(SPOILERS) Scorsese’s gangsters-at-street-level masterpiece is near the top of most lists for “It wuz robbed” when looking back at Best Picture Oscar winners. Kev’s Dances with Wolves is a decent-enough movie and a decent-ish revisionist western, put together with care, craft and what appears to be genuine feeling on its maker’s part; there are certainly far worse Best Picture winners out there. But co-contender Goodfellas is in a class all its own. It also reminds the viewer that, in the first rank of filmmakers as Scorsese is, it’s become relatively rare for him to tackle material with which he visibly (and palpably) connects.
Even when he’s operating in what might be called a familiar milieu – be it Italian-American environs or religious ones – there’s often something vital missing. You can see this in the triptych of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence, where Scorsese is only able to tackle faith – unsurprisingly given his lens is through the most materialist of Christian denominations, Roman Catholicism, with all its totems, effigies and rites – in a literal way, even or especially when it comes to spiritual ramifications. The “daring” temptation sequence and the Dalai Lama’s visions are meticulously designed, but any power in those sequences derives from the soundtrack’s emotional import (Gabriel and Glass respectively) rather than the director’s shock and awe.
Which is why Goodfellas is ideal for the director, and so was The Wolf of Wall Street, offering the perfect medley of attraction and repulsion, temptation and rejection. These worlds need to be appealing – they are, in the broadest sense of the word, entirely carnal, as is Scorsese, in the broadest sense of the word – if they’re going to put us off them. In Goodfellas case, the surfeit of vicious stabbings, shootings, paranoia and posturing may ensure few watching want to be an actual gangster, but many nevertheless embrace the idea of their lifestyle (just ask Jon Favreau per Swingers), such that it has become the touchstone for the gangster movie and in The Sopranos’ case, TV’s too (well, aside from those who prefer Scarface’s Jacobean rock opera).
Nevertheless, there’s clearly an alchemy to be had with Scorsese that’s often elusive. You can see it in Taxi Driver and After Hours, but it’s absent from The Departed – entertaining as that picture often is – and the more so from The Irishman. Even with Casino, hugely proficient as the picture is, there’s something’s not quite there. None of which is to suggest other than it being impressive for a director to reach the number of entirely on-target pictures Scorsese has. That, and to score a bullseye, they need to reflect their own sensibilities in some way, shape or form (a reason Spielberg, once he forsook his aptitude for flights of fantasy, became mostly a glorified technician, forever chasing peer praise and kudos. We can see something not dissimilar in much of Scorsese’s work of the last thirty years).
I mentioned The Irishman, and if there’s one unfavourable shadow that geriatric attempt at gangsterism casts on Goodfellas, it’s age-appropriate casting. This is a movie that not only expects us to treat Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as contemporaries – we never do – but also wants us to believe in Pesci playing a guy in his twenties. We can swallow Pesci and De Niro as wiseguys in the same age bracket (because they are), so it’s a stretch enough to have the latter playing Jimmy Conway at thirty (De Niro was 45 when the movie was made). The disparities in no way interfere with overall enjoyment of Goodfellas – unlike De Niro, “playing” someone thirty years younger, moving like a septuagenarian while kicking a guy into the curb in The Irishman – but there’s a lingering dissonance. Even Liotta – RIP – was only the age of the actual Hill at the end of the picture (1980-ish). The actual Tommy was seven years younger than Hill, and “disappeared” at 28. So really, Pesci was playing, at the character’s most mature, someone under thirty.
Pesci gets all the plaudits, of course, and he won the picture’s solitary Oscar. It’s a monster of a performance, the gold standard for unpredictable, unnerving, randomly motivated movie violence (okay, possibly shared with Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast). But also very funny (how? Check out the scene with Marty’s mom and the painting, not just the “Funny how?”).
It’s Liotta who always impresses me the most in Goodfellas, though. It’s notable Scorsese never worked with him again – I saw it suggested he was offered the Mark Wahlberg role in The Departed but couldn’t take it due to scheduling conflicts – because the picture lives or dies on his performance. His readings of the insistent narration are crucial, guiding and weaving us through the gangster realm. Liotta was previously best known for portraying a psycho – actually, I say best known, I should say best regarded, as more people would have seen him in Field of Dreams than Something Wild – and brings to the party a certain wildness of the eyes and danger in the mouth.
But he turns that inward here, imbuing Henry Hill with a keen reserve, a wariness of his peers that serves as a push-pull. He’s enamoured of the lifestyle, but not big on the ultraviolence and abjectly unsettled by Pesci’s Tommy. Indeed, one might even suggest there’s something a little fishy, not in his performance but in Scorsese’s choice to show Henry’s reticence whenever someone is stabbed on shot; how could he possibly hang around such activity for so long without either displaying his own vicious mettle or becoming inured (admittedly, towards the end, Henry does make a point of noting, prior to his fateful decision to turn state’s witness, that Jimmy had never sent him on a hit before, suggesting that simply wasn’t his station)?
In a testosterone-drenched picture, Lorraine Bracco’s able to hold her own, mostly due to the wise decision to grant Karen her own narration; the movie is never in danger of becoming about Karen Hill, but neither is her role reduced to the forgettable wife part so common in such fare (in that sense, Goodfellas is likely taking its cues from Diane Keaton in The Godfathers, but succeeding in giving Karen more agency). It’s notable that both Liotta and Bracco’s parts remain something of career highs. Liotta never found a firm footing in leading man roles, while Bracco quickly stumbled opposite Sean Connery in Medicine Man; she would make more lasting impact on the small screen in The Sopranos: as noted, hugely indebted to Scorsese’s movie.
The other significant players are Paul Sorvino, unblinking steel behind the affable exterior, and De Niro, in what would become something of a career dividing line; Jimmy Conway pushed him towards elder, mentor status. Indeed, there’s a sense in Goodfellas that the character itself is part of the furniture and De Niro, good as he is, is also no more than solid (or stolid). His awards recognition that year was for a showy “actor” part, flourishing the disability schtick that worked so well for Hoffman two years earlier, and with Cape Fear the following year, you can see the move into roles that, if they were a challenge, were more definably in the populist realm.
It bears reiterating that you can feel Scorsese feels the material here, rather than simply embracing its technical challenges (as he would in much of his subsequent work that decade, however high-minded – The Age of Innocence, Kundun – or low – Cape Fear). The final half hour is a coke-fuelled tour de force of edge-of-the-seat, (cold) sweaty paranoia. The one-shot entrance to (the Copacabana) is rightly feted, but there’s also the manner of delivery, be it POV introducing the various faces as they acknowledge the camera, or Henry getting up from the courtroom and breaking the fourth wall, addressing us.
The musical accompaniment is a character in itself, acutely precise in driving or characterising a scene or sequence. At times – Atlantis by Donovan playing as Jimmy and Tommy kick, beat and stab Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) to death – is almost surreal in its sense of humour. The opening titles fly past, announcing the propulsive power of the picture itself, while the exit – to Sid Vicious singing My Way, as Henry faces life as an average “schnook” – couldn’t be more perfect (reflecting too the director’s “kind of really punk attitude” to the project).
Pauline Kael, nearing the end of her critic’s career, called Goodfellas “a triumphant piece of filmmaking”, one boasting “such bravura that you respond as if you were at a live performance”. However, she stopped short of delivering a rapturous endorsement: “Is it a great movie? I don’t think so”. Obviously, the passage of time has proclaimed her wrong, but she also expressed concern at Henry’s “puzzled revulsion” at his peers’ violence (“Incidents like this… appear to be pointing toward an awakening sensibility in Henry, but nothing comes of them, so they seem perfunctory, a sop to conventionality”). Further, “he has been made to seem slightly cut off from the mob life… when he needs to be a rat and the motor of the movie”.
I don’t think the latter point is the case – clearly, the movie has motor enough – but there is a nagging sense that much of the mayhem and mutilation Henry sees should be water off a duck’s back (he’s only seen truly embracing beatings when it comes to Karen being victimised, which is ironic in itself, given Bracco’s characterisation of her part as an “abused wife”). Hill claimed on Howard Stern to have killed three people (ordered by Burke), or alternatively none at all, but he was also known as a “calm and silent observer rather than an aggressive responder”. Either way, his hesitancy in Goodfellas enables a degree of audience empathy, and Scorsese was perhaps mindful of this as an “in” (if he was, that’s in stark contrast to Raging Bull).
Co-screenwriter (with the director) Nicholas Pileggi wouldn’t strike as hot again, collaborating with Scorsese on Casino (and as producer on The Irishman) but floundering with City Hall and Vegas (that one on TV). He has a screenplay for Scarpa in the offing. Goodfellas was only a moderate success in its cinema run; notably, it was Scorsese’s most expensive movie to that point, making a little less than twice its cost (in the US). Of course, legacy value transforms that exponentially, but we’re looking at a picture that, come the awards season, had done the least business of the five Best Picture nominees. Receiving nods for Picture, Director, Pesci, Bracco, Adapted Screenplay and Editing, it should arguably have swept the board; it was the BAFTAs, far from the most reliable awards body, that got it right, handing Goodfellas Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Costume Design.