Monday, January 10, 2011
The Only Wealth In This World
From a beginning comes an ending. Whether you like it or not, twenty years later we still have to contend with THE GODFATHER PART III. It exists, it’s what was made at the time and that’s just the way it is. Removed from the furor that surrounded its original release on Christmas Day 1990 the way the film plays now seems quieter and more personal than it may have come across at the time, in many ways almost nakedly so on the part of director Francis Ford Coppola. Arriving sixteen long years after THE GODFATHER PART II it may never live up to the degree of greatness shown in the first two films but it deserves better than easy dismissal or cheap shot jokes in pop culture. Regardless, it’s never been seen that much on the revival circuit so when the New Beverly screened it recently as their last showing of 2010, following a double bill of I and II, I leapt at going--partly because of the rarity of the occasion, certainly, but also out of sentiment for the twentieth anniversary. As admirable as some of it is and as much as I may have a soft spot for it due to my own memories (damn right I was on line at Loews Astor Plaza early Christmas morning) looking at it now some of its flaws don’t just become more apparent—they deepen, to the point that it becomes plain how in making the film they needed another year. Another year in the writing, the shooting, the casting, the cutting, another year to allow them to find the movie and figure out what it was, what they wanted it to be.
And, really, I think it’s time for the world to move beyond that fantasy of insisting that either the inclusion of Robert Duvall or the substitution of Winona Ryder for Sofia Coppola would have solved everything. Duvall as Tom Hagan is undeniably missed, yes, but the problems that are there go beyond casting, beyond mere plot points. There is a movie inside of it which genuinely reveals something of who Coppola was as a person in 1990 and there are many things in there that I genuinely respond to on an emotional level. But too many of the concepts it wants to explore haven’t been adequately fleshed out either because Paramount insisted on the movie being in theaters that Christmas, because the madman of the 70s that Coppola was didn’t really exist anymore or just some natural combination of the elements. I admire the hell out of some what it achieves and my fondness for what’s there remains but the end result still feels a little like a shadow of what it really should have been, what it needed to be. And yet, I still kind of want to defend it.
New York, 1979: Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), years after ordering the death of brother Fredo and divorcing his wife Kay (Diane Keaton), has left Nevada and moved back to Manhattan, hoping for some sort of reconciliation between him and his two children, Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) and Mary (Sofia Coppola). At a party in his Park Avenue penthouse after receiving a special honor by the Roman Catholic Church Michael tries to make peace with his family, allowing Anthony to pursue being an opera singer and hoping he and Kay can still have some sort of relationship. He also comes across the energetic Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), his late brother Sonny’s illegitimate child, who is chomping at the bit to become a member of the family. Michael has little interest in such matters anymore, instead making an effort to finally go completely legitimate and purchase a controlling interest in the Vatican bank Immobiliare. As he attempts to make the deal go through, Vincent is making his own moves to gain power as he battles rising mob boss Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) but he also takes an interest in first cousin Mary, an interest she returns. Michael forbids this but soon forces beyond his control both cause him to reassess the wave of corruption that exists wherever he goes and how certain attempts to control his and his family’s destiny may truly be out of his hands no matter what he tries to do.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” goes the famous line Pacino rolls out in his gravely voice and surely the one thing people seem to remember about the film but the phrase also maybe inadvertently says something about it as a whole. Just as Michael Corleone is dragged back into this world against his wishes when he thinks he’s finally rid of it Coppola himself seems to be dragged back into telling a story about this world which in turn makes the movie into kind of a sludge, a film being made by someone who doesn’t want to make it and as a result he tries to mold it into a story he actually does want to tell, about a lead character who wants nothing more than to not be in this movie at all. As ambitious as it is at times and as admirable some of what it reaches for is, too much in THE GODFATHER PART III just doesn’t come together. Something in its very blood seems to be missing right from the start, a less adventurous feel to the approach is evident beginning with a rather dull expository letter-writing sequence at the top in place of a more GODFATHER I-like opening with the Archbishop which was instead pushed back to forty minutes in—for me, not one of editor Walter Murch’s better ideas and results in the film slightly faltering in the very first moment when it should be making a firm grab for our attention. One of the thrusts of the basic idea (the script was of course written by Mario Puzo & Coppola) is how Michael Corleone is looking for some sort of redemption for his actions of the past, especially ordering the killing of brother Fredo and the loss of Kay, but considering how insular the character seemed to irretrievably become by the end of PART II it’s a little difficult to reconcile that with the jovial businessman seen here, wisecracking about going into the kitchen to listen to Tony Bennett records. It seems a little more like Al Pacino circa 1990 dressed up as an old man with more wrinkles in his forehead than I can count (with maybe a little of Coppola tossed in) than any logical extension of when Michael Corleone was last seen out at Lake Tahoe.
And too much of the story, with nothing left from the original novel to mine, is just kind of shapeless with not enough momentum to things—the steady GODFATHER pacing is sort of there but not really, as if they were trying to move ever so slightly faster to keep up with the times but there’s the feeling that the rhythms in the editing haven’t been entirely worked out. Even the basic thematic thread of the American Dream that had carried through the series, beginning from the very first line of the original, feels more than a little abandoned in pursuit of the Vatican storyline and setting so much of it in Sicily. Too many elements feel either missing or in there for reasons that are never clarified so it’s a little like a sculpture that hasn’t been properly molded yet—why is John Savage in the movie as Tom Hagan’s son but practically an extra? If he’s a priest was he going to be more involved in the Vatican intrigue at one point? Why is Bridget Fonda (smoking hot here, it can’t be stated enough) prominent during the opening sequence only to suddenly disappear? How is Don Altobello the family’s oldest friend when we’ve never heard of this guy before? Why do side characters like Anthony ‘The Ant” Squigliaro get a big introduction (“He dips his bullets in cyanide.”) but then never do anything? How come George Hamilton is just standing there? Why does somebody recite Michael Corleone’s catchphrase back at him, is it that well known in the GODFATHER universe? Why did Michael get his hair cut like that anyway? Every now and then a fade out occurs to conclude a section—a stylistic carryover from the previous entries—but with so many scenes just kind of dwindling away as we watch them in this case it just seems to cause the audience to shrug its shoulders and wonder what the purpose of any number of things were. All throughout there’s a feel I get that Coppola is happy to be on the set working out stuff with the actors but, with the timeworn assumption that the jungle of APOCALYPSE NOW bled the insanity out of him coming to mind, there’s never the sense that he wants to push some of these scenes to the wall so he can get the best possible versions of them. It’s like he’s happy to just get some takes and move on. Big, violent GODFATHER-like setpieces such as the Atlantic City helicopter massacre of the other mob bosses or the mounted policeman execution of Joey Zasa are…fine, they more or less get what’s needed done. But not really more than that.
On his genuinely revealing DVD audio commentary with the film, Coppola at one point during the Atlantic City negotiations offers, “Michael doesn’t care about any of this stuff anymore,” and it’s hard not to realize that Coppola himself doesn’t care about this stuff anymore, instead interested to focus on personal matters of the family as well as just the desire to be left in peace. If they had the time to solve such inherent conflicts with the material, preferably when the script was being hashed out with Puzo, maybe they could have found a way to reconcile these opposing themes and come up with a movie to go with them. On a basic storytelling level it all winds up crippling the movie in a way that goes beyond the absence of Duvall—although the loss of Tom Hagan does feel like a large hole in things, like Michael is missing an extra person to be talking to—or placing daughter Sofia in such a key role. For those who don’t remember, the response to Sofia playing the part of daughter Mary after Winona Ryder dropped out at the last minute due to exhaustion resulted in a veritable outrage of criticism when it was released—people were lining up to give Hayden Christensen a pat on the back after ATTACK OF THE CLONES came out in comparison—and looking at it now, yes, she isn’t all that good with no particular acting technique at all but there is an awkward earnestness to her that becomes more endearing as the years go on and she hardly deserves to have been made some kind of punchline out of all this. Of course, we all know that she’d moved on from it by now.
Out of any number of personal feelings I get from the film, there are times where I got the feeling that Coppola was as happy as anything while making this when he got to put her in front of the camera but when you think about it, can you blame him? It’s his daughter, after all, and it may not be for the good of the film but is understandable in terms of what he was going for and where the plot was leading. In a similar way, the prolonged opera climax set during son Anthony’s performance of Cavalleria Rusticana (Coppola is credited with the staging) is also a sequence where the director seems genuinely engaged with what he’s doing, relieved to be staging something a little different from what everyone expects and enjoying the excuse he’s come up with to stage an opera. It’s not necessarily enough of a reason to have it there and at times it reflects events seen in the film in a way that’s a little too obvious, but at least some passion is there. The Coppola eccentricities find their way in at various points throughout like the children he’s clearly fond of having run through scenes—I may joke about it and it doesn’t have much to do with anything but my favorite moment of the whole movie is still probably when Michael tells Al Martino’s Johnny Fontane he’s going to the kitchen to hear those Tony Bennett records. Other side characters from old times like Lucy Mancini and Enzo the Baker played by the same actors appear to remind us of the old days but I can’t help but wonder about some of those Corleone family photographs around Michael’s apartment—did someone really snap a shot of his private garden conversation with him and Vito in the first film when it was happening? Vincent Mancini, meanwhile, appears to have two framed photos of James Caan-as-Sonny in his apartment, which also seems a touch cheesy.
The entire cross-cutting of the ‘settling of accounts’ that surrounds the opera during the climax is, again, pretty much fine but nothing all that special compared with what has come before in previous movies and also makes me wonder how somebody broaches the idea of using a pair of glasses a target is wearing as the murder weapon. And, no, there’s absolutely nothing I can say to defend that whole goddamned poison cannoli thing. I also can’t help but wonder just what this entire section is supposed to represent—in the first film intercutting the killings with the baptism of Connie’s baby was supposed to represent Michael’s triumph over everyone once and for all while in the second film a similar sequence of crosscutting was meant to represent the dark version of that, such as with the Jack Ruby-like killing of the no longer threatening Hyman Roth. But, really, what is all this supposed to be? A return to glory? A Passing of the torch? One last triumph? Maybe I’m overthinking it all and it’s just how a GODFATHER movie is supposed to end.
And since the Vatican plotline (inspired by actual events surrounding the brief reign of Pope John Paul I) has never been entirely clarified anyway some of these killings have no real impact. I’m still not aware how anyone has any idea that Donal Donnelly’s Archbishop isn’t on their side unless it just reached them via their ‘man inside the Vatican’ like they get informed of something else. During one montage of the numerous newspaper headlines that are seen the type on one beneath the banner is visibly revealed to be dummy text (check it out at 43:27), a glaring error that seems to say something about the movie as a whole--the broad strokes are there in the characters and photography and plot machinations but the blanks haven’t been filled in to give us the same sort of richness, scenes like Clemenza making that spaghetti sauce that would make it fully satisfying in the way it should be, the way I desperately want it to be. I guess it shows that you can give a movie a beginning, middle and end and it can make sense but sometimes it needs more than that. It’s a film where both Joe Mantegna and Eli Wallach at different points tell someone, “I have a stone in my shoe,” as if nobody was paying enough attention to realize that the script was using the same line twice. If you look at the lengthy trailer or the making of materials there seems to be quite a bit of deleted and alternate material which indicates how much things were maybe being rethought all along the way—one that has always interested me is how in the HBO special when Connie introduces Vincent Mancini to Michael she says, “Michael, this is Vincent Mancini,” but in the film she is dubbed to say, “Michael, you know Vincent Mancini,” as if somebody decided that it made more sense to have Michael already know of him.
THE GODFATHER PART III is a movie at war with itself, at war with anyone who wants to see a GODFATHER film. And yet, in the end the film is THE GODFATHER. It does have that sumptuous feel that it needs with Gordon Willis’ photography (honestly, the film actually looked better this time than I remembered), with the dialogue, with the music, with Pacino forever locked in the role of Michael Corleone, weeping over what he did to his own brother decades ago. The grace notes are there, small touches sprinkled in on occasion which haunt me to this day. And, as sad as it might be, in a way the film is my own GODFATHER, the only one I got to experience when it was first released as well as being set in a world and a New York I was familiar with—in spite of when it’s set, period detail feels limited to not much more than getting the New York license plates right—and the brief glimpses we get of these characters in present day is enough to make me wish there was more. And say what you want about the final coup de grace (just like what happened on opening day, I heard a genuine gasp from someone who clearly had never seen the film before from behind me at the New Beverly) it kind of hits home like a sledge hammer for me every single time and the degree to which that moment actually pays off means that all of the awkwardness and puzzlement that has come through in the proceeding two-and-a-half hours (not to mention the brilliance of the two prior movies) obviously had some sort of proper effect. Michael’s final scream of agony is, for me, absolutely shattering, making it clear once and for all what this film was meant to be for Coppola as well as what he was trying to say about his own life with it (anyone who doesn’t know what I’m referring to, go look up what happened to him on May 26 1986). The thing is, the more I write about THE GODFATHER PART III, the more I criticize it, the more I watch it, the more I nitpick it, the more I kind of love it and even weep a little for it. I want to scream at the film for not living up to its potential while embracing it with every ounce of love that I have in my heart.
Some of that uncertainty extends to Al Pacino’s performance, at times maybe uncertain how old he should be playing things and at other times seeming like he hasn’t fully shed playing Big Boy Caprice in DICK TRACY but more often than not totally revealing how haunted Michael really is down to his very soul that is beyond redemption. Even if the character’s odd tendency towards joking is still a little awkward watching it now it’s just one of those things in the movie I find endearing in spite of itself. Diane Keaton never had the best role in these movies, obviously, but her genuine rapport with Pacino that comes from the other films and probably their own real-life romance as well undeniabely comes through so their big reconciliation scene achieves a genuine rawness to it which is truly effecting. Talia Shire makes for an effectively earthy dragon lady as the older Connie and though his performance as Don Altobello may not be his best work as he goes way over the top with that accent, it’s very hard not to enjoy Eli Wallach each time he appears. Joe Mantegna as Joey Zasa for some reason never seems as effective as he should be while George Hamilton looks very cool and ready to act, but never gets to do anything making it strange just what he’s doing there (his role in things feels somewhat clarified to me in the longer cut). In her small role as photojournalist Grace Hamilton, Bridget Fonda sets off such a spark that it makes me wish that somebody had thought to pair up her and Andy Garcia in another movie that they could have all to themselves. As for daughter Sofia she does have a certain charm to her presence and, hey, the Italian in me finds her pretty damn attractive even if she’s still kind of gawky at this young age. I truly admire the films she’s directed (I just love SOMEWHERE--that said, she still can’t have the seat I was saving for someone she asked me to give up on the opening night of RANSOM at the Cinerama Dome back in ’96) but if in casting her director Coppola was trying to give it all that much more of a personal dimension, like so many other aspects where the film falters he needed to find a way to bring that out. In terms of discussing her performance, I’ll just leave it at that.
Andy Garcia is fantastic as Vincent, no doubt about it, making it puzzling why he didn’t become an even bigger star after this but frankly the effectiveness of his performance feels slightly hurt by the script since the actions that lead to Michael wanting him to take over the family never really seem all that special (not in a take out Sollozzo and McCluskey in Louis’ Restaurant in the Bronx kind of way, at least). There’s also the simple fact that when he’s playing love scenes with Sofia he’s working opposite somebody who really isn’t able to help make these scenes work as well as they need to so it ultimately hurts the character in the end, making him not quite the legend he probably should be. Over the years leading up to the 1999 death of Mario Puzo there were occasional rumors of a fourth film (dividing Vincent with Sonny back in the 30s maybe?) and during the commentary as the credits roll on this film Coppola hints at what might have been in such a scenario. The thing is, through no fault of Garcia’s, I’ve always felt that part of the problem with moving on from this point might have been that I never felt anyone ever really cared about Vincent Mancini, maybe because ultimately the film never becomes about him to the extent it’s already about Michael.
In addition to the main stars, familiar recurring players (Richard Bright is Al Neri! Franc Citti is Calo!) and bits by recognizable faces like Catherine Scorsese are some who are now familiar to me from various other films I’ve now seen over the years, particularly a number made over in Italy--Raf Vallone who plays the Cardinal who hears Michael’s confession and is later named Pope was the head of the Mafia in THE ITALIAN JOB, Helmut Berger whose many credits include MAD DOG KILLER with Marisa Mell (heard in JACKIE BROWN between Samuel L. Jackson and Bridget Fonda: “Is that Rutger Hauer?” “No, it’s Helmut Berger.”) is Vatican banker Keinszig, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY English dialogue director Mickey Knox is one of the Atlantic City Dons (sharing the scene with Eli Wallach!) and Brett Halsey, star of Mario Bava’s FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT, appears as Kay’s new husband.
Since the film was rushed into theaters for Christmas what was released on video months later was a slightly extended version, adding back in 9 minutes (the very nice print at the New Beverly was of course the theatrical cut) and that’s what can be found on DVD now. Several new scenes were included and though having Michael give Anthony back his drawing from PART II is kind of silly for the most part they help clarify and enrich a few points so I suppose it’s the best possible version of the film (I once noticed that a single line of Pacino’s was cut from a scene and have a feeling that something else was snipped but I’ve long since forgotten whatever it was). For the most part, this is THE GODFATHER PART III that the world has, that we’ll always have and be forced to deal with. Whenever I see the film again I find myself wishing that the last shot (if you’ve seen it, you know what happens) would simply be Michael sitting in that chair, seen from a distance, followed by the cut to black. Of course, it goes a little further than that, again harkening back to a famous scene from a previous film. As a result, the final image we ever see in a GODFATHER film is an odd one, a little messy and to a great extent honest. Which kind of describes the entire film as well and if that’s what Coppola felt he had to do, that’s the way it should be. THE GODFATHER PART III will remain forever frustrating but because of its connection to the other films and because of some of its own power which it does achieve in the end, I’ll always feel protective of it anyway. The films you love sometimes need your protection, even while you still wish they could live up to their potential and all you can do is sit there, dreaming, hoping, wishing, for the redemption that will never come. Just like Michael Corleone.
“When they come, they’ll come at what you love.”