“Dedicated to Charlie Bluhdorn who inspired it.”
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Not only is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather the stuff of Hollywood legend, but so is its turbulent production. Even after nearly fifty years since the 1972 release of The Godfather, pop culture still can’t get enough of Paramount’s quintessential epic. Two narrative projects currently in production – HBO’s Francis and the Godfather, directed by Barry Levinson, and Paramount+’s The Offer – attempt to depict the raucous behind-the-scenes drama involving such clashing personalities as Francis Ford Coppola, Puzo, star Marlon Brando, Paramount chief Robert Evans, and producer Albert S. Ruddy. Hollywood’s obsession with self-reflexivity in narrative storytelling is on full display here: movies about the making of movies are increasingly becoming their own genre (although not necessarily a new one: see Paramount’s own Sunset Boulevard or MGM’s The Bad and the Beautiful, both from the early 1950s, as just two examples).
The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II (1974) collected nine Academy Awards out of sixteen nominations between them. When Coppola’s camera pushes in on a prematurely aged and isolated Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at the end of the nearly three-and-a-half hour Part II, the saga was whole, complete. Those movies might have been artistic masterpieces, but to executives at Paramount the shine from their Oscars and box office gold was too alluring to let go. While it would be nearly two decades from The Godfather until The Godfather, Part III (1990), plans were already under way by the late ’70s to continue the series, contrivance be damned. Mario Puzo delivered a draft for a third film as early as 1978 – one about CIA recruit Anthony Corleone and the assassination of a Latin American dictator. In time, fifteen commissioned scripts and treatments by nine different writers were submitted to Paramount. Even ’80s megastar-cum-director Sylvester Stallone was tapped to resurrect the Corleones with John Travolta and Eddie Murphy. De Niro, who had already appeared in the franchise as a young Don Vito and won an Oscar for it, lobbied for the role of Vincent Mancini, Sonny’s bastard son, and the future of the Corleone family.
In 1986, Paramount formally signed Puzo to write the third film, with Nicholas Gage producing. When Coppola finally agreed to helm in December 1988, studio head Frank Mancuso gave Coppola and Puzo free creative reign, as long as the film was finished by Christmas 1990 (Coppola wanted Easter 1991), and that the title be The Godfather, Part III (Coppola wanted The Death of Michael Corleone). The fifty-year-old Coppola, struggling professionally, personally, financially, and no longer the upstart fighting with studio executives for artistic integrity, acquiesced. Put simply, he needed the paycheck. From its inception, then, the entire existence of Godfather III is strictly about the money.
As is its plot. Set twenty years after the end of Part II, a sickly, diabetic Michael Corleone (Pacino once again) finds himself steeped in financial intrigue with the IOR (Institute for the Works of Religion, colloquially known as the Vatican Bank), in his attempt to gain professional legitimacy. He sees a way to move past his guilt and sins by “buying” his redemption with the Catholic Church, the church of his youth and of his family’s heritage, essentially by bribing the Vatican Bank’s Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donelly) into becoming majority shareholder of a Vatican-controlled conglomerate called Immobiliare. What Michael doesn’t realize is that Gilday is playing both sides, conniving with the old don Altobello (Eli Wallach) while conspiring with Immobiliare’s other shareholders, namely shady financiers Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger) and Licio Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti). The end result of all this Byzantine intrigue is the ultimate tragedy for Michael Corleone, worse than the murder of his brother, or the ordering of having men killed. One that will haunt him for the rest of his days – the murder of his beloved daughter, Mary. The true death of Michael Corleone.
On paper this sounds engrossing, salacious, worthy of a Godfather epic, as ambitious as the contemporary plotline of Part II (i.e., Hyman Roth in Cuba and the betrayal of Fredo). To Coppola’s credit, he crafted a Lear-like Michael Corleone, a slowly dying shadow of his old self. It jarred audiences in 1990, who even today are accustomed to characters looking and appearing the same no matter their age (Indiana Jones, for one). And like the integration of the Cuban Revolution into Part II, Coppola and Puzo ripped their scenario from relatively recent headlines, shamelessly dramatizing the real-life scandal that embroiled the Vatican Bank in the ’70s and ’80s, even managing to incorporate a fictional version of the real Cardinal Luciani, who became Pope John Paul I for just over a month in 1978 (the underrated Raf Vallone, as Cardinal Lamberto), before a heart attack (infarto miocardico acuto) took the life of the 65-year-old “smiling pope,” stunning the Catholic faithful around the world.
In execution, however, and despite snagging seven Oscar nominations (winning none), Godfather III stumbles in a number of ways, not the least being the confusing and strangely uninvolving plot. Coppola was surprised the Italian and European press did not find the real-life parallels as compelling as he hoped; the financial plot was entirely overlooked by the American press, which fixated on the film’s critical casting choices (i.e., Coppola’s eighteen-year-old daughter Sofia as Mary Corleone, and the sorely missed presence of Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, a lead in the original 1989 draft). Ultimately, the general critical conclusion was that Godfather III failed to reach the dramatic or emotional heights of the first two films. “[I]t was a failure beyond belief,” Diane Keaton recalled to Forbes in 2020.1 That its long gestation period and highly publicized production were so well known did the final film no favors, either. As much as Coppola insists he did not see the third film purposefully on par with its predecessors, preferring to see it as an “epilogue” or “coda,” the ambitious plotting, attempts at operatic grandeur, and Shakespearean tragedy clearly belie that claim. While still hailing it as one of the best U.S. films of 1990, Michael Wilmington’s review for the Los Angeles Times is particularly salient: “Coppola and Puzo […] haven’t been able to tie everything together, fill in all the connections, remove scenes that obviously don’t work, re-create the seamless embellishment and profusion of the earlier films.”2
But in 2020, to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary, eighty-one-year-old Coppola retooled the third film under the title Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. Here, the conflict between Michael Corleone and Immobiliare is brought more to the forefront, and the subtle shifting of some scenes gives the narrative somewhat of a clearer focus, but the film still lacks, as Roger Ebert noted in 1990, “the confident forward sweep of a film that knows where it’s going.”3 Even with three decades of hindsight, there are still inexplicable moments right from the first shot: an exterior of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral cuts to an interior clearly meant to be within the Vatican (a room of maps, emulating the Sala del Mappamondo in Siena), where Michael and Archbishop Gilday whisper out a deal on a bailout. The scene then cuts to the Manhattan reception sequence celebrating the merger. But in doing so, Coppola excises the liturgical induction of Michael into the Order of St. Sebastian. The later irony, then, of Michael on the steps of the Palermo opera house mirroring the martyrdom of St. Sebastian is lost – the martyr who survived the horror of arrows piercing his whole body. Also now missing are the fascinating details of the papal conclave that elected the “true priest,” Cardinal Lamberto. Lamberto was Michael’s moral compass, and to limit any of his screen time weakens the emotional impact of his untimely death. Finally, the many fadeouts between scenes reveal the lack of cohesion Ebert noted; indeed, Godfather III is a collection of many good scenes that make up an uneven film.
Godfather III failed to be Paramount’s saving grace the suits upstairs hoped. Its parent company, Gulf+Western, was purchased by Sumner Redstone’s Viacom a few years later. With so much buildup, did the film really stand a chance? In his own way, Coppola’s quip about returning for Part II – “The idea of a sequel seemed horrible to me. It sounded like a tacky spin-off, and I used to joke that the only way I’d do it was if they’d let me film Abbott and Costello Meet the Godfather”4 – provides an opening into how Part III may have succeeded, if Coppola was game enough to follow the inspiration for its story to its logical conclusion. We get a clue from the film’s acknowledgment:
who inspired it.
Inspired what, exactly? And who is Charlie Bluhdorn?
Austrian-born Karl Georg Blühdorn, dubbed “the mad Austrian,”5 transformed an obscure auto parts store in Michigan into the global conglomerate Gulf+Western. Bluhdorn’s G+W purchased Paramount in 1966. A year later, Paramount bought Puzo’s novel Mafia before it was even published, before it was even known as The Godfather. Bluhdorn had a significant interest in Paramount’s intellectual properties amid his other ventures. In the director’s commentary for Godfather III, Coppola reveals he happened to one day ride the elevator of the Gulf+Western building with none other than Roberto Calvi. Both were on their way to see Bluhdorn.
What was Roberto Calvi, then-general manager of Milan’s Banco Ambrosiano, whose largest shareholder was the Vatican, doing at the G+W building? Calvi, a member of the illegal masonic lodge known as Propaganda Due (P2), was a protege of heavyweight Sicilian lawyer and, according to Martin A. Lee writing in Mother Jones in 1983, “one of the most influential bankers in the world,” Michele “the Shark” Sindona.6 Since 1969, Sindona was also the go-to financial adviser, the Mercator Senesis Romanum Curiam – chief banker of the Roman Curia – for Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, charged with managing the Church’s temporal wealth. Sindona, who enjoyed the good life and claimed as one of his mistresses Lana Turner, femme fatale of The Bad and the Beautiful, was something of a doppelganger to Charlie Bluhdorn, who had bought Paramount, he admitted, “for the girls.” The two struck up a lucrative business relationship of sorts at the same time Sindona was nicknamed “St. Peter’s banker.” Meanwhile, the Bluhdorn-Sindona transactions eventually drew the attention of the SEC and other watchdog organizations. But the Shark’s fatal comeuppance was still years away.
In the summer of 1970, Sindona and Bluhdorn struck a deal that boiled down to G+W acquiring 15 million shares into the massive real estate conglomerate, Italy’s largest real estate firm, of a name students of Godfather III will instantly recognize: Società Generale Immobiliare (SGI). Bluhdorn also earned a seat on SGI’s board; in turn, SGI came into ownership of half of the Paramount lot. Seymour Hersh’s 1977 article for the New York Times reported a G+W source claimed SGI’s Paramount purchase “pivoted on ‘inflated figures’ provided by SGI to G+W.”7 The major shareholder of Immobiliare when Michele Sindona came on board had been none other than the Vatican. With Sindona having bought 15% of the Vatican’s shares of SGI, at the same time its financial guru, the Vatican, effectively owned the real estate of Paramount Pictures – at the same time The Godfather was moving toward production. This was not the only lucrative U.S. real estate controlled by SGI – the Watergate Hotel was also one of its prime properties.
The Godfather was just one of Paramount’s great successes in the Bluhdorn era. Sindona, however, did not like its romanticized portrayal of the Mafia; Calvi, on the other hand, carried around Puzo’s book in his jacket pocket. In the wake of its massive popularity, while Bluhdorn continually pressed Coppola for first a Part II and then a Part III, he glibly shared his experiences dealing with colorful characters Calvi, Sindona, and others whose names are unknown (one imagines such a name being P2 puppetmaster Licio Gelli). Bluhdorn died from leukemia in 1983 at only fifty-six on his way to the U.S. from his seaside resort in the Dominican Republic, Casa de Campo, but Coppola never forgot those stories. This, he said, became the basis for Godfather III, telling Deadline in 2020:
[I]t just was too perfect for me to ignore. So I took the story in that direction, and Mario got wind of it. We hadn’t worked it out, we didn’t know what the story was; we just knew what Charlie had told me and I was just repeating what I could remember because he told this all to me. […] I remembered everything Charlie told me and I was very impressed with him and I thought there was a sort of irony to the fact that I would use what in fact Paramount’s own role in this scandalous story was in the movie. I thought that there was a kind of justice in that.8)
The ingenious concept of involving Michael Corleone with the Vatican Bank allowed for Coppola to dramatize the real-life financial scandals. When Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger) hangs from the bridge during the climax of Godfather III, it evokes the death of Roberto Calvi in June 1982, his body found hanging from the scaffolding of London’s Blackfriars bridge (first dubbed a suicide by London police, since reclassified as an unsolved homicide).
Calvi was on the run, the house of cards he built up for years at the Banco Ambrosiano collapsing around him (the bank itself eventually collapsed, becoming Italy’s largest bank failure since World War II). Four years later, Michele Sindona was poisoned in a Lombard prison when cyanide was added to his coffee. And 1978 saw the death of Pope John Paul I, who allegedly promised to get to the bottom of the Vatican’s financial turmoil by firing the Vatican Bank’s manager, then-bishop Paul C. Marcinkus. (According to David Paul Kirkpatrick’s fascinating online series “The Godfather Aesthetic,”9 an adaptation of a popular 1984 nonfiction book, In God’s Name by David Yallop, was in development at Paramount in the years leading up to Godfather III. The book theorized the pope was murdered. Yallop claimed Paramount, Coppola, and Puzo plagiarized key portions of the book’s arguments, apparently to no avail. Yallop died in 2018. Marcinkus remained head of the bank until 1988, resisting an Italian arrest warrant by living within the Vatican.)
With this connection to real people and events, Coppola was sure he had struck the gold Paramount longed for with Godfather III – by drawing on Paramount’s own skeletons in the closet. Only he didn’t go far enough. Bluhdorn may have inspired it, but he makes no appearance or reference in the film. And what if he had? What if Coppola took his own Abbott and Costello Meets the Godfather advice? Not in a literal sense, but instead of attempting a wholly serious film that became The Godfather, Part III as we know it, why not approach it as a kind of self-parody akin to 2002’s Adaptation (directed by Coppola’s then-son-in-law, Spike Jonze), where art imitates life and Charlie Bluhdorn and Paramount become tangled into the story? In this scenario, perhaps Michael is a thinly disguised version of Michele Sindona, doing business with both the movie business, in his quest for legitimacy, and the Vatican, in his quest for spiritual redemption. Perhaps Bluhdorn is a Jack Woltz-type from the first Godfather. Such self-reflexivity and a wink to such bizarre real-life parallels might have breathed fresh life into a project that, like many a sequel, seemed doomed from the start.
It remains to be seen to what extent Francis and the Godfather and The Offer incorporate Bluhdorn’s murky involvement with the over-the-top characters who inspired those in The Godfather, Part III (Burn Gorman, Major Hewlett from AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies is playing Bluhdorn in The Offer). Still, the Bluhdorn-Paramount-Sindona-Vatican-Immobiliare backstory is ripe for the taking, and could have been anticipated thirty years ago by Coppola himself if he really wanted to show how deep the network of corruption ran. After all, the very success of this most beloved of film franchises, with its nine Oscar statuettes, twenty-three nominations, and billions from box office paydirt, is a direct result of those corrupted relationships.
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- Simon Thompson, “Diane Keaton Wrote Off ‘The Godfather Part III’ but Is Floored by Coppola’s Recut,” Forbes, December 5, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonthompson/2020/12/05/diane-keaton-wrote-off-the-godfather-part-iii-but-is-floored-by-coppolas-recut/?sh=60bd94c354ae [↩]
- Michael Wilmington, Coppola’s Glorious Disappointment: ‘The Godfather Part III’ Doesn’t Achieve Its ToweringGoals, but the Capstone to the Corleone Saga Is Still One of the Year’s Best Films,” Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1990, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-12-23-ca-9701-story.html [↩]
- Roger Ebert, “The Godfather, Part III,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 25, 1990, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-godfather-part-iii-1990 [↩]
- Gene D. Phillips and Rodney Hall, Francis Ford Coppola Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004), 25. [↩]
- Gus Russo, Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006), 318. [↩]
- Martin A. Lee, “Banking for God, the Mob, and the CIA,” Mother Jones, July/August 1983, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1983/07/banking-godthe-mob-and-cia/ [↩]
- Seymour M. Hersh, “S.E.C. Presses Wide Investigation of Gulf and Western Conglomerate” New York Times, July 24, 1977, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/07/24/archives/sec-presses-wide-investigation-of-gulf-and-western-conglomerate-sec.html [↩]
- Mike Fleming, Jr. “Take a Deep Dive with Francis Coppola & Al Pacino into ‘Godfather’ Mythology as Paramount Fetes 30th Anniversary with ‘Coda, The Death of Michael Corleone’ Release,” Deadline, December 3, 2020, https://deadline.com/2020/12/the-godfather-the-death-of-michael-corleone-francis-coppola-al-pacino-sofia-coppola-1234649808/ [↩]
- David Paul Kirkpatrick, “In God’s Name — Part I,” medium.com, December 18, 2018, https://medium.com/david-paul-kirkpatrick/in-gods-name-part-i-4e4da591f2bd [↩]