Storm over Sofia Coppola -- Her performance in ''The Godfather III'' is overshadowing the most eagerly awaited sequel in years

”I had connections.” That’s how Sofia Coppola openly and cheekily accounts for landing the pivotal role of Mary, daughter of Mafia Don Michael Corleone, in her father’s epic The Godfather Part III. But her connections came with strings attached — and those strings have yanked the 19-year-old fledgling actress into one of the nastiest Hollywood controversies in years.

When Francis Ford Coppola chose at the eleventh hour to replace an ailing Winona Ryder with his daughter, he may have seen the move as a director’s prerogative. But the debate over his choice of Sofia — who has a Valley Girl accent and virtually no acting experience — has grown to overwhelm the picture itself. The affair may have further damaged Coppola’s flagging career — Godfather III was to have been his big comeback — and doomed Sofia’s before it has even begun.

For the Coppola family, the storm has not come as a complete surprise. ”Well-meaning people tell me I am permitting a form of child abuse,” Sofia’s mother, Eleanor, wrote in a diary she kept for Vogue during the filming., ”that she is not ready, not trained for what is being asked of her, and that in the end she will be fodder for critics’ bad reviews that could scar her for years. They also tell me that Francis can’t afford to take a chance that would weaken his work at this point in his career.” Her fears were harshly and promptly realized the moment Paramount finally screened Godfather III for the press on Dec. 12. Many members of the New York audience snickered at Sofia’s portrayal of the Don’s innocent daughter — and laughed out loud at her pivotal scene at the movie’s climax.

And that was only the beginning. Though many praised the film, reviewer after reviewer has singled out Sofia’s performance as a disaster. Not all critics joined in the Sofia bashing. The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael praised her ”lovely and unusual presence,” and Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman wrote that she brought a ”ripe adolescent sexiness” to the film. But many others declared open season on the actress by ridiculing her diction and even belittling her looks. ”(Her) gosling gracelessness comes close to wrecking the movie, ” said Time magazine’s Richard Corliss.

The division and derision didn’t end with the reviews. Moviegoers have been as split as the critics, and the Sofia factor may have been contributed to the film’s box office performance, which has rapidly declined after a strong start. Moreover, both during production and since the movie’s Christmas Day release, the trade and popular press have been filled with stories describing Coppola’s attempts to minimize Sofia’s impact on his film. According to these reports, she was called back to do an extraordinary amount of dubbing, and Coppola spent the final days before the opening desperately shaving seconds from her scenes. The quality of her performance is of course debatable, but a close look at the facts shows that the stories of Coppola tinkering with the film are largely inaccurate.

When Mills College freshman Sofia Coppola flew to Rome in December 1989 to spend Christmas with her family, she had no idea she was approaching a major junction in her young life. Her father had been juggling Godfather III‘s Rome shooting schedule for weeks, waiting for Winona Ryder to finish her work on Mermaids and join the production. Coproducer Fred Ros recalls that Ryder finally showed up after Christmas, ill and exhausted. ”I get this call in the middle of the night and get a doctor for Winona,” he says. He and the doctor went to the hotel where Ryder was staying with her boyfriend, Johnny Depp; after examining her briefly, the doctor advised Roos to send her home.

”I called Francis right away and we reviewed the other choices, Annabella Sciorra and Laura San Giacomo,” says Roos. (First choice Julia Roberts had been committed to Flatliners, while Madonna, who screen-tested, had been deemed to old to play against love interest Andy Garcia.) ”And then Francis said, ‘I’m going to try Sofia.”’

His daughter was just hopping into the shower the next morning when an assistant director phoned Eleanor Coppola to say that Sofia had to leave immediately for costume fitting a the Cinecittà studio. Excited at first, Sofia grew anxious as she realized she would have to shoot her first scenes in just a few hours. Yet the notion of playing Mary Corleone was hardly alien.

”When my father was writing the script, he based a lot of the character on me,” says Sofia. ”I did even read-throughs of the script before they cast Winona Ryder. But when I got it, I was worried. Did I just get it because I’m his daughter?” She sought family counsel. ”I was upset, so I asked my Aunt Tally (Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire, who plays Michael Corleone’s sister), and she said, ‘He’s not going to put his movie and you in jeopardy, no one would do that to their kid.”’

”I reached out to my own child because she was the one Winona was like,” Francis Coppola would later explain on the Today show. But even Aunt Tally had misgivings. ”I said ‘Hey Francis, I’m not so sure. This is a big film, I’m real scared for her,”’ recalls Shire. ”When it was a fact, and he really wanted her, and she knew he wanted and needed her, I said, ‘You are going to be fine, don’t worry.”’

Roos was also concerned, ”This was a far bigger part that she had ever handled,” he says. In fact, Sofia had appeared only in cameos in a few of her father’s other films — beginning with the original Godfather, in which she played the baby boy christened a the film’s conclusion. ”I also knew that the press would jump on it, and that in itself is a lot of pressure for Sofia, for Francis, and for the movie,” Roos says. ”But once the decision was made, we all kind of jumped on and gave Sofia all the support we could.”

The role put visible strain on Sofia. Eleanor’s diary entry for January 10, 1990, reads in part ”Every moment Sofia isn’t on the stage she is at costume fittings or the hairdresser or with her diction teacher. Several times she has burst into tears.”

The criticism was also starting. ”She couldn’t pronounce the name Corleone,” says an extra who was there during the scene in which Mary presents the Catholic church with a $100 million check. ”Her father had to keep cutting and retaking the scene. She was in over her head.”

”I didn’t realize how much pressure I would be under — people want to see Francis’ daughter fall on her face,” Sofia told Entertainment Weekly shortly before Godfather III‘s release. ”My whole life I’ve had to prove myself harder. But any time you are under a lot of pressure, you do try harder. Catching up on years of acting training was the most difficult.” One special challenge was toning down the Val Gal accent. ”I had people telling me, like, ”Vincent has t on the end,’ and when you are doing the scene, you don’t think about things like that. I was trying to be as real as possible.

The movie’s steamy kitchen love scene, in which Vincent and Mary progress from making gnocchi to making whoopee, was especially tricky for the teen. ”I was pretty crazed that day when I had to kiss Andy at 7:00 in the morning, ” she says. ”I wasn’t feeling very romantic, and also the script supervisor, who I’ve known since I was twelve, was standing a foot away saying ‘Oka, saliva under his left ear, Sofia’ I mean, all this flirting and kissing I’m doing with Andy, I’m doing in front of my father, of all people!”

Although many of the movie’s other actors reportedly objected to Coppola’s decision to cast her, Sofia herself describes the cast as supportive. ”Al Pacino was so funny, he always kept me entertained. He told me, ‘Whenever you get the urge to act, lie down and wait for it to pass.’ That was the best advice I learned the whole time. And Andy taught me that the most important work for an actor is being off-camera for the other actor. And it’s true, when the camera was on me, he was always there helping me.”

Whatever the strengths or weakness of her performance, criticism of Sofia has begun to take on a life of its own, and the reports that she had to do an abnormal amount of dubbing are a good example. Even one of her defenders, New Yorker critic Kael, complained that ”her voice (or a dubber’s voice) lacks expressiveness.” Contrary to Kael’s conjecture, though, no other voice was substituted for Sofia’s. And dubbing dialogue eliminate background noise from busy scenes — called looping — is routine on most pictures. According to one of the movie’s ADR (automatic dialogue replacements) editors, Tom Bellfort, all the Godfather III actors had to loop many of their lines. ”To say Sofia was such a problem that she had to be looped is really blown out of proportion,” says Bellfort. ”What wound up on the soundtrack was about 70 percent of her original track.”

Another false report stalking Sofia is that her father, after the press screenings, edited the performance down and then wrote selected critics urging them to see the film again. The Hollywood Reporter stated that ”the version now in the theaters…includes noticeably less screen time for Coppola’s daughter…whose performance has been roundly criticized.” New York Post film critic Jami Bernard wrote that Coppola ”has snipped between two and four minutes in his epic, presumably to improve the flow and perhaps tangentially to allay the Sofia Problem,” and went on to say that ”Sofia seemed a tad less annoying” on the second viewing. ”It looks like Coppola has cut away from Sofia more quickly after her scenes.” Variety‘s Lawrence Cohn has said. ”She doesn’t curl her lip or sneer so much after her lines.”

”It’s a mass delusion,” insists Walter Murch, who along with other film editors, Barry Malkin and Lisa Fruchtman, vehemently denies there was any last-minute cutting at all. ”There were refinements for the soundtrack, but there are no missing minutes of the film. The negative was not cut after the critics saw it.” (Roos says one brief close-up of Pacino was added, but nothing was dropped.) Murch thinks the confusion is over edits made the week before the press screenings, after a sneak preview in Seattle to which critics were not invited, and says the changes, which are common after test screenings, were made solely to speed up and clarify the plot.

As for the letters Coppola supposedly sent inviting critics to see the movie again, a Coppola spokeswoman denies they exist, and a survey of leading critics failed to find a single recipient.

In the midst of all this controversy, there are some who feel Sofia’s presence was a blessing for Coppola. ”It was fortunate Francis didn’t have to close down the picture for two and a half weeks (to find a new Mary),” says Roos. ”It’s clearly not a performance of a smooth, vastly experienced actress — we all admit that — but I would like to thin her innocence and vulnerability make up for that and make it work.” Shire takes Sofia’s contribution a step farther. ”Sofia brought her extraordinary love for her father, but what she really brought was something no one will ever see in the movie,” she says. ”By having her there, Francis was able to structure some of his own anxieties, to explore things more deeply in the character of Michael, and therefore have a greater Al Pacino. It’s the things you don’t see that she brought.”

Coppola himself is plainly grateful to his daughter, and sorry about any pain she may have suffered. ”She is not an experienced actress, that is not her career goal,” he has said. But once press reports on the casting began to appear, ”I realized that my daughter had been singled out basically to get creamed. So I said, ‘Will it hurt your feelings if people didn’t think you did it as good as you could have? And she said, ‘No, if you think I did it good, then it wouldn’t hurt my feelings.’ So I am very proud of her. She did exactly what I wanted.”

The neophyte actress has other defenders. ”A lot of people used Sofia’s performance to bash Coppola because it made them feel like insiders,” says Entertainment Weekly critic Gleiberman. ”Among much of the press, there seemed to be more interest in what was going on offscreen than in whether the movie was actually any good.” And when emcee Rex Reed let fly a nasty crack about Sofia at a recent awards ceremony of the New York Film Critics Circle, his comment was greeted by hisses from the audience, including a very audible Madonna.

Has the Godfather III affair destroyed Sofia Coppola’s future as an actress? Scorching early notices have derailed many performers for years but not everyone is ready to write Sofia off. ”I’m sure if she wants a career in the acting business, she can have it,” says Army Archerd, columnist for Daily Variety. ”There are a lot better actresses than her who are working, and a lot worse. She’s just a kid.” Anyway, she may be more interested in working on the other side of the camera; her real love has never been acting but costume design. Three years ago she had her first try at the job in ”Life Without Zoe,” an episode of New York Stories she wrote with her father; the next month her designs will be on view in The Spirit of ’76, a film featuring her boyfriend, Redd Kross’ bassist Steve McDonald, and his brother and band member, Jeff.

Sofia is now living in Los Angeles, and she seems to be taking her 15 minutes of infamy in stride. ”I speak to Sofia every day, her best friend is our little boy’s nanny,” says Roos. ”She almost never talks about the movie. She talks about other things, like her boyfriend, and she just kind of gets on with her life.” Mills College expects her back this month to continue her studies in art history, and, according to Aunt Tally, she may to on to study costume and scenic design at Yale.

”Sofia has what I call ‘Coppola courage,”’ Shire says, ”and no one will ever know what that is unless you are in a family with our chromosomes, our karma, and our intensity.” Shire sees a parallel between the family crisis and the film. ”She was just so innocent in a ridiculous situation. 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.”