Why Is Godfather III So Disrespected?


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

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

But theres something even worse than the Hollywood sequel, namely the dreaded three-quelthe third movie in a series. This usually represents the moment when the inspiration that produced 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 legacyrarities 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 Porkys Revenge !

In the Godfather films, the American Dream is a false promise, a beguiling seduce down the road leading to self-destruction .

But the most infamous three-quel of them all has now arrived at its 25 th birthday, and perhaps deserves a second look. Im 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 doesnt show up on TV or get mentioned in all-time best listings. Its 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 eluded 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, outdid 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 year later, Coppola could pull it off again.

He didnt. The third Godfather movie is now remembered as a cinematic trainwreck, tainting the legacy of its two precursors. Pauline Kael, lambasting the movie in The New Yorker , called it a public humiliation. The Washington Post announced that the movie isnt only a disappointment, its a failing of heartbreaking proportions.

Yet these comments barely represent the consensus of the majority of members of the movies viewers at the time of its release. The Godfather Part III earned nominations for seven Academy Awards, including Best Pictureand that was back when merely five movies attained the cut for this honor. The now venerated rabble movie Goodfellas , released that same year, only got six, and also trailed The Godfather Part III in box office receipts. Coppolas film also picked up seven nominations for Golden Globes.

Roger Ebert devoted it higher ranking than The Godfather Part II . Janet Maslin, in the New York Times , proclaimed the movie inevitable and irresistible. Variety boasted that Part III matches its predecessors in narrative intensity, epic scope, socio-political analysis, physical beauty and deep impression for its characters and milieu. The Los Angeles Times chimed in with a cautious review, but nonetheless are recognizing that The Godfather Part III was one of the best American movies of the yeara work of high ensemble talent and intelligence, gorgeously mounted and crafted, artistically audacious in ways that most American movies dont even attempt.

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

*** I couldnt help but be reminded of The Godfather films a few weeks ago when I read about the death of critic and social intellectual Ren Girard. Girards 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 clansa spiral of conflict spurred on by our ingrained human propensities to engage in imitation and rivalry.

Anyone who reads the newspapers knows where to find plenty of support for Girards declaration that in a genuinely global world, the resignation 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 Thiels claim that he described on Girards theory of mimesis in making an early stage investment in Facebook that produced a billion dollar gain. Whether you measure Girards views for the sociocultural insights or merely their return on investment, he demands serious attention.

I dont know if Ren Girard ever find The Godfather Part III , but he would have immediately understand why it is this three-quel was, as Janet Maslin insisted, inevitable and irresistible. Girard would have comprehended that the two previous Godfather films, for all their brilliance, did not complete the tale. The tale of Michael Corleone demanded a final, tragic chapter.

Those earlier films celebrated the triumph of the Corleone family over its foes. But reciprocal violence always comes back to destroy its originator. The only way to put an end to the circle of violence, in Girards 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 comprehended this same truth, namely that his saga of American rags-to-riches gone bad couldnt 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 is necessary sacrificed at the climactic moment of his talein this instance, Corleones daughter Mary.

But at this phase, our esteemed director discloses his own tragic flawthe risks of the nepotism that led him to enlist his sister, mom, 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 cant 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 thats only the Sicilian wayin fact, the Corleone family does the same thing in The Godfather films.

In Coppolas case, the casting of Sofia Coppola, merely 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. Im 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 Coppolas flat and unconvincing portrayal of a role that was central to the drama of the story.

Other casting choices compounded the problem. Coppolas unwillingness to meet the salary demands of Robert Duvall forced him to remove the character of Tom Hagen from the movie. The substitute of George Hamilton as the new household consigliere merely reminds us of how much we miss Duvall. Even Al Pacino seems lost at moments in this filmthe same actor who triumphed in playing the shrewd, vengeful Michael Corleone of the previous installments is clearly less comfy as the ailing Don, suffered by diabetes, sorrow, and a Hamlet-like indecision. Its a sad commentary on this fine actor that the most famous bit of dialogue in the third installment of The Godfather is Pacinos painfully overwrought declaration( often parodiedsee here and here ): Just when I guessed I was out, they pull me back in.

But other casting choices here were inspired. Who would have guessed that Cuban-born Andy Garca could be so convincing as a Sicilian-American crook? His performance as Vincent Mancini( afterward 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 movie. Eli Wallach is persuasive as Don Altobelloalthough I cant assistance 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 is currently working on stage, is equally impressive as the chain-smoking, double-talking Archbishop Gilday. When these characters take centre stage, Coppolas vision is confident, and the movie demonstrates worthy of the legacy of his illustrious predecessors.

And The Godfather III has so many memorable scenes. The first conflict between Mancini and Zasa, objective with the former biting the ear of the latter during a fraternal embracing, is both mesmerizing and repulsive. The Atlantic City massacre, with a heliocopter hitman taking on a penthouse full of crooks, is outlandish yet unforgettable. The last 30 minutes of the movie rank among Coppolas more 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 directors worldview, and also why the the third Godfather movie 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( playedsurprise! by Coppolas nephew Nicolas Cage ), the boy who got her pregnant and would be such a disappointment in subsequent years.

But here comes the peculiar twisting for a romantic comedy: Coppola turns Peggy Sue into a time traveler, and dedicates 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 centre stage. Peggy Sue cannot escape her destiny. Even blest with foreknowledge, she ends up making the same decisions all over again. She detects herself irresistibly drawn to Nicolas Cage, “the mens” who will cause her so much anxiety in the future.

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

This sense of an overruling destiny imbues the Godfather films. Many have assured these movies as a kind of underworld variation on the American Dream, but they miss the fact that they actually tell the opposite tale. 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 seduce down the road leading to self-destruction.

The triumphs of the previous Godfather filmsin which the familys foes are repeatedly whackedcannot 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 beginning. The Corleone story had always personified a tragic sensibility, infused with elements of Shakespeare and Unamuno. But the key ingredient of misfortune, the protagonists final autumn, is simply hinted at, never fully realized, in the first two films. Coppolas worldview necessitated a third installment, and even with its flaws, it provides the necessary endpoint of the story.

But Coppola did the one thing you arent allowed in a movie franchise . He renounced the accepted commercial formulas. Instead of brand extension, he took his tale to its intended conclusion. He abandoned the memes of the glamorous rabble epic, and stuck to his artistic vision, his tragic sense of life. Yet thats the very reason why he should be applauded.


I suspect that the biggest taken into account in the dismal reputation of this movie goes back to Ren Girards insights. The general public favors rivalry and revengethey are caught up in the adrenalin hurry-up of the mimetic violence that animated the first two Godfather movies. The third movie, which ends not with Michael Corleone get revenge, but ensure violence destroy his own clan and self-delusions, may offer a profound commentary on the human conditionand, indeed, on our own timesbut doesnt cater to this desire to see revenge unleashed upon the other.

In the present day, the other is still demonized.( If you doubt it, you havent 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 misfortune. The most striking example is the TV indicate Breaking Bad . Spectators 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.

Its worth noting that this type of hero didnt exist on television in the 80 s and 90 s. Spectators would have rejected itjust as many repudiated The Godfather, Part III at the time of its initial release. But we are today live in an age that has run beyond heroes and anti-heroes in our populist narratives. The idea of the tragic hero has finally run mainstream. As a result, we are perhaps now ready to accept the concluding chapter of Coppolas 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 90 s. 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 tale in cinema history. Re-evaluating it, a one-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 contempt?

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