Coppola’s director’s cut features a new ending to the third instalment in his mob series, which only underlined the excellence of its predecessors
Critics may not love The Godfather: Part III, but Francis Ford Coppola seems to have an abiding affection for it. From what I hear, a new cut features several new edits, including a significant one near the film’s climax. It also has a new title that seems a bit of a spoiler, The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. It’s being given a cinema run in other jurisdictions and was released on streaming platforms this week.
I always felt some sympathy for Coppola regarding Godfather III. Released to much anticipation in December of 1990, it got a bit of a toasting from the critics: the plot, they moaned, was convoluted, the mood funereal, Al Pacino’s ageing make-up patchy, Sofia Coppola’s performance risible. That last complaint was rather unfair: I watched the film recently and she isn’t that bad, but Sofia, perhaps wisely, has preferred to stay behind the camera ever since.
I think the film suffered badly by comparison with Martin Scorsese’s adrenaline-fuelled Goodfellas, which was released just before it and made Coppola’s moral musings seem a little antiquated and pedestrian. But more importantly than that, it paled in comparison to Coppola’s earlier Godfather instalments, which had managed to turn the grubby tale of an Italian-American crime dynasty into something grandly Shakespearean. I fear that watching this new cut of Godfather III will only serve to remind viewers how inferior it is to its illustrious predecessors.
The idea of making Michael Corleone’s guilt over the killing of his brother Fredo a central theme of the film was a good one, as were his efforts to gain redemption by splashing his money around in the Vatican. But the subsequent pope-killing seemed grandiose, and some of the set-pieces leaned too heavily on the stylings of the original films.
No doubt Coppola was deliberately referring to them, but they came to seem like a monkey on this movie’s back. The problem is, they had just been too damned good.
The original Godfather made Coppola’s name, but he wasn’t initially all that keen on making it. A good half dozen big-name directors had passed up the chance to make a film based on Mario Puzo’s crime novel before Coppola was approached. He, at that point, was a little-known young director whose credits included the awful musical Finian’s Rainbow.
Robert Evans, the visionary Paramount producer, was the man pushing to make The Godfather, and he had been told Coppola would come cheap: he was also Italian-American and Evans knew that ethnic authenticity would be central to the film’s success.
At first, though, Coppola said no. He thought Puzo’s novel was badly written — he was right about that — and “pretty cheap stuff”. It also traded in the worst stereotypes about Italian-Americans, and fed into the common conception that half of them were gangsters. But as Coppola mulled over Puzo’s story, he began to see great dramatic possibilities in the story of the Corleone dynasty, and fascinating parallels between their gangster world and the ruthless culture of corporate America.
But Coppola was never a popular choice with Paramount executives, and he made the film in constant fear of being replaced. His casting choices caused much consternation. Believe it or not, the studio seriously considered casting Robert Redford as Michael Corleone, and Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal and Dustin Hoffman were also in the running. But Coppola wanted someone who looked Italian. When he set his heart on the New York stage actor Al Pacino, Paramount complained he was too short and nobody had ever heard of him, but Coppola got his way.
Marlon Brando was an even harder sell. By the early 1970s, the big man had become virtually uninsurable, a volatile diva who had lost his box-office allure. But Coppola and Evans decided they needed to hire the “best actor in the world” to play Vito, as Coppola put it, which he reckoned “boiled down to Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando”.
Incredibly, Olivier was approached but mercifully had a prior commitment. But Paramount president Stanley Jaffe was dead against the hiring of Brando and imposed conditions, including a salary cut and an even bigger humiliation — Marlon would have to audition. He did so with his usual panache. In 1971, Brando was still a blonde and sleekly handsome Adonis but, as he began his audition, streaked boot polish in his hair and stuffed his cheeks with cotton wool to transform himself into the ageing Don.
His extraordinary portrayal of Vito Corleone would win him an Oscar and help propel The Godfather to massive international success. But Brando’s presence on the set had the added effect of galvanising the younger actors, like Pacino, John Cazale and James Caan, who hero-worshipped him. Years later, Pacino would reveal that when tensions rose between himself and Coppola and the under-pressure director wanted to fire him, Brando interceded.
Somehow, in spite of constant pressure and interference, Coppola managed to transform Puzo’s pulp crime novel into an epic tragedy in which a mobster counter-culture created an alternative American success story. How to follow it? With a sequel even more ambitious and quasi-Shakespearean.
At the end of the first film, Michael Corleone had proved himself even more ruthless than his father by wiping out the family’s many enemies in a wonderfully orchestrated sequence that revolved around a christening. In The Godfather: Part II, Michael’s ambition would grow as he expanded the family’s empire into Las Vegas casinos and Cuban hotels. But simultaneously, we would hear how young Vito, his father, came to America in the first place.
Robert De Niro played young Vito, an immigrant in 1900s New York, who realises the best way to get ahead is to take down the local Don. The ethnic authenticity of Vito’s life was contrasted with the opulence of his son, Michael, brooding alone in a fortified compound.
The great sweeping theme of Godfather: Part II was the American immigrant experience. Despised like the Irish for their Catholicism and peasant ways, the first great wave of Italian-Americans were forced to rely on feudal arrangements transplanted from home. Every street had its overlord. It was the perfect breeding ground for organised crime.
The Godfather films delved deep into one community’s ethnic experience of the US, but it also helped create unfortunate stereotypes that Italian-Americans have been battling ever since.
Coppola’s films began the dynamic transformation of American cinema that would continue through the 1970s and made Pacino and De Niro two of the era’s biggest stars.
When you watch the first two Godfathers again these days, you’re struck by their sedate storytelling, stately pace. This grand style might trouble the attention spans of the YouTube generation, but surely they too will eventually be drawn into the fascinating story of a family you ought not be rooting for, but do.
As Michael Corleone said in Godfather: Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”