Saturday, December 25, 2010

In Defense of Godfather III

Twenty years ago today, the third and final installment of Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy hit America's movie screens.

Movie fans had been waiting long enough. The first "Godfather" came out in 1972; the second came out in 1974. By the time "Godfather III" was released, it had been 16 years.

I observed the hype for this film — followed by a rather dismal reception from both audiences and critics — mostly from a distance. It wasn't in the same category with the first two in the trilogy, moviegoers were told, and I decided to wait and see it when it was released on video.

It was compared unfavorably — if such a thing was possible — to the third film in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "Return of the Jedi," but even "Jedi" had some good things said about it by its detractors. "Godfather III," it seemed, did not — or, at least, not much.

And I have come to the conclusion that that isn't really fair.

Perhaps part of that was due to the fact that 1990 really seemed to be a year of sequels — "Back to the Future III," "The Exorcist III" and "Die Hard 2" probably were the most prominent ones, but every time one turned around, it seemed, there was another, lesser sequel, like "American Ninja 4," "Child's Play 2," "Gremlins 2," "Predator 2," "RoboCop 2."

In hindsight, "Godfather III" may have faced impossible expectations.

Was it the weakest of the three films? Of that, I think there is no doubt. And I agree with some of the main arguments — to an extent.

But, remember, this is a Francis Ford Coppola film we're talking about. His screenwriting/directing/producing resume includes such films as "Patton," "American Graffiti," "The Conversation," "The Great Gatsby" and "Apocalypse Now" before he directed "Godfather III."

As I wrote recently about Alfred Hitchcock, there are many film directors who wish their best efforts were as good as his mediocre ones.

In those 16 years, the first two "Godfather" flicks worked their way into just about everyone's Top 10 list of the greatest films ever made. "Godfather II" has frequently received a rare distinction for a sequel — that it was actually better than the original.

The bar was always set at impossible heights.

Between them, the first two "Godfather" movies won nine Oscars, and, from the perspective of the budget, things could hardly have been much better. The first film had a budget of $6.5 million and made about $245 million. The sequel two years later was made for about $13 million and earned $190 million.

In that sense, I suppose, "Godfather III" did not disappoint. Well, not entirely. It did make more than $130 million — but making it cost more than 2½ times what it cost to make the first two movies.

But it wasn't surprising that "Godfather III" cost more to make. The first two movies were made under much different economic circumstances; when you allow for inflation, production costs in 1990 were comparable to those in 1974.

Movie ticket prices went up in those 16 years, too, so box office receipts that came in below the numbers from the second sequel were seen as a failure.

It didn't help that critics were, well, critical. Assessments were decidedly mixed, although, in fairness, it ought to be noted that Coppola really wanted the film to be the epilogue of a story that he believed was told in its entirety in the first two films.

Coppola wanted the movie to be called "The Death of Michael Corleone," but Paramount Pictures demanded (probably for marketing purposes) that it be called "Godfather III."

That alone probably raised the bar to unreachable heights — and may explain some things.

As the 20th anniversary of its release approached, I decided to revisit "Godfather III," and here are my observations:
  • Considering that "Godfather II" was regarded as both a sequel and a prequel to the original, I tend to think Coppola was right to consider "Godfather III" an epilogue to the story.

    I think it tells elements of the story that needed to be told, but they couldn't be told with the same familiar all–star cast. Some of those stars — Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire — did come back, but there was no Marlon Brando, no Robert De Niro, no Robert Duvall. Most of the established box office draws were missing.

    Perhaps there were too many fresh faces — Bridget Fonda (in what was seen as her breakthrough role), Sofia Coppola, Andy Garcia, Joe Mantegna, George Hamilton. OK, so some of them weren't so "fresh," but their characters were new to this film series.

    And you could play the familiar music and you could show familiar settings, and you could open the film with another party that sugar–coated the Corleone family, but without enough familiar characters, with too many new characters, a sequel loses much of its sense of familiarity while the audience struggles to get up to speed on who everyone is.

  • For some reason, Sofia Coppola seemed to take the brunt of the criticism for the new characters who represented the next generation in the Corleone family. She was a last–minute substitution for Winona Ryder in a small but vital part, and, to some, her elevation with a modest acting track record smacked of nepotism.

    Her father was the director, after all.

    Critics said she was "wooden" and "hopelessly amateurish," but I thought she was better than many said she was. She was a teenager, after all.

    The role of Mary Corleone seems to have been star–crossed from the start. First, Julia Roberts (who may have been Hollywood's hottest actress at the time) was slated to play it, but she dropped out. Madonna, I have been told, was interested, but she was deemed to be too old. A rising young actress named Rebecca Schaeffer was going to audition for the part, but she was killed by a stalker. Then Ryder withdrew.

    Anyway, Sofia seems to have gotten the message that acting isn't her thing. It is no coincidence, I think, that she has made few appearances in front of the camera since she made "Godfather III," and she has increasingly followed in her father's directing/screenwriting footsteps.
  • And some people — including Francis Ford Coppola — felt the movie was incomplete without Duvall's Tom Hagen, the "adopted" German–Irish son of Don Corleone and family legal advisor.

    Duvall, however, quit the project over a salary dispute, and his character written out of the story. In the movie, it was said that Hagen had died a few years earlier.

    Duvall's departure certainly changed things dramatically for everyone involved. Originally, the script called for a falling–out between Pacino and Duvall. It was, I am told, at the heart of the plot so, when Duvall pulled out, that meant practically the entire story had to be rewritten.

    I get the feeling that Coppola was particularly bitter about the matter, alleging that Duvall insisted on being paid the same as Pacino. Duvall, on the other hand, said that he understood Pacino was the film's star, and he didn't mind if Pacino was paid twice what he was paid, but Duvall claimed that Pacino's salary actually was three or four times greater than his and that he could not accept.
  • I'm inclined to think the movie would have been better if Duvall had participated. No matter what his demands were, Coppola probably would have been wise to give in.

    Having to rewrite the story led to some pretty contrived dialogue, such as the time Michael advises the illegitimate son of his brother Sonny, "Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment."

    Or the "kissing cousins" relationship between Michael's nephew and daughter.
It all seemed, shall we say, a little heavy handed? But at least they had logical — albeit unlikely — explanations. Some things, of course, are beyond a logical explanation. It is jarring, to say the least, to see the Twin Towers in the opening segments of the film while the voice of Michael Corleone recites his letter to his estranged children, asking them to come to a papal ceremony honoring him for his charitable work — unplanned foreshadowing, perhaps, of the fall of the once–powerful Michael Corleone? Wow. Talk about heavy handed.

Well, I guess it isn't as heavy handed as the climactic scene in "Godfather III" — which, by the way, I heard described by some reviewers at the time as one of the most powerful in filmmaking history. It isn't really possible, I suppose, that Coppola predicted the attack on the World Trade Center 11 years before it happened. I am not aware of any time when he has claimed to have the gift of prophecy. And yet he was telling the Corleone story from some time in the future, and we knew, in the context of that story, that "Godfather III" began in 1979. But I do not recall ever being aware of when the story was being told. Admit it. On Christmas Day, isn't it sort of fun to play around with the prophecy possibilities?