Godfather Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone—Coppola’s Finale?

Still from The Godfather III: Coda.

Marking the thirtieth anniversary of one of his major career fumbles, Francis Ford Coppola released his revised Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone on December 8, 2020. The operative question is whether or not the film surmounts the steep and opprobrious critiques that were heaped upon the original cut, titled The Godfather Part III, over the prior three decades.

Contrasting other writers, I don’t have a definite answer.

Some critics have been reappraising Sofia Coppola’s performance as Michael’s daughter Mary and saying that it was a hidden masterwork, unjustly derided owing to the unmerited claims of nepotism and bad press the movie was given in a pivotal onset report by Vanity Fair’s Peter Boyer.

Others say that, by trimming the final two minutes of the ending so Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) closes out in an existential hell on earth, the picture gains a certain Lear-like poetry missing from the original. By inserting a final title card about the Italian toast “cent’anni,” Coppola adds a new dimension to the opening party scene when the titular paterfamilias dances with his daughter. While cutting his way across the dance floor to the classically haunting opening theme, the crowd clinks their glasses repeatedly while chanting this Sicilian wish for a hundred years-long life. Now retroactively it is transformed into an incantation or spell, not unlike the witchcraft of MacBeth, lending a Fellini-esque dimension to the proceedings.

Still more claim that, by streamlining the plot, which was originally a Byzantine labyrinth muddled in the detailed minutiae of Vatican and Sicilian politics, it now is a more powerful and provocative analysis of when man’s soul becomes perverted by the search for absolute control.

For me, the fundamental change begins with the repositioning of the picture as a synthesis of the thesis-antithesis pair created by the first two pictures, which the director claims should be seen as a unified whole divorced from this Coda. Coppola has reoriented the center of gravity in a fundamentally important way that many reviewers ignored. Having always been rather explicit about his attempt to use the series as a critique of American political economy (“It’s not a film about organized gangsters, but a family chronicle. A metaphor for capitalism in America… The film always was a loose metaphor: Michael as America.”), the series now feels more balanced as a Marxian narrative authored by an auteur who earned his MFA at UCLA in 1967, a hotbed of New Left activism and campaigns involving figures like Angela Davis and veterans of the Frankfurt School.

This superstructural reorientation impacts my judgment of the base film. When originally presented as the third chapter, continuing a single narrative, the original cut felt like a derivative and clumsily-assembled greatest hits album performed by aged talents who were bordering on self-parody. Rather than formulating new storylines, it instead restaged scenes from the first two pictures in the name of nostalgic fan service, equivalent to the decision Coppola’s protégé George Lucas had made with The Return of the Jedi seven years earlier in order to produce something more amicable to toy manufacturers. But now, as a distinct and different synthesis, the picture is instead a reflection of the two elements that contribute to its formation.

With that said, there still are shortcomings.

The main mafioso/business side storyline, with Michael Corleone bailing out the Vatican via a shady investment in their real estate conglomerate, is still confusing and over-complicated, distinctly contrasting with the comparative simplicity of both the first picture (Virgil Solozzo’s heroin market option) and the second (Michael’s feud with the Las Vegas gambling commission simultaneous with the expansion into Cuba).

The personal storyline, about Michael mentoring the troublesome bastard nephew Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), feels clumsy. Garcia never developed the role as his own unique character, instead he merely was impersonating the Sonny Corleone (James Caan) character who fathered him out of wedlock, a shame given his opportunity to import from Shakespeare the pathos of Lears Edmond. And has anyone ever figured out how to explain all Vincent’s Sonny-isms when he never met his father, a glaring plot hole if there ever was one?

Pacino was an embarrassing ham at key points in the performance, unable to escape from the prison of over-exaggerated pathos that became his metier in between 1974 and 1990, and Coppola cannot dull those painful moments. Diane Keaton’s performance as Kaye Adams, Michael’s perpetually-forlorn WASP wife, likewise remains troublesome, almost as if she were phoning in the lines while shopping for groceries.

Talia Shire, playing the sister Connie again, has her Lady MacBeth-like role reduced significantly, returning to the subordinated periphery she occupied previously, and I don’t know how much I miss that edge. When she was shown in the earlier Part III cut explicitly ordering hits on family enemies, it created an intriguing and frightening parallel with Michael. In the opening of the original film, Michael and Connie were both introduced to viewers as virginal naifs, he pledging to Kaye Adams that the newly-returned war vet would never be caught in the family business, she the blushing bride whose groom ended up being nothing but a plant inserted into the family by Don Corelone’s secret rival mafioso. By showing Connie step in as lead commander of the deadly family, Coppola showed how “business” corrupted absolutely everyone, that Michael was no diabolical aberration, a systemic indictment. Now, by contrast, she is merely a dependent Italian spinster delivering annoying commentary.

And while Sofia Coppola certainly seems less bothersome thanks to a merciful reduction of her absolute worst lines, at times channeling Keaton’s performance in the first picture, there is no avoiding how cringe-inducing the whole incest subplot with Vincent still feels, especially because it was a father directing his teenaged daughter to perform in such a situation that begs for a very queasy Freudian meta-textual reading. This also continues to complicate the “death of the innocent” motif that Coppola aspired to develop with co-writer Mario Puzo. How can Mary possibly be designated as the antithesis of Michael, the unblemished sacrificial lamb, when she is consistently either trying to seduce her first cousin or, alternatively, cajole her father into allowing the taboo romance? Her character is both ambiguous and simultaneously flat, an under-developed cipher that Michael, Vincent, and Kaye balance against rather than having her own three dimensions. Part of the problem with the character was the actor but the other was that it was a terribly-developed role.

But perhaps this is ultimately the proper role of a coda, ancillary products not totally necessary for appreciation of the prior elements. Michael Corleone ultimately ends the film as a powerful but isolated man, exactly where he was at the close of Part II. This is a detour that shows a late attempt at redemption that fails miserably. Nothing has fundamentally changed for him by the end. As with Lear, he ends as the lord of a kingdom of ashes. This is perhaps the ultimate matter that Coppola is today contemplating as well. After trying for decades to build an independent film studio, American Zoetrope, he faded into the shadows after a series of commercial and critical flops. Now he emerges every few years with a newly-recut version of older films (by my count this will be his fifth edit of The Godfather cycle). Importantly, however, unlike his antithesis Michael, Coppola prioritized family above all else and now lives a joyful semi-retired existence surrounded by grandchildren at his California vineyard-estate. If this is his final film edit at age 81, it would be a fitting capstone to a career that was in many ways an inverted mirror image of Michael Corleone’s.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.