The Godfather Coda: Will The Death of Michael Corleone Fix Part III?

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone trailer makes an offer you can't refuse: A stronger conclusion to a cinematic landmark.

The Godfather Part III Cast
Photo: Paramount Pictures

“Friends, our business together is done,” Al Pacino’s mob family patriarch says in the official trailer for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. And  Francis Ford Coppola hopes the new conclusion to the mafia saga takes care of all family business. For the 30th anniversary of The Godfather: Part III, the director and screenwriter will release a new edit and restoration of the final film of The Godfather trilogy.  

The Godfather: Part III was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Goodfellas, released that same year, only got six nominations. Neither won Best Picture. Before that The Godfather III had been one of the most anticipated films of all time; it wound up being one of the most maligned theatrical releases.

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The movie has become shorthand to describe cinematic disappointment. Nearly 20 years earlier, Coppola had delivered Paramount Pictures two major motion picture achievements, which the director had to fight to maintain his creative control on. Made on a $6 million budget and completed ahead of schedule, The Godfather was the first film in history to take in a million bucks a day. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three. The Godfather: Part II was the first movie sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The studio would eventually reward the director by further limiting his ability to complete his vision.

Ahead of agreeing to do a third film, Paramount wanted Coppola to continue the epic immigrant family saga in time for a Christmas 1990 theatrical release. Once Coppola and the novel’s author Mario Puzo sent in the completed screenplay, written under a rushed deadline, the studio told the director to have the final cut ready in one year. As Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone asked funeral director Amerigo Bonasera in the opening scene of The Godfather, “What did I ever do to make you treat me with such disrespect?”

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Paramount Pictures might have thought Coppola deserved the shoddy treatment. The box office promise Coppola brought the studio in the 1970s petered out in the ’80s as films like One from the Heart, Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, and Tucker: A Man and His Dream all failed to score with mass audiences. Even the success of Peggy Sue Got Married failed to win Paramount over to Coppola’s side. At one point, the studio approached Sylvester Stallone to direct Godfather III.

Compounding the troubled production, casting problems led to rushed replacements. Robert Duvall balked at reprising his role as consigliere Tom Hagen after he heard how much Pacino was getting paid. Winona Ryder dropped out of the film after her first day of shooting, citing nervous exhaustion. The director cast his daughter Sofia Coppola, as Mary, the daughter of Michael Corleone and Kay Adam.

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But Coppola wasn’t powerful enough to command more time to do the post-production editing required. When Coppola first offered the final installment of The Godfather Trilogy, he titled it “The Death of Michael Corleone.” Made 16 years after The Godfather: Part II, Paramount did not like the title, and was not too happy with his original ending.

He’s had 30 years since then.

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“The film’s meticulously restored picture and sound, under the supervision of American Zoetrope and Paramount Pictures, includes a new beginning and ending, as well as changes to scenes, shots, and music cues,” reads the trailer’s official synopsis. “The resulting project reflects author Mario Puzo and Coppola’s original intentions of The Godfather: Part III, and delivers, in the words of Coppola, ‘a more appropriate conclusion to The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II.’”

But can it? You may as well ask if the Corleone family could ever go legit. The Godfather films are about the American Dream, but Don Vito’s offspring suffer night terrors. Michael Corleone never gets revenge, but the proper ending may fulfill his destiny, even if Coppola won’t be able to bring Tom Hagen into the frames, and George Hamilton remains no Robert Duvall.

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And what about Sofia Coppola’s lifeless death scene? If Coppola cuts her one word, “dad?,” her death might have meaning. His daughter was not an actress, but Coppola reasoned she was the real thing: a 19-year-old Italian girl and the daughter of a respected, powerful man. Was it a case of nepotism? Laura San Giacomo and Linda Fiorentino were considered for the role when Ryder had to pull out, but production was already behind schedule. The part of Mary Corleone was coveted, Julia Roberts was considered for it, and Madonna lobbied for it. Sofia has gone on to distinguish herself as a director, but her father has never heard the end of it.

For Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, Coppola and his production company American Zoetrope worked with Paramount’s restoration team, searching through 300 cartons of negative for over 50 original takes to replace lower resolution opticals in the original negative. In the featurette, Coppola says he re-edited the film to bring new life to it, changing some of the sequences, and the musical cues. He’s also said in interviews his new cut will justify casting his daughter.

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For a reputedly unmemorable film, The Godfather: Part III is filled with unforgettable scenes and performances. A massacre in Atlantic City is executed via helicopter; Andy García, as Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son Vincent Mancini, bites the ear off Joe Mantegna’s Joey Zasa; Talia Shire’s Connie Corleone kills Eli Wallach’s Don Altobello with cannoli. The last half hour may be Coppola’s most ambitious sequences in film. The Vatican conspiracy subplot, which doesn’t quite come together in the film, may even be easier to untangle, given the new edits.

The Godfather: Part III had its world premiere on Dec. 20, 1990 at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for The New Yorker, said it was a “public humiliation,” but that was because she was comparing it to the first two films. Roger Ebert ranked it higher than The Godfather: Part II, and The Los Angeles Times called it “one of the best American movies of the year.” So it’s not so much a case of it being a bad film, it’s just not a great film.

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Editing is a mysterious art, and it could even be conceivable Coppola might transform Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone into a cinematic experience on par with its predecessors by rearranging the original footage. When Paramount brought Coppola on for the original film, they wanted him to make a quick and cheap gangster picture out of a bestselling book. He changed cinema. Will he rewrite history again? The saga continues.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone will get a limited theatrical release on Dec. 4. It will be available on Blu-ray and digital on Dec. 8.