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Monday, March 26, 2012

Coda: My Debt to The Godfather

I first saw The Godfather during an Easter break weekend while attending St. Hubert’s Catholic School in Chanhassen, Minnesota, 1991. At my cousin’s house for the Sunday holiday, I was looking for a VHS to watch and saw The Godfather on his shelf. He said that at three hours it was much too long. For some reason, I was determined to make it the next movie I rented. There was a lot of Godfather and mob stuff in the air. The Godfather Part III had just come out over Christmas and had been nominated for several Oscars, along with a little movie called GoodFellas (the new edition of Cracked magazine also included a Godfather III parody, The Clodfather, and Alec Baldwin recently lampooned Pacino's "they keep pulling me back in!" line in the sci-fi based The Godfather Part IV on Saturday Night Live). There was also State of Grace, Miller’s Crossing, Dick Tracy, The Grifters, The Krays, Mobsters, Men of Respect, television shows like Wise Guy and Crime Story, and coming over the next year there would be Billy Bathgate, John Sayles' City of Hope, and Bugsy.

Over that summer I watched the first two Godfathers repeatedly, memorizing speeches, wishing I was Sicilian, and imagining the biographies of the various characters. At Bethany Christian Academy in the 7th grade, I started a little mafia club with my English and Science teacher being the don (not that we could really do anything other than fetch him his coffee). I wrote a mob story about a hairdresser named Ron Harris who becomes a mafioso. My homeroom teacher discussed how reading books like Mario Puzo's Fools Die was inviting the devil into my life. From The Godfather I moved onto GoodFellas and Raging Bull, The Untouchables, and at long last the forbidden VHS of Scarface, which my mother wouldn't permit me to see until my nagging drove her crazy. Two years later she took my friend Joey and I with her to see Brian De Palma and Al Pacino collaborate once more with Carlito's Way.

The Godfather Part III hit video stores the second week of October, 1991. It was a golden autumn Friday, matching the look of the film, when I reserved my copy along with the first two videos. As soon as my mother’s daycare duties ended for the week, I slipped Part I into the VCR, got to Part II before 9:00, and finally, at long last, well past midnight I commenced Part III. I was so enthralled and wrapped up with this steely character of Michael Corleone, wondering about his demise and desiring the tragic comeuppance he deserved, that any of the final chapter’s flaws were easily overlooked that night. I felt for Michael in his final hours, and maybe the esteem I hold for Part III is owed to how I was reacting during that final half-hour, kneeling in front of the TV, my heart beating fast, Coppola masterfully layering on the suspense as the trilogy concluded. By the final frame, he gave me the ending the way I dreamed it. I felt like I had lived through the entire life of Michael Corleone, and yet the face in those final moments still held a host of mystery. I wanted to know what was behind those sad eyes, what the intervening years were like after his breakdown and howl on the opera steps.

It may have seemed like another misstep for Paramount, Mario Puzo, and Francis Ford Coppola to begin the preparatory steps for The Godfather Part IV in the late 1990s. But assuming that Coppola knew his limitations this time around, maybe it would have worked (and hey, Mary Corleone's dead!). Adopting the dual father/son narrative arc of the second film, Godfather IV would have followed “the good old days” of the Corleones, the rowdy Prohibition period where Puzo says “they didn’t kill us and we killed them,” and the final annihilation of the family, as Vincent Mancini embraces drug cartels and is gunned down Pablo Escobar-style in South America, with no heirs or links to the glories of the old Corleone family. The bastard who knew his father only through myth bastardizes the family he inherited, and the whole Corleone family line evaporates into that same terrain of myth.

Godfather IV would probably be a more action-based film than Godfather III, a less remorseful or introspective film, with brutal drug wars (the content of most discarded Godfather III scenarios before Coppola agreed to do it) and Prohibition-era disputes, some of which are featured in the original Godfather novel. At one stage, Don Vito Corleone is wounded by a gunshot to the throat, his would-be assassin being his eventual ally, Luca Brasi (this is the reason why Vito is a little weary of seeing Luca at Connie’s wedding: “Is this…is this necessary?”) Leonardo DiCaprio, who had been planning on playing Sal Paradise for Coppola’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was going to be the young Santino Corleone, a decision that may have upset some of the series’ more macho fans after DiCaprio’s rise to stardom with Titanic. But the intensity and single-mindedness of characters he’s since played in The Departed, Blood Diamond, and The Aviator point to DiCaprio being an effective Sonny. Andy Garcia would return as Vincent Mancini Corleone, and Al Pacino’s aging Michael would have one more important scene to counsel his protégé, considering that the exact date of his death at Part III’s conclusion is not known.

Presuming Coppola knew what he was doing, and had Gordon Willis, Dean Tavoularis, and Walter Murch once more behind him, I’m content imagining that this final Godfather would be a success, perhaps mending the troubled reputation of its predecessor. But Mario Puzo’s death ended discussion, and Coppola refused to work on the script without his collaborator. The Godfather Part III was post-Godfather enough; in 2012, we’re more than post-Godfather, but we’re post-Sopranos (for better maybe) and post-Jersey Shore (for much worse). Still I wonder about those elliptical moments in the Corleone universe’s good old days, along with the fall of Vincent Mancini, and the old age of a broken and defeated Michael. Maybe those images are best left to the malleable formations and scenarios in my imagination, along with the mysterious death of Tom Hagen.

Coppola is now 75 years old (his birthday is April 7). After The Godfather Part IV fell through, he remained outside of the Hollywood game for a decade, holding steadfast to his destructive and demanding Megalopolis, which proved to be unfilmable. As comrades from his generation, now in their seventies and late sixties, still occasionally are hired for prestigious studio projects, Coppola, himself the godfather of the Movie Brats, makes money from wine and tourism. His profits fund small-budget eccentric work: Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009), and ‘Twixt (2011). The last film has not been able to secure distribution. The other two met with mixed reviews, not making a dent in the box office. I think they're all well worth seeing. 

How much time does this godfather have left? His brother August died recently at the age of 75; his father was 80. The logistically complicated process of filmmaking, covering all avenues from writing to distributing, may prove increasingly exhausting for a man entering old age. After Tetro, an intensely personal story about a family of artists, Coppola admitted that he had perhaps made the film he really wanted to make all along, and wasn’t sure if there was anything more to say. His children seem to be doing quite well. Though Sofia Coppola’s films divide audiences (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring), I think they are sensuous and moving pictures about the difficulty to articulate what one is feeling; her body of work is already more consistent and fulfilling than her father's, without touching the transcendent heights of his four classics. Roman Coppola has become a producer and collaborator with his sister, in addition to working as a writer with the increasingly marvelous Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom).

I’ll continue to have my Godfather marathons every year, watching all three films back-to-back-to-back with a bottle of Coppola wine, and some starchy Italian food if my health allows for it. Drifting into the Corleone world hasn’t gotten tiresome after 23 years. As long as I read about what’s happening in the world and continue to encounter my past, comparing it to the present, The Godfather remains significant and fresh, applicable to me as to the whole world. Everything changes, I guess. 

Recommended Stuff:

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’N’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

Biskind, Peter. The Godfather Companion: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About All Three Godfather Films.

Cowie, Peter. Coppola: A Biography.

Coppola, Francis Ford. Megalopolis. Unproduced screenplay.

Coppola, Francis Ford. “Journals: 1989-1991.” In Projections 3. John Boorman and Walter Donahue, editors.

Lebo, Harlan. The Godfather Legacy.

Lewis, Jon. Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood.

Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks. John E. Woods, trans.

Puzo, Mario. The Godfather.

Puzo, Mario. The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions.

Santopietro, Tom. The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America, and Me.



  1. Wonderful writing. I subscribed to your blog. I would have done so simply because of the subjects you think and write about. As it is, your analyses, thoughtfulness, and intelligence, and compassionate sensibility all show in some of the best writing I've read about "Godfather" since Pauline Kael. Your writing reminds me of how our culture used to be serious about art. The Godfather films themselves when I review them, are towering art works that encapsulate our national history as well as all our family histories. I am not one to deride “Godfather Three” nor give it left-handed compliments. It is not flawed, it is deliberately deracinated, a work of art that comes at the end of a triptych that refuses to pretend that the classicism and the grace of the first two—and of a former America, of our own families, and our own lives—is still real, or still possible. All are growing old, as I am right this very moment. I'm no longer the child I was when the first film played at a theater in downtown Detroit and I saw it with my parents, anyone who grows old recognizes that the latter part of our lives is a challenge to purpose. The virtues, the powers, and the meaning of youth slip beyond our grasp. How then do we reappraise ourselves, a find a finishing purpose? An art work that finishes a movement—the Godfather Part III—must summarize, must end a life.

    The great, classical tragedy of The Godfather films (‘classical’ in the sense of Homer, of Aeschylus, and Sophocles) is that everything is paid for. Not violent or cruel act committed for personal gain escapes the fate of such—the guilty pay, and the innocent who are too close to the guilty, are sacrificed. Godfather Three drives home the point that the corruption of a single little boy who sits singing a folk song all alone on Ellis Island is the whole point: he rises to the challenge of the malignant world around him that he can only survive by meeting the corruption, then must do the same to keep his family but must pass the corruption on to his family, and they in turn must nurture the it “to stay alive or die” as you have said on your radio broadcast. Finally, the family journeys to the source of the corruption (home to Europe, the cradle of it. And to The Vatican, the instrumentality of this ancient evil and corruption), and to push through the veil and find what none of us ought to ever wish to know for fear of turning to stone: that the WORLD is RUN by unimaginable corruption (“Our ships must all sail in the same direction”) that makes the crimes of the street thug (Vincent Mancini-Corleone), of the mob boss (Vito Corleone), and even of the millionaire who dreams of his children being in the senate (Michael Corleone), seem small and insignificant.

    At any rate, the sheer audacity of setting the film’s last forty minutes’ ugly business of assassination and of espionage against the backdrop of a great one-act opera, is brilliant, and is completely consistent with the project of the film—thematizing the ancient nature of evil, the dark malignancy of old Europe, the infectious quality of violence, and the inevitability of revenge, of retribution, and of punishmen. Thus, the final word uttered by Michael’s daughter when she is sacrificed for his sins. She utters the word as a question!— “Dad?”

  2. ...A question, not a shout, not an exclamation, not a curse or a moan, but a single question, using the name of his love for her: Dad. His collapse, his silent cry (covered at first by the soaring chorus of the opera’s music now coming from the film’s soundtrack) becomes a bottomless, horrifying, wail of ancient pain and suffering.

    An art work that finishes a movement—the Godfather Part III—must summarize, must end a life. That’s the meaning of the final MATRIX film, and the Wachowski Brothers were perhaps a bit cannier than Coppola, because they expressed a fully articulated key to their films in terms of time: they said publically, and in the promotional material (all is advertising!) that the first film is birth, the second is life, and the third is death. So much more so are the Godfather films, which are much more serious, so much more classical in inception, construction, and resonance. It is about not the rot and the corruption that the first two treat, it is rather about the wages of rot; it is about the unavoidable coming apart of a family and of every single individual within that family, even the innocents, because that is the nature of evil: it touches everyone in the home into which it is unwisely invited, evil passes everywhere, and the price of tapping its powers is always the same, always complete, and always destructive

    Niles, I ask you a favor: please write some more about Godfather Three, and about that sequence and its meaning. I believe it is one of the most profound sequences in American film, and it is a shame and proof of Americans’ vapidity that we have not given it, and Coppola, their due.
    I am a fan of your writing and of your broadcasts. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, and for reading and listening. Your summary of the trilogy I think trounces what took me pages to write, and I agree with you about those final moments in Part III - the question, "Dad?" which is absolutely devastating. It is one of my favorite sequences (the finale or the entire opera sequence) in any film, and reason for my annoyance when people outright dismiss the whole picture. Whatever my stated reservations are, I think there's more to discuss in Part III than most other films, and its maligned reputation is not justified. I'm sure I will write more about it in the future. Thank you.

    2. Professor Waller -- I hope you don't mind, but I've copied and pasted a bulk of your comment in the post-script for a new version of this essay at my new site ( It's probably the best comment I've ever gotten on anything, or emphasized about "Godfather III," so I wanted to take it with me during this migration. Thanks so much.

  3. I appreciate this writing. I enjoyed this writing. I was thoughtful and illuminating. Your writing really has vision and is really inspiring - I mean if you could write new and interesting things about a film as well known as the Godfather after 40 years! then there must be a purpose and value in the thing called Art and in reflecting upon it.

  4. One of my favorite but not-very-often exercised hobbies is imagining how disappointing movies could be improved . . . and also how sequels to certain movies could be great.

    For example, a few weeks ago I wrote some ideas down about how a sequel to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA would play out. I imagined an aged Kurt Russell (maybe piloting the Pork-Chop Express but possibly riding a Harley) encountering a CGI, Mandarin Dragon as the main villain, perhaps in San Fran but maybe somewhere else. Dennis Dun and Kim Cattrall could reprise their roles because they're still alive.

    Anyway, I appreciate the effort made here, Niles. I haven't seen GODFATHER III in years, but I remember liking it despite all the hate (the "howl" scene), and I fully support your notion that Vincent would stick with drugs and get killed in Ecuador. Or wherever.

    P.S. Expect a complimentary drink anytime.