Director: Martin Scorcese
Screenplay: Martin Scorcese, Nicolas Pileggi
Stars: Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
Original Release Date: 19 Sep 1990
Oscars: 1 (Supporting Actor – Joe Pesce), 5 other nominations. It lost to Dances with Wolves. Dances with freakin’ Wolves. I’m still bitter over that.
Critics and Users
Rotten Tomatoes: 96% Berardinelli: 4.0 , #39 All time
Metacritic: n/a Ebert: 4.0, best movie of 1990, #3 of the 90s
IMDB Top 250: #16
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”.
So speaks Henry Hill is his voice-over narration of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 instant classic, Goodfellas. In real life, Hill was born of an Irish Father and Sicilian Mother. Because he was not pure Sicilian blood, he could never be a “made” guy in a crew. An untouchable. A boss. He did, however, at the age of 12, capture the attention of Paul “Paulie” Vario, Brooklyn capo of the Lucchese crime family.
Hill became associated with Jimmy “The Gent” Burke and Tommy DeSimone. The three lead a life of crime, extortion, rackets and drug trafficking. Paulie, Jimmy and Tommy have different last names in the movie and Tommy serves as a bit of a composite character, but the depictions of their real life brutality and lack of respect for anything other than their own gratification is shockingly real.
Goodfellas is based on the Nicolas Pileggi’s novel Wise Guys, based on Hill’s life has a mid level operative and eventually FBI informant. The movie deals in theme’s often scene in Scorsese’s films, guilt, loyalty and fear. Scorsese’s master stroke is balancing those themes with a movie that also tells longingly of the fun and the good times but at the same time, chokes you with the paranoia of its characters as lives careen out of control and the walls close in.
The Godfather and Goodfellas both are Gangster films, both cinematic classics, both directed by Italian-American Directors. They are both voyeuristic looks inside a closed world and both long films that take time to explore details and themes. But with this much in common, they could not be any more different.
Goodfellas is the finest work from America’s best living director. It is a film with no plot but it’s like a live wire. It does not tell a story, it shows us how it felt to be in a crew. The loyalty that is overshadowed by forced laughter. The sense you belong coupled with the sense that you could get whacked at any minute.
Technically, this film is as close to perfect as you will ever see. The choices by Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and long time editor Thelma Schoomaker fit the mood of the film at the time. Note for example, how in the earlier scenes, we see cameras breeze lazily across bars and restaurant, introducing us to characters, everyone relaxed and enjoying the fruit of a life they essentially stole. The most famous is the 184 second single tracking camera shot through the back of the Copacabana while Henry and his girlfriend Karen enter for a date. It shows the confidence, power and influence Hill had at 21.
The final set piece, of one the greatest ever filmed, is on the other hand jolted, quick cuts, brightly lit and zooms in and out to match the effects of the drug induced paranoia. As Henry so glibly says, “I was gonna be busy all day”. Gunrunning, dealing coke, running from the feds and shipping “The Pittsburgh stuff” (they never say cocaine) by way of his babysitter all take equal prominence to veal and a good tomato sauce. That scene does not end; it crashes off a cliff.
Joe Pesci’s legendary performance as Tommy DeVito (based on real life gangster Thomas DeSimone) deservedly won Best Supporting Actor and is the centrepiece of the film. The movie is peppered with unforgettable minor roles and leads doing some of the best work of their careers.
Goodfellas is an indictment on a life of crime. But it does not stand on a soapbox and point fingers and pontificate. It dives into the trenches of a life a crew and let’s the viewer know the appeal of this life, how it became their norm, why they all did it and why they would all do it again.
Tommy DeVito: “Oh no….”
The real life Tommy DeSimone was a large burly man not a short guy as portrayed in the movie. Other than that, Hill said that Joe Pesci’ portrayal was “90 to 95% accurate”.
321 F-bombs in this movie, ½ spoken by Pesci’s character.
Many of the events in the movie depict real life events, including the heists of Air France and Lufthansa, the murder of Gambino Family made man Billy Bats, Henry’s first awful date with Karen and the torching of the rival neighbour cab stand.
Body Count: 10
Joe Pesci was genuinely shocked and unprepared for his Oscar victory. His acceptance speech “It’s my privilege, thank you” is one of the shortest speeches in Oscar history.
The “Do I look funny to you scene” was based on a real life experience with Pesci was a young and serving a real life mobster in a restaurant. The scene is largely improvised and Scorsese did not tell the other actors what was going on to get their genuine reactions of shock.
Director Martin Scorsese’s attention to detail included tying Ray Liotta’s ties for him and having his parents on set to iron the gangsters shirts because they would do it properly. His parents both also appear in the film. His father as Vinne (makes the sauce in prison and says to DeNiro over the phone “You know what I mean, he’s…gone”. His mother as Joe Pesci’s mother in the legendary late night meal scene.
Casting notes: Original choices for Henry and Karen were Tom Cruise and Madonna. Al Pacino and John Malkovich both turned down Jimmy The Gent Conway. Sean Penn and Alec Baldwin both auditioned for Henry. Robbie Vinton plays his father, Bobby Vinton and lip synchs his father’s singing.