30 Years Ago: ‘The Godfather: Part III’ Brings a Saga to an End
The Godfather: Part II pulled off the rarest of cinematic feats in 1974: It's one of the few sequels that's the equal or even better than its predecessor.
The movie had a lot to live up to, and it effortlessly matched 1972's The Godfather for sheer storytelling, excitement and filmmaking. But it also did that film one better by going darker, deeper and more cerebral than the original. Both films snagged tons of Oscars and instantly were regarded as two of the greatest pictures in the history of cinema.
Then, 16 years after everyone thought they saw the end of the Corleones, director Francis Ford Coppola did something almost nobody in the world – except for his studio bosses – was really asking for: He made a third Godfather movie.
And like its predecessor, The Godfather: Part III had a lot to live up to. But this time the results weren't nearly as flawless. At turns confusing, excessive and pointless, the movie was also badly cast and for once its epic length was a hinderance. But the movie's biggest hurdle was the most obvious one: It followed two of the greatest pictures in the history of cinema.
There was no way Coppola could perform a three-peat, and at times it was almost like he wasn't even trying to. It had been years since he made a unanimously great movie. After a string of classics in the '70s – the two Godfathers, 1974's The Conversation and 1979's Apocalypse Now – Coppola spent the '80s jumping genres, an exhausting move that turned off both moviegoers and his industry supporters.
Paramount Pictures had long insisted on a third Godfather film, but Coppola rejected the idea for years. But after 1982's expensive One From the Heart bombed, he struggled financially for the rest of the decade to keep his production company afloat, as Coppola noted in Part II's DVD commentary.
He finally acquiesced, along with The Godfather author Mario Puzo, to revive the Corleone crime family for one more turn, which Coppola referred to as an epilogue rather than a sequel to the preceding films. He even made his intentions clear upfront with the title The Death of Michael Corleone. But Paramount was having none of that and changed the movie's name to the more in-line The Godfather: Part III.
The story picks up in 1979, two decades after the events of The Godfather: Part II, and Michael Corleone (again played by Al Pacino) mulls over the choices he's made through the years to keep himself and his family in power. There are plenty of regrets as the 60-year-old businessman – as Corleone prefers to call himself – positions his leverage for the future.
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He's genuinely trying to steer himself and his empire away from their reputation built on years as a ruthless crime syndicate. But the arrival of Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Michael's late brother Sonny, pivots him in another direction. It doesn't help that Vincent, just like Sonny, is a hothead who prefers violence over negotiation.
The movie's key line uttered by Michael – "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in" – couldn't have been lost on Coppola, who cowrote the script with Puzo. He really wanted no part in turning his most celebrated film into a trilogy. But once committed, he dove in, recruiting Pacino, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire from the first two movies to reprise their roles. (Only Robert Duvall, who refused to participate after a salary dispute, was missing from the main cast.)
Coppola also made the controversial choice of casting his daughter Sofia as Michael's daughter Mary. (She made her acting debut as an infant in the first Godfather as the baby boy baptized in one of the film's most significant scenes.) It's a crucial role and one of the movie's most important, given its tie to Part III's tragic, operatic ending. And the unskilled Sofia Coppola, who's since followed in her dad's footsteps as an acclaimed filmmaker, was unprepared to convey the gravity of her character.
On top of all this were the loaded expectations of being a Godfather movie. No movie could live up to that. And The Godfather: Part III didn't.
But this isn't the disaster it could have been – or that distractors claim it is. And Part III shouldn't be easily dismissed, as it often is. Coppola's direction, for the most part, was his best in years, and the movie, in a way, is a fitting end to the Corleone saga. The cinematography and editing are on par with the first two movies. And Garcia's simmering intensity recalls Pacino's from the first film.
Premiering on Dec. 20, 1990, and getting a wide release on Christmas Day, the movie made $20 million its opening weekend but lost the No. 1 spot to Home Alone, which secured the top position for a sixth straight week. It was also nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor in Supporting Role for Garcia), but didn't win any. It's the only Godfather movie shut out at the Oscars.
In 2020, Coppola recut the film to meet his original intentions. Like he did with Apocalypse Now, which was reworked as Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001, the director re-edited The Godfather: Part III, restoring scenes and rearranging certain shots for Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. Coppola said the new version was "a more appropriate conclusion" to the first two movies.
He had also discussed making a fourth Godfather movie focusing on the early years of original patriarch Vito Corleone interspersed with Vincent's rise as head of the family in the '80s. But Puzo died in 1999, apparently and permanently shelving the project. Or at least until Coppola, believing he's out for good, is pulled back in for one more turn.