The Biggest Problem with ‘The Godfather Part III’ Isn’t Sofia Coppola — It’s This

The Big Picture

  • ‘The Godfather Part III’ received lukewarm reception for several reasons, including production troubles and the absence of an important character.
  • Francis Ford Coppola’s financial struggles led him to make another Godfather film despite not wanting to, contributing to the film’s mixed reviews.
  • The absence of Robert Duvall’s character, Tom Hagen, was a significant blow to the film, as his presence would have added depth and legitimacy to the story.

The Godfather Part III is one of the most polarizing films of all time, and Sofia Coppola bears much of the blame. After all, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation didn’t exist yet. She was merely the daughter of the acclaimed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and her casting was branded as Hollywood nepotism at work. Delivering a bad performance in the film didn’t make matters easier for an already-troubled production, and the necessity of a third installment in what was otherwise a perfect pair of gangster epics was questioned left and right. However, it is gravely mistaken to hold Sofia responsible for its lukewarm reception. There are several factors that play into it, from production troubles characteristic of a Coppola picture, to the absence of one of its most essential characters, among others.

The Troubled Production of ‘The Godfather Part III’

Kay smiling while sitting next to a serious Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 3
Image via Paramount Pictures

Francis Ford Coppola had arguably the greatest four-movie run in cinema history. In a span of seven years, Coppola made four consecutive cinematic classics, namely The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now. With his legacy firmly cemented at such a young age, the filmmaker naturally went with his auteur sensibilities, and decided to make films that were more personal. The endeavor was certainly admirable, but it proved to be catastrophic for him financially. One From the Heart, his musical fantasy film released in 1982, was immensely disastrous. A $26 million dollar budget funded by his own Zoetrope Studios ensured him creative freedom, but audiences did not share the same enthusiasm. Grossing only a little over $630,000, it caused Coppola to sell the entire Zoetrope Studio lot, and buried him in massive debt. His succeeding efforts from The Outsiders to New York Stories were like coffin nails to both his reputation and his pockets.

It should be noted that Coppola never wanted to make more than one The Godfather film, despite him acceding to the seduction of studios to produce Part II. Al Pacino himself was tired of becoming Michael once again, and virtually no one was interested in expanding the lore of the two pictures except for the profit-seeking studios and distributors. With his finances dangerously dwindling, making another Corleone family story was an offer he simply could not refuse. However, things proved to be different this time around. Paramount rejecting his intended title of “The Death of Michael Corleone” was an omen for things to come.

The Painful Absence of Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen

Image via Paramount Pictures

While initially hesitant to take the part, Pacino relented and was reportedly given a salary of $8 million. Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire followed suit, and it looked like it was going to be a reunion of sorts for all those involved in the previous films. However, one integral name refused to be part of it: Robert Duvall. As the famous story goes, Duvall wanted to be paid a comparable sum to what Pacino was getting, and when he received word that he wasn’t, he declined. This was arguably the most devastating hit to The Godfather Part III, and the finished product sorely missed the gravitas of his presence.

In the film, Tom Hagen died offscreen, and is survived by his son, Andrew. The Corleone family now had a new lawyer in B.J. Harrison (George Hamilton), and this was one of the most frustrating things about the film. Did Coppola expect audiences to accept a new Corleone family counsel? Hamilton does his best to play the role, but it was doomed to be rejected by fans and critics alike. Hagen was one of the most important characters in the entire film series, and was basically the legitimizing presence of the entire family business. Given the fact that the entire objective of Michael was to legitimize their operations, having someone as renowned as Tom Hagen would have done them wonders.

‘The Godfather Part III’ Isn’t a Bad Movie

Image via Paramount Pictures 

Contrary to popular belief, The Godfather Part III is not a bad film. Far from it! The first two were simply magnificent, and the third was just good. For a film, being good is something most filmmakers aspire to, but being attached to the hips of two cinematic landmarks, being good simply magnifies its shortcomings. There is an argument to be made that having a character as significant as Tom Hagen in it would have at least given the film some proximity to the greatness of the first two. This begs an important question: suppose that Duvall had accepted the role, how would he be represented, and how would this change the picture?

Well, perhaps certain additions wouldn’t have been made to compensate for the void left by his absence. Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) was one of the most criticized parts of the film, with him feeling like a lesser adversary compared to the other Corleone family enemies. The convoluted connection he had with Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) was flimsy, to say the least. Having Hagen there would have eliminated this, and perhaps explored a more complicated approach to the age of gangs slowly dissipating into irrelevance.

RELATED: ‘The Godfather’ Review: After 50 Years, It’s Still a Movie You Can’t Refuse

Maybe a conflict materialized between him and Michael over the former’s role in the entire thing? The seeds to this have been planted way back in the first installment after all, and would have been more captivating than a helicopter firing upon a group of gangsters conversing over casino profits. Perhaps even a dispute between him and the fiery Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia)? Their familial lineage, Mancini being an illegitimate child, and Hagen being an adopted son, is material waiting to be written for a head-on power struggle as Michael heals from his worsening condition.

These are imaginary scenarios, all of which are just big “what-ifs.” The Godfather Part III remains to be a testament to what it truly is: a serviceable attempt to recreate the success of two monuments in cinema, brought upon by financial necessity. Coppola attempts to correct his mistakes in the recut version, The Godfather, Coda which it does, in some ways. Despite this, what will continue to stand is the painful fact that everyone could have witnessed a better conclusion to the beloved saga if only Coppola paid Robert Duvall what he was worth.

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