the art of ending things

The Greatest Godfather Ending of Them All

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Paramount Pictures

Damnation. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of the Godfather saga. All these films are about people who’ve been damned, whether they know it or not. And the movies’ respective endings often hold the keys to their meaning. At the end of the first Godfather, after Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) vanquishes his foes, we see him at home, greeting his underlings as one of them closes the door on his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton). If you read the basic action on the screen, it’s Kay who is being condemned, the one pushed outside the inner circle. But in truth, it is Michael who has consigned himself to the darkness.

The Godfather Part II closes on a similar irony — this time, Michael’s victims include his brother Fredo (John Cazale). So much of Part II is about Fredo’s betrayal and the growing divide between himself and Michael. By killing Fredo, Michael effectively condemns himself. The film ends on a flashback to a family dinner in 1941, when a fresh-faced Michael announced to his stunned brothers that he had dropped out of college to enlist. By the end of the scene, as everyone else goes off to greet their father, Michael remains at the dinner table — the odd man out, determined to evade the influence of his family. The brief, final image of the movie is of a much older Michael, alone, his name now virtually synonymous with the Corleone crime family.

It’s amazing how subdued Michael is during these scenes. The Godfather films have their wildly emotional moments, but they are in many ways defined by their grim, submerged tension; this is probably the quietest blockbuster series in American cinema. By the time Francis Ford Coppola returned to the story in 1990 for The Godfather Part III (which he recently reedited and rereleased under a new title, The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone), his style as a director had become more florid, more emotionally extravagant and expressionistic (his next project would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula). But for this third installment of the Godfather saga, Coppola replicated the somber atmosphere and moody photography of the earlier entries. Then, he closed it all out with a truly grandiose, explosive ending — one that works not just as a finale to a single film, but to the entire series.

This time, after once again doing away with his remaining foes, Michael loses his daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), when she gets in the way of a bullet intended for him (fired, it should be noted, by an assassin dressed as a priest). Michael wails over the body of his dead child in an extended scene that goes on for a lot longer than such scenes are usually allowed to last. It goes on for so long, in fact, that even the other distraught members of the family seem surprised by his grief. We don’t initially hear Michael’s screaming; the sound cuts out, so we only see it, while hearing the immortal Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (the opera they’ve all just been watching), which both highlights and tempers the melodramatic intensity of the scene.

“It was Walter Murch who removed the sound from it and created the ‘silent scream.’ It was not me,” Coppola told me when I interviewed him last year, crediting his legendary editor. Michael’s silent scream brings the whole film and series together because it forces our imaginations to complete the moment (thus subconsciously drawing us more fully into Michael’s anguish), and also because it denies him any kind of release. Michael does finally let out a bellow we do hear — but as soon as he does, the sound fades out again and his voice becomes more distant. It’s almost as if Michael is screaming from another dimension, as if he’s already in hell. After all those years of quiet brooding, this is a shocking way to end a Godfather picture. This last entry in the series might be widely regarded as the least of the three films, but it finishes things off with one of cinema’s greatest gut punches.

Back in 1990, this climax also represented a high point for Pacino, who had just begun to resurrect his career after an extended absence from the screen. He had found himself disillusioned with acting after a number of financial and creative disappointments (Revolution was an example of the former, Scarface an example of the latter) and had also gone broke in the meantime. The 1989 crime thriller Sea of Love, in which the actor played an alcoholic cop trying to track down a serial killer, had marked the start of his comeback. When I interviewed him several years ago, Pacino told me that the person who inspired his return was the very individual who would soon play his estranged wife in The Godfather Part III: “I was living with my great love, Diane Keaton, and she would look at me and say, ‘Well, what are you doing? … What, you think you’re going to go back to living in a room? Like the old days? You’ve had money for too long now. You gotta get back to work.’”

Now, with his final outing as Michael Corleone, Pacino had triumphantly returned to his greatest role and found a way to make it new, bringing out the latent operatic qualities of the character. That same year, he also hammed it up (gloriously) as “Big Boy” Caprice, the villain in Warren Beatty’s gonzo comic strip adaptation Dick Tracy. Similar to how Coppola’s style had developed over the years, the Pacino we saw in the 1990s was a different actor than the one who had lit up screens in the 1970s. The wiry intensity of those earlier performances now gave way to something bigger, more theatrical, and, yes, riskier. In subsequent years, Pacino would get dinged for his overacting almost as often as he would be praised for his bold choices — sometimes, as in his Oscar-winning turn in 1992’s Scent of a Woman, within the space of one movie. But it all came with the territory for him, and many of his over-the-top performances from this era have aged wonderfully.

Of course, the silent scream is not the final scene of the third Godfather film. As those who saw the original release will remember, Godfather III initially ended with the image of Michael, now a very old man, sitting in a chair by himself and then keeling over, dead. This echoed the moment from the first picture when Brando’s Vito Corleone died in a garden while playing with his grandson; by contrast, Michael was alone, bereft of everything. In his reedit of the film, however, Coppola cuts away from Michael before he dies. Instead, we see a lonely old man, still living with his demons, as some new text appears on the screen: “When the Sicilians wish you ‘Cent’anni’, it means ‘for long life’ … and a Sicilian never forgets.” In other words, Michael no longer gets the reprieve of death. He will be forced to live with his memories (and his sins) for as long as humanly possible.

An odd edit perhaps, given the new title of this revised version. “I loved starting the movie with such a statement, The Death of Michael Corleone, for a movie at the end of which he wouldn’t die,” Coppola told me. “And it was something worse than that, because indeed, Michael Corleone was not an angel. Someone who kills another person, much less a bunch of people, for money is beyond being called a member of the human family.” For all of Michael’s charisma, and for all our identification with the character over three pictures and multiple decades, it was important for Coppola to show him to be, once and for all, truly lost. The previous two films had closed on ironic damnations, with Michael triumphant but pulled further and further into the spiritual darkness. At the start of the final movie, however, he was repentant and desperate for redemption, going so far as to enter into a financial partnership with the Vatican that he hoped would help him save his soul. “Through the pursuit of this deal with the Vatican, Michael was trying to absolve himself of these terrible sins he knew he had committed,” Coppola said. Indeed, it was the director’s attempts to make this Vatican narrative thread clearer that wound up inspiring the new ending. “What you start to do when you make a new cut is you follow your nose,” he said. “As I started to go through [the film] and try to straighten things out and make the story clearer, I realized I was making a whole new cut and, ultimately, even a new ending.”

Coppola’s change to the last shot also points to how personal the project was for him. At the time, Coppola was still reeling from the 1986 death of his son Gian-Carlo, who had been killed in a freak accident in Washington, D.C., where they had been working on the production of Gardens of Stone. The finale of The Godfather Part III, with a father screaming in agony over the body of his dead child, was thus unbearably devastating to anyone familiar with the director’s ordeals during this time. It perhaps made sense in 1990 for the film to then cut to the father’s own death. But after three decades, Coppola clearly understood that to live with these memories is perhaps even harder to bear: “It’s worse that he doesn’t die. He lives with the fact that he destroyed his child, which is why he was doing it all.”

The echoes with Coppola’s own life don’t end there. The director also noted that the film’s reception mirrored what happened in the movie itself. His daughter Sofia, a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder, received torrents of criticism for her performance as Mary — so much so that some critics felt her acting had almost single-handedly ruined the film. “They came after Sofia so much that it was just like the story,” Coppola said. “The bullets that killed the daughter were really meant for the father. I felt that I did this to her.”

Which points to another reason why this is one of the greatest endings of all time. Full disclosure: I love Sofia Coppola’s much-reviled performance in the film. It’s true she’s not very Godfather-y; there’s an effervescent quality to Mary that feels all wrong for this series. She isn’t tense, repressed, or calculating. As film critic Roxana Hadadi put it last year in her wonderful appreciation of the film’s “incest gnocchi” scene: “Her line readings are wooden, but I’m willing to argue that tentativeness works for a character who has long been overprotected by her father, wrapped up in the safety that being his beloved only daughter provides.”

Coppola said he resisted calls to cast another actress when Ryder dropped out because it was important that Mary feel like a real teenager. (And besides, Sofia had partly inspired the character in the first place.) Mary’s presence feels like a formal gambit as much as anything: She cuts through the gravity of the proceedings, almost like someone from another planet, and exposes the ridiculousness of this world, with its rituals and unspoken mores. To put it another way: She is the one character in this entire movie, maybe this entire series, who hasn’t been damned by the Corleone legacy. By lying to her about his own past, Michael has kept her ignorant and, at least in his eyes, pure. When she dies, a light is extinguished, and he is consigned forever to his evil world. It is his final damnation. And this time, it will never end.

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The Greatest Godfather Ending of Them All