choices would have been made.
So those are my biggest issues with the film. And even if giving Coppola a pass on the production pressures and the nepotism result in a soft sell, Godfather III has many more things going for it than against it. The story is compelling and works very well while adhering to the first two films’ soft tissue connection to real events. It’s also nice to see Al Pacino and Diane Keaton get to revisit their characters and their scenes have a quality to them and a plausible arc (though, Pacino seems a little more animated than Michael Corleone ever should be but, hey, he’s a guy with a new lease on life IN THE OLD COUNTRY!). And Gordon Willis’s cinematography (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) is like a big, warm blanket with the deep browns and the autumnal colors in the early scenes which open up to the long, golden hues of Sicily.
Andy Garcia is absolutely terrific as he brilliantly channels James Caan’s Sonny. Ditto Joe Mantegna’s John Gotti-esque mob boss who is in far too little of the movie. For me, Michael Corleone getting dragged into a blood war with someone like Mantegna is an appealing premise and it would have been interesting for Coppola to have Michael turn the family over to Vincent in New York and return to Sicily to work the political side of the plot, recalling the parallel narratives of Godfather II. Mixing everything up for the sake of having a big operatic showdown in Sicily makes a certain kind of narrative sense, but the film misses out on a great opportunity to explore a grittier mob atmosphere in New York that really could have cooked and been counterbalanced with the more mannered yet equally cutthroat world of Sicily.
But, as it stands, the political intrigue that exists between Michael and the Vatican is decent, if not immediately threatening, and the rustic blood feud that finds its climax in Sicily does feel at home alongside the Sicily sequences in the first two films. And all of these things result in some very striking moments that are worthy the franchise’s name (the archbishop’s body free-fall, the crooked accountant hanging from the bridge, Michael’s acknowledgment of his role in the murder of his brother, and the informal relinquishment of power from Michael to Vincent among them). The opera scene is decently clever and well-staged (though the inclusion of some horribly anachronistic-looking twin assassins is ridiculous) and the ending is bombastically great. And I think there’s a case to be made for the film through its ending. After all, there’s something very compelling in a final act of a three-act structure which would find a character like Michael who, despite his best intentions, is in an even colder, lonelier spot that he was at the end of Part II. It’s as tragic but it’s also necessary. Francis Coppola was right when he said that he didn’t feel that the audience got to see Michael suffer for what he did. And in Godfather III, boy does he ever suffer. But we’re also never asked to forget what he did so our closure with him is sad but somewhat satisfying as far as the traditional cycles of Greek tragedy are concerned.
But what finally strikes me about Godfather III, and what really fuels my love for it, is what it represents; the final shuttering of both Old Hollywood and the New Hollywood movement. It’s been said that Robert Evans was so perfect for his role at Paramount Pictures in the late sixties due to his age; he was old enough to have been part of the old-school Hollywood but young enough to seem like a teenager to the other studio bosses and executives that were his peers. In him, there was a perfect bridge between the old and the new. That blend is palpable in the movies he either produced (Chinatown) or stewarded as an executive (the Godfather) in the sixties and seventies.
1968-1980 were incredibly important years in Hollywood and they were filled to the brim with creative people who didn’t have equitable mid and late-career fortunes. Francis Coppola, one of the most successful of the New Hollywood movement, famously flamed out with One From the Heart in 1982 and was forced to take director-for-hire gigs for a 10 year term to pay off his debts (Godfather III being one such assignment though, admittedly closer to his heart than, say, Peggy Sue Got Married).
So it’s telling that Godfather III found itself being released a scant two months after the Robert Evans-produced, Robert Towne-penned, Jack Nicholson-directed Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes. As a result of Paramount being highly nostalgic, both the Two Jakes and Godfather III managed the extraordinary by giving the fans nice visits to monumental cinematic landmarks while simultaneously creating compelling narratives all on their own. While the Two Jakes is really terrific, Godfather III is probably the more successful of the two as it truly puts the period on the cinematic story of the Corleones which also feels like the end of something larger (and, for the record, I’d be the first to see Gittes Vs. Gittes, the written-but-not-produced third film in the Chinatown franchise, if Jack Nicholson would see it for the great final role and salute to Hollywood as I’m sure it is).
Sure, Godfather III has its flaws and the poetic flow of the first two films feels copied and formulaic this time around. But what it needs to get right, it gets very right and in the face of the trashy sequel books that have been published recently coupled with the close-but-no-cigar GTA-clone video games the franchise has spawned, it’s easy to see that, at the very least, Godfather III is reverent to its vaunted pedigree and the era that gave birth to it. To me, this reverence can be found during the closing credits when the familiar strains of the Godfather theme melt into Harry Connick, Jr’s swooning ballad “Promise Me You’ll Remember” which audibly recalls Johnny Fontaine in his heyday. You can almost see him singing to Connie and the girls around her about to pass out. When the song ends and the credits roll to a close, you can almost hear the iron gates on the old Paramount Pictures lock shut.