December 31, 1990 12:00 PM

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, those mesmeric chronicles of one Mafia family’s bloody rise, not only earned nine Oscars and $800 million but also insinuated director Francis Ford Coppola’s lushly romantic vision of the Italian-American underworld into the pop-culture mainstream. Now, 16 years after settling their last big-screen vendetta, the Corleones are back—and still seeking respect. The reception accorded The Godfather Part III at 1,800 theaters will be of considerable import to Paramount, which footed its $51 million tab. More important, the picture represents a defining moment in the career of its maker.

Still firmly positioned among the most gifted of postwar American directors, Coppola, 51, is in sore need of a hit after a calamitous decade of bad script choices, family turmoil, bankrupted wealth and personal tragedy. Yet he chose to raise the stakes. Notorious for employing kin (sister Talia Shire and nephew Nicolas Cage as actors, dad Carmine as composer), he defied the studio to cast his untried 19-year-old daughter, Sofia (right), as the character around whom the ornate plot pivots.

Headstrong behavior is characteristic of Coppola. Few in the industry have ever wished ill on a man whose charm, intelligence and generosity match his ample girth. Still, he has long nurtured a siege mentality not unlike that of mafiosi taking to the mattresses. A master at extracting what he wanted from Hollywood, he nonetheless plowed his cut from the Godfathers into San Francisco-based Zoetrope, a studio he grandly envisioned as a kinder, gentler training ground for young talent.

But playing rebel without a pause can lead to overreaching. Intent on securing independence by self-financing his ambitious 1979 Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now, he mortgaged his company and far-flung real estate holdings. The picture’s eventual profits were too little, too late to pay back the rapidly escalating debts (Coppola and Zoetrope were both forced into Chapter 11 but recently reached settlements with creditors).

Apocalypse almost proved to be Coppola’s personal Big Muddy as well. While on location in the Philippines, he began an intense on-set affair that nearly ended his 14-year marriage to Eleanor Neil. The director subsequently buried himself in work, spending the 1980s punching out seven pictures and a third of another. Most were DOA at the box office. He was filming one such turkey, 1987’s Gardens of Stone, when his son Gian Carlo, 23—whom Coppola has described as “my best friend and collaborator”—died freakishly in a motor-boat piloted by Ryan O’Neal’s son Griffin. The devastating loss seemed to reknit the family.

Over the decades, Coppola had spurned a succession of scripts for a second Godfather sequel (in one version John Travolta, fresh from Saturday Night Fever, was to play a young Corleone yanked from the U.S. Naval Academy to infiltrate Cuba and assassinate Castro). By early 1989, Coppola’s finances in shambles, Paramount finally made the offer he couldn’t refuse. Budget was no problem; time was. Coppola and Godfather author Mario Puzo dashed out a draft of the script in just six weeks.

And then came the controversy over Sofia’s casting. The role of Mary Corleone, Michael’s daughter, had been assigned to Winona Ryder. But when the actress jetted to Rome just two days after finishing an eight-week shoot on Mermaids, she was so ill and exhausted that the company’s doctor sent her home. With scenes involving Mary ready to shoot, Coppola immediately substituted Sofia, coincidentally in town on Christmas break from Mills College, where she was a freshman. A veteran of perhaps 10 minutes of screen time in four of her dad’s movies—carry-on roles in The Godfather (she was the baby baptized at the end) as well as in II, bit parts in Rumble Fish and Peggy Sue Got Married—Sofia would by most accounts rather have returned to her classes. Early reviews of Godfather III have been mixed but, as the studio feared, even critics who like the picture have not been kind to Sofia (“Film’s main flaw,” sneered Variety; TIME lamented her “gosling gracelessness”). Says Coppola defensively: “It’s unfortunate that so much fuss is made over what in the end is just a movie.”

Yet the casting flap has obscured another, more subtle obstacle the movie faces: the growing realization that the mob that Coppola depicted no longer exists. Instead of swearing fealty to seigneurial schemers steeped in Old World etiquette, today’s Mafia seems led by hot heads like New York City’s smirking John Gotti, known as much for his $1,000 suits as for the splashy slayings he is charged with ordering. In an era when murderous crack dealers, remorseless street gangs and even white-bread S & L and junk-bond rascals hover more ominously than the goombahs of Married to the Mob and GoodFellas, will the public take to Coppola’s latest operatic meditation on the fate of the house of Corleone?

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