#575) Goodfellas (1990)

#575) Goodfellas (1990)

OR “King of the Hill”

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi. Based on the book “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” by Pileggi.

Class of 2000

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to do a “Goodfellas” write-up.

The Plot: “Goodfellas” is the true story of Henry Hill, a mob associate who spent 25 years in New York’s organized crime scene. Hill (Ray Liotta) starts working for Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) at age 12, doing small crimes like fencing merchandise. As he grows up, Hill becomes close with Paulie’s associates; cool-headed Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and loose cannon Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). The mobster lifestyle is one of glamour and luxury for Henry, and he takes his new bride Karen (Lorraine Bracco) along for the ride. Henry’s position within the organization elevates, as does the intensity of the crimes, culminating in a heist of the Lufthansa vault at JFK in 1978. But the further the lifestyle consumes Henry, the more dangerous it gets for everybody.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up gives a rundown of the story, and highlights the “standout performances” of De Niro and Pesci, as well as the soundtrack.

But Does It Really?: More like “Greatfellas”, am I right? But seriously, I got nothing that hasn’t already been said about this movie. “Goodfellas” manages to take the gangster world of “The Godfather” and make it stylish and accessible. Scorsese is a director with a vision, and it’s clear that he was able to fully realize it, from the pitch-perfect ensemble to the New Wave-influenced film language. Many have called “Goodfellas” Scorsese’s best, and while I personally think it’s second to the likes of “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver“, that’s still enough to qualify “Goodfellas” as one of the all-time great American films.

Shout Outs: Scorsese references a number of classic films in “Goodfellas”, including NFR entries “The Great Train Robbery“, “The Jazz Singer”, “Red River”, and “Shane”.

Everybody Gets One: Journalist Nicholas Pileggi was fascinated with the mafia, culminating in his book “Wiseguy” about Henry Hill. Scorsese was initially hesitant to do another mob movie, but after reading “Wiseguy” while filming “The Color of Money”, he knew he had to make this film. Ray Liotta was recommended to Scorsese by Robert De Niro, based on his performance as an unhinged ex-con in “Something Wild”. Liotta spent the better part of a year convincing Scorsese and producer Irwin Winkler that he was right for the part, while Warner Bros. preferred a bigger name like Tom Cruise.

Title Track: The title was changed from “Wiseguy” to “Goodfellas” to avoid confusion with the TV series “Wise Guy”, which was airing on CBS at the time, as well as the Brian de Palma film “Wise Guys”. Henry Hill sneaks in both titles during his narration: “We were goodfellas. Wiseguys.”

Seriously, Oscars?: A modest hit upon release, “Goodfellas” received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The big winner of the night was the more epic “Dances with Wolves“, but the film picked up the Best Supporting Actor trophy for Joe Pesci. His acceptance speech was six words long.

Other notes

  • I won’t go into every difference between “Goodfellas” and the real life events, suffice it to say that the film is highly accurate, with the exception of some name changes and dramatic license. 
  • This is Saul Bass’ sneakiest credits sequence yet. Come back here!
  • I must admit this movie does an excellent job of selling the glamour of mobster life, especially from a kid’s perspective: no school, lots of money, everybody treats you like an adult.
  • De Niro’s biggest strength in this performance is that he is just another member of the ensemble. No flashy theatrics or big character monologues; his Jimmy blends in with the rest of the crew, with De Niro’s inherent star power doubling as Jimmy’s clout within the organization. 
  • De Niro’s supposed to be 28 in the beginning!? Now I see why Marty experimented with de-aging technology.
  • Paul Sorvino’s work is a lot like De Niro’s: deceivingly simple, but an irreplaceable part of the experience. Sorvino spent most of his career playing detectives and the like on TV, so it’s fun to see him play a cold criminal with a warm front.
  • During rehearsals, Scorsese would let the actors come up with their own lines, which would then be transcribed and incorporated into the screenplay. When Joe Pesci mentioned an incident where he once insulted a mobster by calling him funny, the scene was added into the film, resulting in Pesci’s instantly iconic “How am I funny?” scene. 
  • Speaking of great lines, is this where I got “Fuck you. Pay me” from? It’s such a common phrase I didn’t realize it’s from this movie.
  • What makes Scorsese’s movies work is that everyone is making the same movie. You have a cast ranging from heavyweights like De Niro to real life mobsters in their first acting gig, but everyone comes off as natural. Scorsese and casting director Ellen Lewis know how to cast people for quality (as in characteristics) rather than talent. In a film with over 100 credited actors (and non-actors), there isn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble.
  • Shoutout to Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill. Bracco was worried that in a male-dominated movie her role would be pared down in editing, so she made a point to make her “work important”. And boy does she deliver: you are always aware of Karen and her vitalness to the story. It helps that this movie gives a damn about Karen’s perspective, even letting her narrate a few scenes.
  • I can’t call this a movie blog without talking about “The Shot”: a three minute single take of Henry taking Karen to the Copacabana through the backdoor/kitchen area, ending with them getting a table front and center while Henny Youngman performs. I’m a sucker for single-takes, and this is no exception. It’s an exhilarating sequence that sweeps you up in the stylized fantasy of this world. That being said, I’m convinced at one point Henry & Karen just walk around in a big circle. 
  • My favorite detail in the movie: when Karen asks for money to go shopping, she indicates the amount by spreading her thumb and forefinger, referring to the size of the cash wad.
  • This movie is Round Two of “Joe Pesci vs. Frank Vincent”. Things got heated in “Raging Bull”, and now Pesci’s Tommy makes the first move by stomping Vincent’s Billy Batts to death. A powerful scene showing us how far off the deep end Tommy has gone, plus it’s got that “Atlantis” song I like! To be continued in “Casino”…
  • Martin Scorsese cast his mother Catherine as Tommy’s mother. She is perfect, evoking some combination of Estelle Gettty and my own Italian grandmother. Martin’s father Charles shows up later as Vinny, the mobster who puts too many onions in the sauce.
  • It took us 90 minutes, but we finally got a Rolling Stones song. Hopefully “Gimme Shelter” and “Monkey Man” will help you fill out your Scorsese Bingo card.
  • You know this is early in Samuel L. Jackson’s career when he’s playing the minor character who fucks up, rather than the badass in charge.
  • Don’t get me wrong, the Lufthansa heist is impressive (in real life and in the movie), but everyone benefits from pre-9/11 airport security. You could smuggle cocaine for god sake!
  • Add “Goodfellas” to my “Die Hard” Not Christmas list; as seen here, the holiday season after the big heist is the last moment of joy any of these characters have before it all goes to hell.
  • Ray Liotta is fantastic from beginning to end, but his best work is at the end when a coked-out Henry is increasingly paranoid that he’s being watched by the FBI. Liotta is so convincing that for a moment I thought I was high too. 
  • Over the years, I’ve seen “Goodfellas” a few times, but not often enough that I remember every major story point, so several of the turns at the end still surprise me. Watching Lorraine Bracco walk down an empty alleyway is as suspenseful for me as anything Hitch ever did.
  • Only Scorsese would end a gangster movie with an homage to “The Great Train Robbery”. Marty’s justification: “It hasn’t changed, 90 years later, it’s the same story, the gun shots will always be there.”

Legacy

  • “Goodfellas” opened to a heap of critical praise that hasn’t slowed down in 30 years. The movie continues to be one of Scorsese’s top achievements, and is one of only seven films to make the NFR in its first year of eligibility.
  • Henry Hill was still in Witness Protection when “Goodfellas” was released. Hill was quite pleased with the film and Liotta’s performance, and publicly revealed his true identity, which got him kicked out of Witness Protection. Hill spent the rest of his life promoting himself in association with the movie, including the publication of his cookbook, up until his death in 2012.
  • While Nicholas Pileggi was preparing the “Goodfellas” screenplay, his wife Nora Ephron – a prolific writer in her own right – was inspired by Hill’s years in Witness Protection to write her own screenplay, which became the comedy “My Blue Heaven”. The film premiered a month before “Goodfellas” and is remembered today as a minor cult film.
  • David Chase has cited “Goodfellas” as a major influence on his series “The Sopranos”. Throughout its six season run, the show had 27 different actors from “Goodfellas” in regular or guest roles, including Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, and Lorraine Bracco as Tony’s psychiatrist (well, she is qualified, I give her that…).
  • “Goodfellas” continues to be parodied and referenced for its memorable dialogue and aesthetic. This is usually where I reference a classic “Simpsons” episode, but the pop culture references that immediately came to mind for me were scenes from “Family Guy” and “Saturday Night Live”.
  • My other favorite recent example is this montage of various insurrectionists and white supremacists getting arrested after the January 6th attacks which, like an important montage in “Goodfellas”, is set to Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla”.

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