On the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the world’s most iconic gangster movies, Andrew Carroll asks why Goodfellas has never been bettered.
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” Ray Liotta’s first line as real life gangster Henry Hill set the tone not only for the two and a half hours of Goodfellas, but for the next twenty-five years to come. More real than The Godfather, more brutal than Mean Streets and funnier than Bugsy Malone, Goodfellas combined the harsh realities of mob life with sympathy for Mr Joe Average trying to make a living by any means. Based off the non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, directed by Martin Scorsese, and written by both, Goodfellas charts the rise and fall of Lucchese mob family associate Henry Hill. Set between 1955 and 1980, Scorsese takes us through the lives of Hill and his friends Jimmy the Gent and Tommy DeVito (Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, respectively). It is through these friendships and the wider experience of the Mafia that Goodfellas defines itself as more than a gangster film. Goodfellas is a family film, but not a family film.
The mob is one big family where Henry graduates from being just another Irish-Italian-American boy to one of Paul ‘Paulie’ Cicero’s most trusted lieutenants. It is here that he learns one of life’s most important lessons: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut” – especially important when working with some of the most violent characters ever to grace the silver screen. Goodfellas defines what it is to belong to a crime family as well as how far one will go for that family. Robbery? Like taking a walk. Assault? Like having evening drinks. Murder? Piece of cake. The film opens just after the murder of Billy Batts, a made man who is killed because Tommy didn’t like being reminded of his days as a shoeshine boy. In a 2010 GQ interview Frank Vincent, who played Batts, said “Wherever I go, anytime I go anywhere, they tell me to go home and get my shine box.” It is that scene like so many others that exemplifies both the brutality and scenery-chewing that Goodfellas is most famous for.
“The short answer is yes, a lot of the extras were gangsters.”
Before any line of dialogue is said or the audience is told what’s happening, Henry, Tommy and Jimmy pull over, open the trunk and stab and shoot an already half-dead Billy. The scene is full of sadistic anger and the kind of mercilessness associated with hyenas. This is not the last or even the most shocking of Goodfellas’ numerous scenes of gory violence. Men are hung from meat hooks, a teenager is shot dead for back-talking and Henry brutally pistol-whips a man for looking at his wife the wrong way. Of course these scenes were just words on paper before Scorsese cast Liotta, De Niro and Pesci. Of the three Joe Pesci is perhaps most famous as his unhinged and incendiary performance won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1991. “How am I funny?” he asks Ray Liotta in the film’s second most famous scene (after the Copacabana tracking shot). “Do I make you laugh? Am I a clown to you? Do I amuse you?” he continues, growing more incensed as dread overcomes Henry and their shared associates. Goodfellas’ authenticity is what gives the film its credence and weight after all these years.
Goodfellas imparts a realism that only a few films ever truly achieve. The likes of Training Day shows real life gangsters as extras. So too does Goodfellas, but these gangsters are cut from a different cloth. A bolt of pure Italian silk to be exact. Jimmy the Gent throws real money around a casino. Henry’s wife, Karen, wears real gold jewellery throughout. So it makes sense that the background gangsters would be played by real gangsters. In the same GQ interview Debi Mazar, who played Sandy, said: “The short answer is yes, a lot of the extras were gangsters.” The authenticity was there in the cast and props but it was Scorsese who brought this reality to life.
The famous swooping, lighter than air Steadicam shot of the Copacabana restaurant was done in only eight takes. Henry walks through the restaurant snapping orders, trading jokes and shaking hands until a table almost materialises in front of him and Karen. The entire sequence has a quick flow to it that evokes the quick-talking, slick image of an Italian-American gangster. All of this makes Henry’s life and place in this world seem so tangible and concrete that the audience can’t help but believe this actually happened. Ray Liotta is key here. His performance is the essence of what makes Goodfellas a family film.
Henry finds himself accepted into a family that treats his teenage delinquency as a virtue, not a vice. Within the Mafia, vice is a virtue. Within this new family he finds financial security that allows him to provide for himself and his loved ones. This naïve hope is what makes Henry sympathetic and not just a brute with a greedy disposition. Henry is the black heart at Goodfellas centre, but at least there is a heart. As Henry loses friends and eventually his cherished lifestyle, he becomes a pitiful figure. Henry Hill is difficult to hate because he just wanted a secure place in the world; in the end, isn’t that what we all want?
Goodfellas drew the gangster film to its inevitable conclusion. A twisted fable on the American Dream and human nature, it has never been bettered and will likely never be equalled. It remains a masterful odyssey. Or maybe it’s just a “mob home movie”, as Scorsese himself once put it.