By Kim Hollis
March 4, 2010
After watching it again, my only question was why I hadn't given it another viewing sooner. Goodfellas is a brilliant movie and one of the finest gangster/mafia films ever created. Watching it today, it's easy to see the massive impact it had on pop culture, particularly The Sopranos (a show that I'm about to watch again. I'd been catching episodes on A&E recently and was reminded how phenomenal it is). Goodfellas and The Sopranos share *27* actors between them, including Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Frank Vincent, Suzanne Shepherd, and Tony Sirico. Parodies on shows like Animaniacs and The Simpsons have left their mark as well. There are indelible images from the film that stick with us, and lines spoken by the characters are quoted almost unconsciously (who hasn't said some derivative of "I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?").
There has to be something special about a film to make it resonate with viewers the way Goodfellas does, and indeed it has a lot to admire. It all stems from the story, which is compellingly watchable in an "oh my God, I can't believe I'm rooting for these people" way. Our main protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a bad guy, and is from the time he's a teenager. He's drawn to the mafia life as a youngster, and ingratiates himself into the culture to the point that he becomes a dependable soldier for a local capo. He carries out all kinds of dirty work, from collecting on debts to injuring, maiming and killing those who fall afoul of the mob's good graces. Yet, we feel an attraction to him, one that is voiced by the woman who becomes his wife, Karen (Bracco). She is often repulsed by Henry's actions and has a complete comprehension that the life they lead is tainted, but she loves the power exuded by both her husband and his associates, and she certainly doesn't mind the easy cash flow. In fact, Scorsese uses a technique of swapping the narration between Henry and Karen to emphasize the view of both the insider (Henry) and the outsider (Karen - and the viewer).
Along with the well-crafted story, Goodfellas succeeds because the key acting performances in the film are top-notch. I remember being blown away by Liotta when I saw the film the first time, I didn't really know him (though I'd seen him in Something Wild) and I thought he was an actor with a lot of potential. Admittedly, he hasn't really lived up to the promise that he showed in Goodfellas (Smokin' Aces? Wild Hogs? A Uwe Boll movie, for God's sake?), but he was ideal for the role of Henry Hill, full of swagger and bluster.
Robert De Niro takes on a more supporting role here as Henry's associate Jimmy Conway, but he's still as good as he ever was in those days before he became a caricature of himself. Jimmy shows the more measured, scary side of the mafia. He's the guy who'll kill a bevy of associates out of fear that a heist he spearheaded will be exposed. He's also the guy who will turn on you in an instant if it suits his best interests. De Niro sobs over the loss of a close friend (and his best potential "in" to having any real leadership role in the organization) one moment, and coldly calculates how best to end the life of his other best pal in another. He owns the screen.
And of course, no discussion of the acting in Goodfellas could be complete without turning to Joe Pesci as Tommy De Vito. Pesci won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance, and rightfully so. Premiere Magazine called him "perhaps the single most irredeemable character ever put on film", and it's absolutely true. Tommy takes what he wants and acts amorally even by mob standards. He kills a made man for a perceived verbal slight and shoots a kid in the foot for serving drinks too slowly. And yet, he's full of wildly entertaining stories and is always the life of the party. Pesci doesn't really have a lot of screen time if you look at the film overall, but he does make the most of every moment he's onscreen.
Goodfellas also does a terrific job of representing a few different time periods, from the 1950s all the way up to the 1980s. Scorsese takes us through these decades with fantastic costuming and makeup, as well as using music that ideally highlights the action. I have always had a strong memory of the scene in the film that uses the soft, lovely piano coda of Derek and the Dominoes' "Layla" to provide background tone to the discovery of a host of mafia guys ordered dead by Jimmy. The juxtaposition of these elegant sounds with the raw, slightly gory footage always struck me as masterful. I can never hear that music without remembering Goodfellas.
Really, the film has a lot of those sorts of abiding memories. We remember Tommy's terrifying tirades, and we remember Henry's drive around town as he's stalked by helicopters. We can envision Jimmy's cool visage as he makes the determination to whack Henry. And we remember the closing shot of the film, with a smiling Henry waving to an unknown friend as his voiceover tells us how much he misses "the life". Goodfellas is a film that stays with you. My only surprise is that it doesn't rank higher on the AFI list. Perhaps that will change as the film has a bit more time and distance.