This thing is a masterpiece. Goodfellas (1990) is surely director Martin Scorsese’s best film? At the 63rd Academy Awards in 1991, it actually lost Best Picture to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Now, we love Costner’s epic romp, but Goodfellas is genius – the ultimate gangster film offers inspired direction and world-class performances. Thusly, it is time to hark back a few decades and see a masterclass in filmmaking.
An adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 book Wiseguy, Scorsese’s adaptation takes a peek into the world off organised crime. Henry Hill (1943-2012) is at the heart of the story – Ray Liotta took on the role for Goodfellas. Hill struggled at school with dyslexia and, frustrated, turned to local mob sorts to earn a living.
There he soon met the likes of Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci on fine form), Jimmy the Gent (Robert De Niro on incredible form), and tough nut Paulie (Paul Servino). He also meets Karen (Lorraine Bracco) – after clashing on their first date organised by DeVito, they soon have a proper one. That triggers off what is a highly celebrated tracking shot you can enjoy below.
Henry and Karen eventually hit it off and get married. However, Hill continues to over enjoy the “perks” of his lifestyle. One of which includes living a rock and roll lifestyle – staying up all night drinking, taking drugs, and ignoring family life duties. All of which leads to one of our favourite scenes in the film – Karen Hill’s domineering mother (Suzanne Shephard – happily still working to this day!) is just brilliant.
Goodfellas then becomes a film about successful heists, excess, paranoia, backstabbing, and the trappings of crime. Hill soon finds the psychotic Tommy to be a problem, and Jimmy the Gent’s delusions make him a danger. All the while his cocaine habit slides out of control, placing incredible strain on his marriage as he attempts to juggle family life with managing the mob.
Goodfellas works so well thanks to the exceptional cast. This is world-class stuff, with natural performances that draw you into the experience. At no point do you think anyone is acting – and that includes the often brutal acts of violence we’re regularly subjected to. Tommy is a leading problem there, whose psychotic lack of control lands Hill and the others in trouble on many occasions.
As a director, Scorsese’s (now 75) genius is linked with Robert De Niro. Along with Raging Bull, these two have worked together on Taxi Driver, and the more obscure) King of Comedy, and the a handful more. The actor even managed to get Scorsese to quit his cocaine addiction in the late 1970s, which some suggest ultimately saved the director’s life.
When other critics appraise Goodfellas, it’s usually Joe Pesci who gets the most attention. Whilst he’s brilliant as the unhinged Tommy, for us it’s De Niro’s subdued, chilling performance as Jimmy the Gent that wins the film. He’s quietly frightening – you can tell there’s some violent scheme bubbling away.
This is complemented by Ray Liotta’s performance. Although he’s, essentially, the lead for the film, his more stable character is often around to control the antics of the others. He mops up Tommy’s various messes (quite literally, at some points), tries to second-guess Jimmy, appeases Paulie, and heaps money and gifts on his wife (whilst actively sleeping around behind her back).
All of which ties together to make the two hours and thirty minute running time feel like a life-changing experience. You join these characters in their youth in the 1950s, but by the time the 1980s are upon us they’re crippled with issues… or outright dead.
All the glitz and glamour of the famous steadicam restaurant scene gives way to violence, divorce, and witness protection programmes. If anyone thinks the film glamourises violence or the mob, then they only need to see the bitter final half an hour to see why this is really an anti-crime film. But it’s also an all-time cinema classic everyone must watch.
Goodfellas is based on a true story, but there (as you’d expect) are plenty of liberties taken with real life events. If you want to find out about the true story, we can refer you to the excellent History Buffs YouTube channel. Nicholas Hodges always provides an entertaining, and thoroughly researched, account of historical movie despictions. Give it a whirl… or we’ll whack you!