This is the second part of a three-part “deep dive” on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1990 film The Godfather, Part III. The first installment is here. All of these articles contain spoilers.

Try this: mention GF3 to movie buffs, and especially Godfather nerds, and then look at your watch to see how quickly the words “Sofia Coppola” enter the conversation. At least in my experience, far and away the number one criticism of the film is that her performance is terrible. I find this really remarkable, in a film with so many potential things to criticize—and to praise—that the first blood drawn over the picture is usually over the performance of a young woman, only 19 at the time it was made, who had only very spotty acting experience before it and who reportedly had to be talked into taking the role by her father. I’m going to call attention to the elephant in the room here by asking you to think about how gender-driven this criticism is. Since when has the success of a Godfather picture depended on the quality of a performance in a supporting role?

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Abe Vigoda, who portrayed the treasonous capo Tessio in the first film, had been a terrible actor. (He wasn’t, but just pretend). Would we all be saying, “You know, The Godfather could have been such a great picture, except Vigoda ruined it.” To those who will invariably say, no, it has nothing to do with Sofia’s gender, it’s the fact that it was nepotism that her dad put her in the movie, imagine if the Vigoda-sucks example would be different if Vigoda happened to be Francis Ford Coppola’s father. Do you really think, even then, we’d be talking about him “ruining” the movie?

Sofia Coppola, as Mary Corleone, absorbs the news that her lover (and cousin) Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia) has decided to break it off in this scene toward the end of The Godfather, Part III.

I’ll grant you, as an actress, Sofia Coppola is not up to the other supporting players in the Godfather franchise. I’ll admit that. Even in this film, supporting actors Eli Wallach (Don Altobelli), Joe Mantegna (Joey Zasa), and George Hamilton (B.J. Harrison) are much better performers. But think about this: how many of the Godfather ensemble are women, with significant speaking roles in any of the three films? Basically you’ve got Diane Keaton (Kay), Talia Shire (Connie), and Morgana King (Mama Corleone), and maybe you can count Bridget Fonda in this film, though he’s little more than a cameo. Consider further: Sofia was not only a second choice for the role of Mary, but more like fourth. Julia Roberts was originally cast; another actress who was tested for the part was murdered before the audition; Winona Ryder, cast after that, dropped out at the last minute.

So, those of you who lay the sins of GF3 on the shoulders of Sofia Coppola, think about what standard you’re holding her to: a woman barely college-age, with no significant professional acting experience and no desire to pursue professional acting as a career, is asked to fill the shoes of Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder, and she’s criticized because she doesn’t rise to the level of Diane Keaton and Talia Shire (both of whom were the female leads in Best Picture winning films unrelated to the Godfather series). Sofia Coppola is not Diane Keaton. But “ruining the movie?” Puh-lease. As for nepotism, where were these complaints when John Huston cast his daughter Angelica in Prizzi’s Honor or The Dead? (Oh, you say, but Angelica Huston was a much better actress. Yes, she was; but she had been acting professionally for many years before that).

Say what you want about Sofia Coppola’s acting, but her writing and directing have proven to be absolutely superb. Here she is in 2004, accepting a well-deserved Academy Award for writing Lost in Translation, which she also directed. It is one of my favorite films.

Whatever unspoken insecurities are underlying the vicious criticism of Sofia Coppola’s performance, let’s discuss some more fundamental issues. They have to do with writing, not acting. The main arc of Sofia’s character Mary is her undying love for her father, and also her budding romance with Vincent (Andy Garcia), who is technically her cousin. Vincent desperately desires to be a powerful mafia boss like Michael used to be. Ultimately he is torn between his hunger for power, and his love for Mary. He chooses the power. Late in the film, Al Neri (Richard Bright), Michael’s ever-present bodyguard, kisses Vincent’s ring and declares him the new “Don Corleone.” This mirrors the passing of the torch from Vito to Michael in the first movie.

This generally works as a plot, but one thing I never understood is the reasoning for why Mary and Vincent must break up, repeated by several characters in the movie, is that it’s “too dangerous.” One supposes that yes, it is generally much more dangerous to date a mafia boss than, say, an accountant or a dentist. But where was this concern for the other women in the Godfather milieu? Not only did Kay never ruminate on the dangers of being Michael’s wife in the first two films, but even after being shot at as Michael’s Tahoe bedroom is sprayed with machine-gun fire in Part II, the clear expectation is that Kay still owes him loyalty as his wife. Morgana King, as Vito’s wife in the first two films, is indefatigable; in this film, Connie, played by Talia Shire, is so cold and steely that she orders a hit on a rival gangster in Michael’s name. The default position of Godfather women seems to be demanding expectation, not treatment as a special snowflake.

In the climactic scene of The Godfather, Part III, Mary (Sofia Coppola) takes a bullet meant for her gangster father. 

It’s an interesting question to consider: what is the agency of women in the Godfather universe? Most of them seem to have a lot of it; Kay, in particular, screaming at Michael at the end of Part II, “This must all end!” Mary, on the other hand, is treated with no expectation whatsoever that she can make up her own mind. To the extent we can praise Sofia Coppola’s performance, let us praise the fact that she does communicate a young woman who desires deeply to make her own choices and chafes against the limitations her family puts on her. I’m fascinated by the incongruity and the unfairness of those limitations, given how the rest of Godfather’s women make their way through the story.

So what if Mary Corleone had not been acted differently, but written differently? What if she, not Connie, orders the hit on Joey Zasa, and then Michael must come to grips with the fact that his snowflake daughter is asserting her own agency within the crime family (and, presumably, entering into the same purgatory of guilt in which he writhes?) That would have been an even more interesting story. But again, like showing us Michael’s mysterious change of heart, this seems not to have occurred to Coppola. That’s a missed opportunity too.

After hearing me bash GF3 for the better part of two articles, tune in for the conclusion of this series, where I talk about what is great about the film. Stay tuned!

The screenshot from The Godfather, Part III is copyright (C) 1990 by Paramount Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.