“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” -Henry Hill (1955)
It brings about questions of morality and acceptability…
On September 21, 1990, the Martin Scorsese directed classic Goodfellas was unleashed. Now 25 years later its impact and legacy is still influencing pop culture to this day. Careers were made and new approaches to filmmaking were created. Despite its overly violent nature it even managed to popularize the mafia life. At least in the eyes of those who have seen the film but never experienced actual mafia life, Goodfellas was a sort of “How-to” guide for living the mafia lifestyle. For those who have seen it we associate the word mafia with the word freedom. It’s a freedom from taxes and 9 to 5 jobs that makes you feel dead inside long before you actually perish. This story never shies away from the violence at any moment but it also never seems to shy away from the best parts of being a gangster and there are some definite perks to being a wiseguy. It lays it all out in the harsh light of day and lets the audience think and feel however they may. We acknowledge the grotesqueness of its ferocious scenes which are plentiful but we’ve all apparently decided to look the other way and focus on the nice cars and fancy clothing and the women that just seem to flock to these gangsters like gnats to a barbecue.
When given two scenarios where one world creates a much higher probability of a long life and the other that all but guarantees not only an early death but a violent one at that and you tell someone they can choose one or the other, I think it would be quite alarming to see how many people would choose the early, violent death. It makes you wonder what the hell was so awful in the first scenario that made everyone choose the second. A life of carpools and traffic jams and PTA meetings until you’re practically dead. Sure you breathe longer but at least in the other scenario you get to live a little. A longer life doesn’t necessarily mean a happier life. I think that’s a major theme of Goodfellas. They had to look over their shoulders constantly but they got to do it from their Caddies as they drove to nightclubs where they got in with no waiting and beautiful women on each arm. Of course we all know to get this kind of life means doing things that are beyond the concept of morality and require a completely sociopathic view of the world and that is thankfully where most of us (I’m looking at you, psycho) draw the line. We can all accept (sometimes we have no choice) a little shit in our coffee, so to speak, to reach for something we strive for but to completely abandon decency is luckily too much for most. Still, if I truly had the choice… I just can’t be too sure.
Goodfellas’ influence on me…
In some selfish, completely ridiculous way I feel that this movie was made for me. I realize this is stupid, untrue, and did I mention it’s stupid, because it is. I was born in March of 1989 and the following year this masterwork was given to the world… to me. I’m a bit delusional, I apologize. I grew up to admire and love film as one of the truest art forms created by mankind and in some weird way I’m proud to say that when I was born so was Goodfellas(relatively). Not only is it one of my favorite films ever made it was brought to fruition by my favorite filmmaker ever, the maestro Martin Scorsese. I don’t believe that my love for this film as well as most of his other works stems from my association to a violent lifestyle (of which I have none) but more so from an admiration that he understands this world so thoroughly and intensely. His confidence in the world he created with Goodfellas shows in the work itself without him having to say a single word. It speaks volumes about so many aspects of life in the most extreme ways and continues to do so 25 years after it first hit the cinematic universe over the head with a bat. This is one film that I can say without a doubt made me want to work in that universe.
The lasting legacy of the quintessential gangster film…
Now it’s crazy to think that this is the first true gangster film (Scarface (1932), The Godfather, etc.) but I would argue that it’s the first in the crime genre to not only show what a day-to-day life is like in the mafia but it’s also one of the first to glorify not just the extravagance but the violence too. They seem to find joy in killing. It’s as if they figure, they’re good at it so they might as well enjoy themselves along the way. This also paved the way of fast editing that Scorsese is now very fond of (and revered for) and uses it in nearly every film of his since (The Wolf of Wall Street). Goodfellas is told from the point of view of a sociopathic, gangster, drug addict who can’t seem to talk about his past fast enough. His actions and way of thinking are frenetic because of the drugs and so a majority of the film is shot and edited to emphasize this frenzied way of life. Constantly looking in different directions as he becomes more paranoid creates a similar feeling for the audience. Is someone actually following him? Is the helicopter there for him? Is it actually even there? He’s so drugged out of his mind that reality is beginning to slip away at an alarming rate. Much like he did with The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese showed deplorable characters doing unnaturally vile things and completely loving every minute of it. The best part of this is that when the credits have rolled there was no attempt at trying to give some kind of moral to the story. He’s not trying to cover for these people and he’s not trying to hide us from these very realistic (unfortunately) character types. It’s just… there; view at your own peril.
Goodfellas’ influence on other filmmakers…
Something else that many credit Goodfellas with is the popularization of the long, unedited scenes of normal (ish) people simply talking. They don’t really talk about anything of real importance but the topic isn’t the significant part of their conversations. It’s the way in which they interact; they have a behavior seemingly unique to them alone. Just two years after Goodfellas came another masterpiece called Reservoir Dogs directed by the immensely talented Quentin Tarantino. If it weren’t for Goodfellas, many of the now classic talking scenes in several of Tarantino’s films would most likely not have been received as well as they were and are today. It made talking fun and interesting and most importantly engaging. The scene featuring Joe Pesci as Tommy as he tells a story and everyone laughs followed by Ray Liotta’s character Henry telling him he’s funny is one of the most iconic scenes in film history. But as I write that and read it back, I realize that for anyone who hasn’t seen this movie (you should feel ashamed!) that sounds at best, mundane. But twenty-five years later here we are still talking about it. It was a complete allowance for the actors to play with the dialogue and with the scene as a whole and what came of it is mesmerizing. A true test of a great film is something that can’t be realized until years, decades later and that is a simple question: Does it stand the test of time? I will fight anyone that says Goodfellas doesn’t hold up anymore. A fight with fists and feet if that’s your sort of thing.
Its style and influence translated to T.V. or rather HBO (It’s not T.V. It’s HBO)…
In 1999 David Chase brought forth The Sopranos. Focused on the more unflattering aspect of mafia life, The Sopranos made important the little things that make up a gangster’s life much in the way of Goodfellas. A major aspect of this series is the scenes between the main character Tony and his therapist Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco who plays Ray Liotta’s wife in Goodfellas!). It’s just two people in a room talking about anything, everything, and sometimes pretty much nothing. But every time Tony walked into that therapist office it was always engaging, sometimes humorous, and unmistakably similar to films such as Goodfellas. (Not to mention it also employed several of the same actors from Goodfellas as regulars.) As a kind of passing of the torch, The Sopranos paved the way for what television is now much like Goodfellas did for cinema back then. The unmarked, incorruptible, straight-laced hero is no longer the main focus of dramatic television. The anti-hero is in high demand. The complexity of their decisions and the reactions they have to those around them are far more interesting to watch. Where do the moral grounds of the psyche end and the villainous side begin? When the villains and heroes begin to blend is when truly fantastic television is had. Shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy are a result of the realization that characters like Tony Soprano are highly coveted and yearned for. We don’t want perfection, we want imperfection at its ugliest and simultaneously and ironically, most beautiful.
A few facts about Goodfellas…
1. The word ‘fuck’ is used 296 times throughout the movie. That averages out to about twice every minute. Close to half of the instances of the word ‘fuck’ are used by Pesci.
2. Joe Pesci wrote the “Funny, how?” scene himself.
3. In 1991, Goodfellas was up against Dances with Wolves at the Oscars. It won a single award for Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci.
4. During test screenings for the film, it received the worst response in Warner Bros. history. Audience members were leaving in large numbers horrified by the extreme violence, drugs, and language.
5. Sean Penn was originally considered for the role of Henry Hill.
6. The film was shot in 72 days between May 3rd and August 9th, 1989.
7. Michael Ballhaus, the cinematographer, and long-time collaborator with Scorsese, had to leave the project early for another film. Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to direct Men in Black and many others, took over as cinematographer for the final days of shooting.
8. Al Pacino was originally offered the role of Jimmy Conway (De Niro) but turned it down because he didn’t want to be typecast. Despite this, later that same year he played a gangster in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. He has admitted regret about this.
9. Scorsese demanded the violence be horrible and cold. He was forced to remove ten frames of blood to maintain an R rating.
10. When Scorsese read Pileggi’s book (the book that inspired the film) he said he knew immediately how he wanted to shoot the film: “To begin like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. It’s the only way to capture the exhilaration of the lifestyle and get a sense of why people are attracted to it.”
Goodfellas gets a perfect 5 out 5 Nerdskulls.
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