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al pacino sits back as Michael Corleone in the godfather part 3
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather Part III.
Paramount Pictures

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Now is the time for The Godfather Part IV

‘Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in’

Michael Corleone is dead. He lost his will to live when his daughter, Mary, took a bullet intended for him in the closing moments of 1990’s The Godfather Part III. He lost his life in the film’s final scene, falling from a chair in the courtyard of Don Tommasino’s villa, a lone orange — the symbol of death in director Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent film series — rolling from his limp grasp. The saga that began with Michael’s return to America from World War II, that continued as he rose to power in the wake of his father’s passing, and concluded with his attempt to make the Corleone family business legitimate, is over.

But nothing is ever truly over in Hollywood, certainly not a valuable brand that continues to generate profits from video sales and TV repeats. And no character stays dead as long as there’s public interest and untold portions of their life story remaining — ask one of the many resurrected superheroes.

Mentioning comic books in the same paragraph as Coppola might be hazardous to one’s health, but there exists a period in the Godfather timeline between Mary’s murder and the fade to black at Don Tommasino’s villa that holds potential for one last chapter in the tale of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), one that could be particularly brutal and ruthless (and satisfying) if set against the New York City real estate boom. There were some terribly unsavory people working in that milieu; one of them became president of the United States.

The Godfather Part IV could absolutely happen. And considering Hollywood’s current state, the turbulent theatrical business, and the cultural zeitgeist, it should.

Michael Corleone and his family watch the opera from box seats in Godfather 3 Paramount Pictures

Imagining how a fourth movie might play out, it’s vital to make a case that it would be at all financially viable for the saga’s rightsholder, Paramount Pictures, to risk what would almost certainly be a $100 million-plus budget on extending a franchise that didn’t perform particularly well — commercially or critically — the last time out.

Indeed, The Godfather Part III casts a long, unfortunate shadow over a prospective fourth film. Notoriously rushed through production, Coppola was allotted only a year between writing the script and delivering a final cut in time for a Christmas 1990 theatrical release. Then there were contract disputes and casting snafus: Robert Duvall balked at taking considerably less than Pacino to reprise his role as consigliere Tom Hagen, while Winona Ryder’s physical exhaustion at the outset of shooting caused Coppola to hastily replace the actress with his daughter, Sofia Coppola.

All of these issues combined to compromise the movie in crucial ways. Michael’s pursuit of the Vatican’s controlling interest in Immobiliare is inelegantly interwoven with the street-level shit-stirring of his nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia); Duvall’s presence is sorely missed (and George Hamilton possesses zero gravitas as the family’s new consigliere); and 19-year-old Sofia Coppola underplays the role of Mary to the point of somnambulance. But Pacino’s portrayal of a man finally waking up to the moral nightmare of having murdered his own brother is shattering and, despite the aforementioned missteps, Francis Ford Coppola manages to bring the film to a rousing, debt-settling finale. It feels like a Godfather movie. Part III reminds the viewer why these films hold such a prominent place in our popular culture.

A fourth entry would carry a hefty price tag. The Godfather Part III’s reported $54 million budget translates to $106 million today. Considering that Paramount balked at merely distributing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman because the film’s financier, Fábrica de Cine, couldn’t cover the ballooning budget, the company seems awfully risk-averse. But The Godfather is one of Paramount’s most prestigious and valuable properties. Compared to behemoths like Disney and Warner Bros., the studio is currently franchise-poor — after another Terminator misfire, Mission: Impossible is its only healthy live-action series). Why not fire up the prestige and franchise hype machines and get folks excited about a new Godfather movie?

Paramount is currently working the same nostalgia angle with Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, which it’ll produce for Netflix; revisiting the Corleone family would be in keeping with its development philosophy under CEO Jim Gianopulos. Meanwhile, Oscar bloggers would hail a fourth Godfather as an awards contender sight unseen, if only because The Godfather Part III earned seven nominations, including Best Picture, despite mutedly positive reviews.

The cast of The Godfather smiles for the camera
Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, James Caan, Al Pacino, and Talia Shire at the 45th anniversary screening of The Godfather during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Francis Ford Coppola’s involvement seems key, though at the age of 80, he might not be up to the physical rigors of an epic production. And even if he has the wherewithal to do it, would he? Coppola didn’t sound too hot on the idea when he spoke with GQ in 2012. “For me? At my age? Being on a big, expensive movie that has a producer who’ll want to give me notes? They don’t have enough money on earth to give me to spend a year doing that.”

If Paramount coughed up the coin to get him back in the director’s chair, Coppola said he was unsure what story he’d tell. “What happens in it? How does it have to relate to the first one, the cast, the look? I would safely say The Godfather was a complete movie. It wasn’t a serial and it didn’t lend itself to being a serial. I wouldn’t even know what the story is for a fourth one. All the people are dead.”

He could be referring to the characters or his key collaborators. The loss of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose darkly lit photography is as important to the feel of a Godfather movie as the cast or screenplay, might be the best argument against moving forward with a new installment. Digital video is more conducive to low-light shooting (perhaps best exemplified by Arrival director of photography Bradford Young), but Willis’ counterintuitive 35mm aesthetic is vital as well — there’s an inimitable richness to his darkness that no digital lenser has been able to capture — and previous attempts by talented cinematographers to mimic another’s look (e.g., Janusz Kaminski doing Douglas Slocombe on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) felt like stale imitation.

And then there’s the absence of Mario Puzo, with whom Coppola collaborated on all three films (and, briefly, a fourth film just before his death in 1999). While other authors like Mark Winegardner and Ed Falco have written perfectly readable fill-in-the-narrative-blank prequels, neither of them is a screenwriter. Coppola would either have to find a new co-writer, or summon the spirit of Puzo as best he could and write the whole thing himself. Again, that’s a lot of work for a man who just turned 80.

The other obstacle to Coppola getting involved: He’s making another movie at the moment. In July, he announced that he’s finally going to direct his long-in-gestation Megalopolis, an ambitious project about an idealistic architect’s attempt to construct a utopia in New York City. Since Coppola appears to have covered his Zoetrope debts with for-hire directing gigs (including The Godfather Part III) over the last few decades, he doesn’t need The Godfather Part IV to realize Megalopolis; it’s going to happen regardless. As time is finite for the maestro, it’s unlikely he’d want to waste a year or two of his life going back to a well that feels dry to him.

That could put the kibosh on the entire endeavor. Would Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, and the rest of the surviving clan want to return for a Coppola-less Godfather film? Probably not. But if Coppola wrote the script, offered to be fairly involved as a producer, and hand-picked a successor who earned the approval of the actors, there could be a path forward.

michael corleone wears round sunglasses and stares into the bright sun in The Godfather Part III Paramount Pictures

Big “if.” In 2012, Coppola struggled to think of a younger director who’d be right for the material, saying, “There are so many great young directors I like but the ones I like are all doing personal films. There’s no one I can think of who I’d send to do a Godfather.” But if the money was just too right for all involved, perhaps the persuasive auteur could talk Sofia Coppola into giving it a shot. Obviously, her aesthetic is completely different and generally noncommercial, but, hey, Francois Truffaut made Fahrenheit 451. And it would set up a nifty redemption arc for her as well (or deepen the humiliation of her association with the series).

If the right director could be found, there’s no denying that Pacino still has the fire to carry a three-hour epic. He is reportedly dynamite as Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, and seems to be having a ball on the film’s press tour. Keaton’s still got plenty of chutzpah, and, in the spirit of wild speculation, if Coppola wants to right a wrong, all he has to do is drop a single line of dialogue from The Godfather Part III, and Tom Hagen yet lives. Bring in the legendary and still kickin’ Walter Murch to edit, and a skillful composer who can work powerful new variations on Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola’s scores, and this could be the rare non-spectacle movie to crack $100 million on opening weekend. (OK, length would be a factor, but even $80 million would be a huge win for Paramount.)

At the end of the day, The Godfather Part IV only has story because there’s plenty of material to lift from. Anyone who knows their mob history is well aware that the 1980s were a volatile time for organized crime in New York City. Here’s a pitch: Assuming Michael returns to the Big Apple after the tragic conclusion of The Godfather Part III, he could find himself in a power struggle with the headstrong Vincent. Both men would still be grieving the death of Mary — one as a father, the other as a lover. And whatever bad blood had started to boil up over Vincent’s pursuit of Mary could very easily simmer anew and turn the men into enemies.

Then there’s the family business. Michael could remain a legitimate businessman, but his ruthlessness and basic greed could lead him to get involved in the exploding real estate market. This would put him into contact with ravenous, mob-connected developers like, say, Donald Trump (or, for the film’s purposes, a thinly veiled caricature), and stir up a fetid stew of venality that wafts straight to the present day.

A Michael Corleone with nothing to lose and zero compunction would bring the character back to the end of The Godfather Part II, only now he could play kingmaker on a much grander, more pernicious scale. Or maybe he’d want to be the king himself. This would absolutely tear the family apart. Kay’s abhorrence would make her a very dangerous foe. Connie would probably side with Vincent. Francis Ford Coppola has already made it patently clear how far Michael would go to maintain power (although he’d be without the lethal assistance of his muscle Al Neri, as actor Richard Bright passed away in 2006).

There is every reason for Paramount to dip back into The Godfather series, and there’s a way to do it without going the remake route. The plan in 1999 was to revitalize the series with Leonardo DiCaprio as a young Sonny in a two-era narrative à la The Godfather Part II. DiCaprio’s too old to do that now, but the saga shouldn’t be beholden to star power. It’s The Godfather. The film’s aura makes stars. And it’s remained relevant for over 45 years because it reflects the griminess of the American dream more accurately and palpably than any movie ever made. It’s time for more.