‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States’. The minute we hear Ray Liotta’s deep, enthusiastic, tone setting voice, we’re instantly drawn in to GoodFellas.
Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime film has long been argued as one of, if not the best pieces of work from the esteemed director, as well as the greatest gangster movie of all time.
His adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 non-fiction book, Wiseguy – who co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese – tells the story of the rise and fall of mob associate, Henry Hill, (played by Liotta), his accomplices, friends and family, from 1955 to 1980.
Accompanying Liotta on the critically acclaimed GoodFellas, was a commanding and majestic ensemble cast, including Robert De Niro, (Jimmy Conway), Joe Pesci, (Tommy DeVito) and Lorraine Bracco (Karen Friedman Hill) – to name a few.
All played a pivotal role in helping the film become one of the greatest movies ever made, depicting how the ‘good life’ can instantly morph into horrific violence, and ultimately, end up with you turning into a ‘schnook’, driving into suburban hell.
GoodFellas was the beginning of a new generation for ‘mob movies’, but with tradition kept at the epicentre of the drama, and yet, despite cult status, it took a few years for the movie to be regarded a classic.
The film illustrated the ruthlessness of mobster life in a unique way when compared to the mafia movies which preceded it, such as The Godfather, which, it can be argued, romanticised gangsters and mob bosses.
The purity and authenticity of the characters – like Paul Sorvino’s portrayal of Paulie Cicero, the cool, calm . and collected ‘Capo’, who moves slowly, while maintaining dominance through delegation of hits and other scrupulous tasks – along with the storytelling, or rather the narration, add to the film’s depth, perfectly allowing us to become a part of their mob, via Scorsese’s semi-documentary style.
The narrative throughout the film, not only from Liotta, but via the interruptions of his on-screen wife, Bracco – a woman who not only stands her own alongside mob bosses, but gives a thought-provoking, honest and brilliant performance as a female lead – gives us the ‘two sides to every story’ scenario, as well as the ability to see the situation from all sides involved, a he-said-she-said relatable tale of sorts.
She’s not a perfect woman, she’s not meant to be placed on a pedestal, instead she makes her own decisions, does what’s best for her, and so what if they’re not always the best? At her roots, she’s just a good Jewish girl, ultimately seduced into a mafia marriage and lifestyle.
One of the many comedic performances in the film come from Bracco. Not only is it funny, but it shows her characters strength.
Early on in their relationship, when Karen confronts Henry after he stands her up, she sassily confronts him – while his accomplices are stood around – and shouts:
You’ve got some nerve standing me up. Nobody does that to me. Who do you think you are? Frankie Valli? Or some kind of big shot?
It was a line Bracco states she ‘fought Scoresese over’ to include. He wanted it to be Rock Hudson, (an American actor who was branded a ‘heartthrob’, but Bracco insisted Karen was a ‘Valli girl’ – someone she was a big fan of herself.
Having a female lead who doesn’t use her sexuality to gain some form of power, is a niche across Hollywood. Margot Robbie was applauded heavily for her role in The Wolf Of Wall Street, the characterisation of which relies heavily on it, but Bracco demonstrates an array of other powers to enforce her independence and authority in GoodFellas.
‘I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriends gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I gotta admit the truth, it turned me on’, she tells us. We see the human and emotive side of her character, an honesty which comes across as relatable and understandable.
Bracco was a female lead who’s the perfect blend of intelligence, naivety, vulnerability and yet confidence – at times – it was a breath of fresh air, and still is to this day, not least back in 1990.
Yet the story-telling perhaps worked so well because of the real-life aspects the film incorporated.
Robert De Niro revealed how he was constantly in touch with the real-life Henry Hill during shooting to ensure he was accurate, checking in with him ‘every couple of days’. And this was despite Hill being in the witness protection program at the time. On-going fact-checking is said to have always been taking place.
Hill died back in 2012, but entered the world of organised crime as a young boy. His mafia involvement then deepened and he embarked on a journey which included numerous illegal activities; robbery, loan sharking, hijacking, arson and drug dealing.
He eventually became an informant for the FBI and entered a federal witness protection program.
However, in the early 1990s, Hill and his wife were expelled from the program after being arrested several times on narcotics-related charges, and after living under various aliases, Hill reassumed his own name.
He regularly spoke about his former life, and gave numerous accounts of some of his ‘real crimes’ which weren’t touched on within the film.
Despite calling GoodFellas ’95 per cent accurate’, he also spoke of how a lot of the criminals were far worse than portrayed. Quite an astonishing claim when you think the film received terrible preview screening numbers due to it’s violent nature. At one particular showing in California, there were 70 walk outs due to the ‘violent content’.
Only five murders take place on screen, (10 if you include Jimmy Conway’s doings following the Lufthansa heist) and even having watched the movie countless times – it still doesn’t seem right how the number is so low! (But violence and threatening behaviour are a constant theme throughout).
When compared to John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, which was released the same year and had 214 deaths, or the 255 we have in Saving Private Ryan, and the 24 in Scorsese’s Best Picture winner, The Departed, GoodFellas isn’t all that bloody.
Vario (Paul Cicero in the film) was said to be far from the relatively cool-headed powerbroker Paul Sorvino portrayed.
According to Free Info Society, a federal prosecutor called Vario, who served jail time for rape and had a ‘notoriously unhinged temper’, reports Slate, was ‘one of the most violent and dangerous career criminals in the city of New York.’
And De Niro’s character, Conway, comes across as cunning and conniving with a brutal streak, but according to Hill, the real Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke was a ‘homicidal maniac’, brutally violent and responsible for at least 50-to-60 murders.
Perhaps one of the most famous characters, Lucchese crime family associate, Thomas DeSimone, (portrayed as ‘Tommy DeVito’ by Pesci), was said to be just as ruthless, explosively tempered and murderous as his onscreen counterpart. Their only differences were said to be height – Pesci standing at 5’4 – and age. Pesci was in his late forties when making GoodFellas, yet 6’2 DeSimone met a violent end at the age of 28.
Pesci’s attitude however, was, worryingly, spot on…
When you think of GoodFellas and Pesci, there’s ultimately one scene which fans will hark back to – it’s arguably the most famous part of the film and one of the most quoted by fans.
Even watching from the comfort of your own sofa, when Pesci’s Tommy DeVito jokingly-yet-uncomfortably accosts Hill for calling him ‘funny’ the hairs on the back of your neck stand to full attention.
Not only does his quick-change in persona lead the scene, while his attitude scares audience members alike, Pesci was in fact the mastermind behind it. The scene wasn’t even in Scorsese’s script.
While working in a restaurant at a young age, Pesci is said to have told a gentleman he was ‘funny’, which was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response.
After relaying the incident to Scorsese – who decided to include it in the film – he didn’t add it to the script. Instead, via improvisation, Pesci and Liotta’s interactions were genuine and elicited genuine surprise from the rest of the cast.
Best Supporting Actor in 1991 was awarded to, you guessed it, Pesci, the film’s only Academy Award.
Even with all the violence, drug-taking and threatening behaviour, there were reportedly two scenes left out of the film.
Scorsese didn’t include a crime which went on to become a national sports controversy – the Boston College 1978/79 point-shaving scandal.
ESPN‘s Playing For The Mob documents the event, through the testimony of the players, federal investigators and the actual ‘fixers’ including Hill, who passed away shortly after his interview.
Give it a watch:
There was also the time Hill reportedly took cosmetics mogul, Estée Lauder, out for a drink while his associates stole over $1 million worth of goods from her New York City townhouse, reports the Daily Mail.
Hill had managed to charm the millionaire into giving him her phone number and took her out for cocktails while his crew ransacked her home.
In the book, The Lufthansa Heist: Behind the Six-Million-Dollar Cash Haul That Shook the World, it refers to the incident surrounding Lauder’s robbery, as well as the armed robbery at Kennedy Airport, on December 11, which resulted in the largest unrecovered cash haul in world history – totalling six million dollars – which is most definitely mentioned in the film!
Aside from Scorsese’s and Pileggi’s characters, the reality of the storyline, and the performances from some formidable actors, what else makes GoodFellas the most incredible ‘mob movie’ of all time, beating classics such as The Godfather, Scarface, Donnie Brasco, and Casino?
For starters, it has an intense speed, despite its 148 minute run time.
Karen and Henry’s three-minute entry into the Copacabana’s back entrance is still one of the most celebrated tracking shots in cinematic history.
The Crystals’ hit, Then He Kissed Me, plays pretty much through it’s entirety and shows a world of privilege, power and relationships – themes constant throughout the film.
Scorsese has called it the most logistically challenging shot of his career.
How many violent films can you sing along to? Scorsese has been regarded the master at allowing his musical choices do the dramatic work for him.
GoodFellas had ’50s doo-wop, Motown from the 60s and the crashing end was orchestrated with sounds of the seventies.
Through music, we’re taken on another journey within the film, starting with Tony Bennett’s joyful line:
I know I’d go from rags to riches…
The music of Eric Clapton also features at pivotal moments – Scorsese is believed to be a big fan of the musician. The deep setting Layla is used for a revenge montage, while Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love plays as DeNiro cuts a sinister scowl.
Scorsese picked songs reflective of the scene or character’s feelings, while being historically appropriate of that time period. Can you really tap your foot along to The Godfather?
For its social importance, GoodFellas sparked a debate among the Italian-American community. It also reflected accurately what was happening to the mafia in the 80s.
Scorsese and Pileggi were targeted for their portrayal of Italian-Americans, and at 2015’s closing-night anniversary screening of Goodfellas at the Tribeca Film Festival, Scorsese revealed he and Pileggi were declared personae non gratae, (not welcome) at one of their favourite restaurants.
Despite the controversy Scorsese had clearly touched a nerve, proving he’d lost none of his edge, and subsequently, it ‘saved’ him. By the end of the 1980s, he was flailing due to projects deemed unsuccessful, like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Color of Money.
GoodFellas inevitably put him back at the top of his game before going on to make more classics. Casino followed five years later, (in between Cape Fear and The Age of Innocence).
Yet Goodfellas also reflected what was really happening to the mob in the 1980s.
In Robert Casillo’s book, Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese, he writes:
It responds to the rash of informants [that] the mafia suffered in the 1980s, which brought down a number of the families.
It also reflected increasingly trigger-happy conduct in the mafia families.
Scorsese knew this world inside-out and portrayed his knowledge and experiences throughout GoodFellas. Growing up in New York’s Little Italy, he was as an outsider who observed everything.
The shot early in the film where a young Henry looks out the window of his family’s apartment and watches the ‘wise guys’ impressionably, with their cars, money and power, is reflective of Scorsese’s upbringing.
In The Godfather, the Corleones portray such dramatised acts, and for me, is one of the main reasons as to why Scorsese’s realm of reality within GoodFellas is so appealing and ultimately, edges it to top spot.
Scorsese’s work is far more visceral, and The Godfather definitely doesn’t pull as many punches. While the lead, Michael Corleone, is heartless and tragic, he doesn’t give us the human side of Liotta as Hill.
Liotta’s character explores numerous themes, from guilt and betrayal to laughter and love, with the morality never being straightforward – is it ever in life?
Through Liotta’s portrayal of Hill, we understand his feelings, similarly with his wife Karen, and the rest of the ‘crew’.
Karen becomes engulfed by Mafia life, so much so, her values change, but as the audience, we almost allow it as the journey Scorsese takes us on, is a seductive one we fall into.
We start to see the ‘bad guys’ in a different light, almost in a compassionate manner. The camaraderie is so strong, their loyalty so unquestioned, it allows us to question our own relationships.
And yet ultimately, it all comes crashing down for Hill, his wife, and their ‘mob’ and we see the guilt and paranoia the characters suffer with.
Film critic Roger Ebert writes:
And then the guilt – the real guilt, the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately – is not that they did sinful things, but that they want to do them again.
Had it not been for Scorsese’s GoodFellas, you can kiss goodbye to HBO‘s The Sopranos – which ultimately paved way for classic TV shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire.
Creator David Chase called GoodFellas his ‘Koran’. Not only did he poach two of the film’s signature actors for key roles (Lorraine Bracco, and Michael Imperioli), Chase expanded richly on Scorsese’s comic banality and internal rot.
Chase said at the time:
I found that movie very funny and brutal and it felt very real. And yet that was the first mob movie Scorsese ever dealt with a mob crew … as opposed to say The Godfather … which there’s something operatic about it, classical, even the clothing and the cars.
You know, I always think about Goodfellas when they go to their mother’s house that night when they’re eating, you know, when she brings out her painting, that stuff is great. I mean The Sopranos learned a lot from that.
It’s importance is unquestionable and in 2000, GoodFellas was deemed ‘culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant’ and subsequently, was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.
Perhaps what makes GoodFellas incomparable to others, is the number of themes it explores while entwined with one another, as a constant.
It doesn’t do it justice to simply call it a ‘mob movie’, or a rise and fall film. Scorsese gives us the American Dream.
He gives us a love story, and combines this with perfect scores, breathtaking camera work, and ultimately, comedy – something others lack.
And remember, it gave us one, very important life lesson:
Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.
Jimmy’s words, not mine.