IN A WORLD THAT POWERED BY VIOLENCE, ON THE STREETS WHERE THE VIOLENT HAVE POWER, A NEW GENERATION CARRIES ON AN OLD TRADITION.
Making GoodFellas a horribly realistic film took its toll. Joe Pesci had qualms about playing such an evil character as Tommy DeVito and Lorraine Bracco started thinking of her character as an abused woman in order to understand her better. In the end, director Martin Scorsese was forced to cut several of his bloodiest scenes. But he did achieve a feeling of authenticity, not least by letting the actors research their parts thoroughly and then allow them to ad-lib during rehearsals, writing their best work into the script. It was a difficult shoot, but the end result became one of the director’s finest films.
Running errands for a local capo
The story was based on reality and originally researched by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi who became interested in the tale of how an FBI informant began his mob career. As a teenager during the 1950s, Henry Hill started running errands in Brooklyn for a local capo called Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), eventually getting acquainted with his henchmen, including the clever and careful Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the violent, psychotic Tommy DeVito (Pesci). In this mob family Henry finds everything he’s been looking for, including respect and money. The life of a gangster is glamorous (except for those times when you’re digging a hole in the middle of nowhere to bury some guy you’ve killed) and Henry loves it. He dates a woman whom he eventually marries, Karen (Bracco), and she’s willing to put up with being the wife of a mobster.
As the years go by, Henry and his compadres do time but also make money, especially from a heist at JFK Airport. But their lives slowly deteriorate. A hit on a fellow mobster who was a part of the Gambino family comes back to haunt them and Henry’s new engagement in the world of drugs dooms him and Karen, starting the chain of events that forces Henry to stand up in court and identify his former friends as members of the Mafia.
Clever contrasts between positive and negative
It isn’t a very likable character Ray Liotta is playing; even when Henry Hill goes into the FBI Witness Protection Program he still regrets not being a mobster anymore, in spite of all the horrible things he’s done. In any case, Liotta does a great job of making us interested in this rather unscrupulous character and his career; the film became his breakthrough.
The same is true for both Bracco (very strong as Karen who is turned on by the life of crime but still can’t accept the ultimate consequences of being married to Henry) and Pesci who is unbelievably dynamic as Tommy, a temperamental gangster in the style of James Caan’s portrayal of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972). The director knows how to convey the emotions of belonging to a crime family. He shows us how tempting it is for a kid to get involved with these “fun-loving” people; they find a home, a place where bonds are tied and where there’s never a shortage of money. Scorsese effectively contrasts those positive sides with the negative ones; the violence is shocking and grotesque.
Funny and horrifying – this is a long but well paced mobster masterpiece, made by a director who was attracted to it because of his home turf and Pileggi’s credible depiction of what life as a gangster looked like. Fans of The Sopranos will recognize many familiar actors from that show here; both these works of art have been lauded for giving us insight into the warped minds of organized crime. It isn’t pretty… but nonetheless eerily absorbing.
1990-U.S. 146 min. Color. Produced by Irwin Winkler. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi. Book: Nicholas Pileggi (“Wiseguy”). Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus. Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker. Cast: Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway), Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero… Samuel L. Jackson, Henny Youngman, Michael Imperioli, Illeana Douglas.
Trivia: Scorsese’s mother Catherine plays Pesci’s mom. Al Pacino was allegedly considered for the part of Jimmy Conway. The story about Henry Hill also inspired My Blue Heaven (1990).
Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Pesci). BAFTA: Best Film, Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Costume Design. Venice: Best Director.
Last word: “In a picture like ‘GoodFellas’ where I’ve used mainly pre-recorded music, it’s usually thought of way before hand. Some of the music in ‘GoodFellas’ has been in my head for years. For example the scene where Ray Liotta’s character is drug running and he’s high on cocaine, I used The Who and also music from the film ‘Performance’, to create the vortex of paranoia.” (Scorsese, BBC)