The Teenage Heartbreak of Sofia Coppola's Mary Corleone
Why the auteur's much-hated appearance in Godfather 3 is actually the key to her entire oeuvre
From Mary Corleone to Marie Antoinette, TIFF screens all six films of Sofia Coppola in the career retrospective Sofia Coppola: A Name of Her Own, running December 8 to 17 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
In December 1989, midway through her freshman year at California’s Mills College, Sofia Coppola traveled to Rome for Christmas vacation. Her father, Francis, was deep in the throes of filming the last installment of his elephantine Godfather trilogy. Around that same time, Winona Ryder —the gamine, coal-eyed rising star then best-known for playing Lydia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) — had flown to the city to film the pivotal role of Mary Corleone, ill-fated daughter of Al Pacino’s Michael and lover of her own first cousin Vincent (Andy Garcia), in Coppola’s film. Ryder had just finished filming Richard Benjamin's Mermaids (1990), and she found herself nursing a nasty bout of exhaustion brought on by a frenetic filming schedule. Late one night, she summoned a doctor to her hotel room. She dropped out of the film at the doctor’s urging.
This threw a wrench into Coppola’s already-stagnant filming schedule. He wasn’t expecting this, and so he’d already exhausted all other options for the role. In 1989, Ryder’s star had not yet peaked — Mermaids would nab her a ton of critical paeans, and two Oscar nominations would follow in later years. But she was on the cusp of feverish Hollywood fame, and a role in this legendary franchise would’ve cemented that quickly. His first choice, Julia Roberts, dropped out to do Flatliners (1990); Madonna auditioned but was deemed too old for the part; Rebecca Schaeffer was brutally murdered on the day of her audition; Annabella Sciorra and Laura San Giacomo, once on the list, weren't available on such short notice. Frantic for a last-minute replacement, he landed on the closest possible option, someone whose prior acting experience was confined to inessential one-liners: Sofia.
Is there a more universally reviled performance in American cinema than Sofia Coppola’s in The Godfather Part III? In real time, it inspired something like anaphylactic shock within American critics – those in press pre-screenings of the film howled with laughter at her death sequence in the penultimate scene. Once critics got to print, they weren’t much kinder. Sofia’s “gosling gracelessness comes close to wrecking the movie,” opined TIME's Richard Corliss.“Hopelessly amateurish,” Washington Post’s Hal Hinsonscribed. So feverish was this chorus of revulsion that it even drowned out two of American criticism’s respected voices, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, lone defenders of a performance that everyone despised.
Sofia broke Razzie records, too, earning a more sizable fraction of the Worst Supporting Actress vote than any other of her category’s nominees in the tawdry history of those awards. Her performance still frequents “worst-ever” acting lists. Today, even anyone who mounts a defense of the film, which has earned the distinction of the trilogy’s worst, won’t dare defend Sofia’s work in it. Her performance in the film remains the film’s malignant tumor. Over the course of these three and a half decades, critical consensus has coalesced around her performance: it sucks.
“She was just so innocent in a ridiculous situation,” Sofia’s aunt, actress Talia Shire, told Entertainment Weekly in 1990. The cover story, dedicated to Sofia Coppola, is a kooky document of its era, expounding upon the grave directorial miscalculation her father had made in casting her. “It was very much what the character Mary was dealing with – the controversial father, Michael Corleone, and her desire to bring her innocence to help him forget his sins. But then, of course, the cost of that is herself.”
The symmetry that Shire offers is useful. Sofia, like Mary, was a casualty of her own father’s grand and mighty ambitions, and the burden of his failures fell squarely upon her. Sofia spent years as the butt of a cultural punchline, synonymous with nepotism, until she redeemed herself with her directorial output. You can detect a touch of sexism in all this opprobrium, so characteristic of a decade in which pillorying women mercilessly became a national sport. Only now have we started to come to the defense of contentious '90s fatales like Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky. Sofia Coppola – the rich, white daughter of an extremely famous man – was an easy target for gendered vitriol that could be couched under a distaste for nepotism.
Consider the context swirling around her. What Sofia Coppola faced resembles what Anjelica Huston dealt with, too, upon the 1969 release of her father’s A Walk with Love and Death. Dire circumstances had pulled the younger Huston into a role she was dreadfully ill-prepared for, and it showed in her strained, suffocated diction. Sixteen years later, she won an Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor (1985), and it carried redemptive balm. Beyond the sphere of Hollywood nepotism, there’s Marisa Tomei, who, for years, had one nasty accusation after another leveled against her following her surprise win for 1993’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. There was a widely-held cultural belief that Tomei not only didn’t deserve this award, but had also somehow been actively responsible for engineering her win. To correct this, we thought, she needed to pay penance to us and prove herself – something she accomplished with her subsequent Oscar nominations for In the Bedroom (2001) and The Wrestler (2008).
Even with this hindsight, it’s difficult to defend Sofia Coppola’s performance these days without seeming pointlessly contrarian. I’ll bite. In a cinematic universe obsessed with the furies of manhood, Sofia’s Mary – propelled by nothing but a basic sincerity of feeling and a longing for human connection – acts as an antidote to these big, blustering lumps of testosterone collapsing under the weight of their own egos. The Godfather Part III is a titanic film that lacks humanist granularity. She anchors it in honesty.
Pan to the scene in which Vincent breaks up with Mary. The two had been courting each other endlessly prior to this, but Vincent, at Michael’s behest, realizes that he’s endangering Mary’s life. He approaches her at a party, where he breaks the news to her – they can’t see each other. She doesn’t seem to react too much at first. Coppola’s camera lingers upon her in medium close-up as Mary struggles to process her reaction to the enormity of what she’s hearing, crippled by an inability to convey it.
"You gotta understand, Mary,” Vincent shakes his head. “You gotta understand."
Mary gazes at him wordlessly.
“I’ll always love you,” she whispers, almost inaudibly.
"Love somebody else," he brusquely instructs her before walking away. His actions chisel away at what little resolve she has. Mary erupts in a soft cry.
There’s a fine line between innocence and inexperience, and, for some, Sofia veered into the latter with a performance that lacks any thespianic athleticism, an approach this scene makes evident. But I’d argue that this is the accidental brilliance of Sofia Coppola’s Mary: She distills teenage heartbreak and offers it to us in blunt terms. The blisters of first love – how utterly beguiling these feelings are, how trying to express them can feel akin to paralysis – are made flesh.
Perhaps Mary Corleone is a precursor to the broken-hearted teenage girls who would, just a few years later, wander through Sofia Coppola’s cinematic worlds – the first of these rueful creations who’d mark her career. In The Virgin Suicides (1999), the spectre of depression bleeds like a contagion through each of teenage Lisbon sisters, trapped in suburbia; in Marie Antoinette (2006), Kirsten Dunst’s eponymous character is thrust into a marriage and, by consequence the public eye, at the ripe age of fourteen. In Somewhere (2010), eleven-year-old Elle Fanning is burdened with a wayward, absentee celebrity father. The teenagers of The Bling Ring (2013) are outsiders looking in, wanting so desperately to attend a party they weren't invited to, they channel their stupor into criminal activity.
I’d even consider Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003) to be part of this camp. She isn’t a teenager; she’s more like one in arrested development, a living testament to how these debilitating pangs of sadness don’t always subside with age. It may appear that Johansson’s performance isn’t much of an actorly stretch. She mutters her lines without inflection, as if Johansson is operating within the orbit of her own persona – after all, it was Murray, not Johansson, who received the Oscar nomination. No matter. This has the effect of conveying a world-weariness and emotional entrapment, a state that Johansson nails. Sofia Coppola’s characters tend to speak in lilted, hushed tones with little vocal intonation, so much that it seems like the actresses playing them aren’t acting at all.
On occasion, of course, the weight of the actor’s persona is so large that it risks eclipsing this sensibility: think Kathleen Turner as the domineering matriarch in The Virgin Suicides, whose raspy voice recalls her most indelible screen roles – especially another suburban mother, the one she played in 1986 Peggy Sue Got Married (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in which, curiously, Sofia herself played Turner’s kid sister). More famously, there’s Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003), who retains his droll and wry witticisms without seeming out of touch with the film around him.
The characters who inhabit Sofia Coppola’s worlds resemble avatars of Mary – one-percenters imprisoned in their own kingdoms of despair. Their ennui is carceral. Some will invariably find this insufferable about her films, especially in 2016. Rich white girls have governed our sympathies for decades, and perhaps those sympathies should be directed elsewhere. Her aesthetic invites accusations of vacuity, too; she populates her frames with artful, Antonioni-esque posturing. But this is a story that Sofia knows, intimately, because she was born into it. Directorially, Sofia Coppola is at her most shrewd when she’s examining these vagaries of teenage heartbreak; she directs her actors with the same sensibility with which she attacked Mary Corleone.
Some may not feel this is enough to justify Sofia Coppola’s casting in The Godfather Part III – it can appear as if she jogged onto the set from another film, momentarily transporting the viewer elsewhere. I’ll concede, somewhat, on that front. Mary wears the big, bruised heart of teenagedom on her sleeve in a way the characters around her don’t. This will strike some people as a jarring deviation, woefully out of step with the milieu surrounding her.
But I’d like to believe that even The Godfather Part III – a three-hour movie pitched to epic proportions – just couldn’t contain that intensity of feeling. Perhaps it’s true that Sofia Coppola’s Mary belonged in another cinematic universe entirely: one like her own.