In this lesson we are going to examine Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece GoodFellas. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.
Watch Goodfellas via YouTube.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Nicolas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus
Editors: James Y. Kwei, Thelma Schoonmaker
Producers: Barbara De Fina, Bruce S. Pustin, Irwin Winkler
Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece GoodFellas immortalizes the hilarious, horrifying life of actual gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), from his teen years on the streets of New York to his anonymous exile under the Witness Protection Program. Based on the true-life best seller Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi and backed by a dynamic pop/rock oldies soundtrack, critics and filmgoers alike declared GoodFellas a masterpiece. GoodFellas is at least as good as The Godfather without being in the least derivative of it. It was named 1990′s best film by the New York, Los Angeles and National Society of Film Critics. And it earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Robert De Niro received wide recognition for his performance as veteran criminal Jimmy “The Gent” Conway. And as the volatile Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci walked off with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Academy Award nominee Lorraine Bracco, Ray Liotta and Paul Sorvino also turned in electrifying performances. You have to see it to believe it – then watch it again. GoodFellas explores the criminal life like no other movie.
Henry Hill (Liotta) admits, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” referring to his idolizing the Lucchese crime family gangsters in his blue-collar, predominantly Italian-American neighborhood in East New York, Brooklyn in 1955. Wanting to be part of something significant, Henry quits school and goes to work for them. His Irish-American father tries to stop Henry after learning of his truancy, but the gangsters threaten the local postal carrier with dire consequences should he deliver any more letters from the school to Henry’s house. Henry is able to make a living for himself, and learns the two most important lessons in life: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut,” the advice given to him after being acquitted of criminal charges early in his career.
Henry is taken under the wing of the local mob capo, Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Sorvino) and his associates, Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (De Niro), who loves hijacking trucks, and Tommy DeVito (Pesci), an aggressive armed robber with a hair-trigger temper. In late 1967 they commit the Air France Robbery, marking Henry’s debut into the big time. Enjoying the perks of their criminal life, they spend most of their nights at the Copacabana with countless women. Henry meets and later marries Karen (Bracco), a Jewish girl from the Five Towns. Karen is initially troubled by Henry’s criminal activities, but is soon seduced by his glamorous lifestyle. When a neighbor assaults her for refusing his advances, Henry pistol-whips him in front of her. She feels aroused by the act, especially when Henry gives her the gun and tells her to hide it.
On June 11, 1970, Tommy (with Jimmy’s help) brutally beats Billy Batts (Vincent), a mobster with the Gambino crime family, for insulting him about being a shoeshine boy in his younger days. However, Batts was a made man, meaning that he could not be touched without the consent of his Gambino family bosses. Realizing that this was an offense that could get them all killed, Jimmy, Henry, and Tommy need to cover up the murder. They transport the body in the trunk of Henry’s car and bury it upstate. Six months later Jimmy learns that the burial site will be developed, forcing them to exhume the decomposing corpse and move it.
Henry begins to see a mistress named Janice Rossi (Mastrogiacomo), setting her up in an apartment. When Karen finds out, she goes to Janice’s apartment building to confront her, but is not let in past the front door. She then confronts Henry, points a revolver at his face, and threatens to kill both of them, demanding to know if he loves Janice. Karen cannot bring herself to kill him and an enraged Henry threatens Karen with the gun and says he has bigger concerns, like being murdered on the streets. Henry goes to live in the apartment with Janice. Paulie soon directs him to return to Karen after completing a job for him.
Henry and Jimmy are sent to collect from an indebted gambler in Florida, which they succeed at after beating him. However most of the crew are arrested after being turned in by the gambler’s sister, a typist for the FBI.
In prison, Henry sells drugs to support his family on the outside. Soon after he is released in 1978, the crew commits the Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Despite Paulie’s warning to stop, Henry further establishes himself in the drug trade, convincing Tommy and Jimmy to join him. Jimmy has the other participants in the Lufthansa robbery killed after they ignore his command to not immediately buy expensive things with their share of the stolen money. Then Tommy is killed for the murder of Billy Batts, having been fooled into thinking that he is going to be made.
By 1980, Henry is a nervous wreck from cocaine use and insomnia, as he tries to organize a drug deal with his associates in Pittsburgh. However, he is caught by narcotics agents and sent to jail. On his release, Karen tells him that she flushed $60,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet to prevent the FBI agents from finding it during their raid, leaving Henry and his family virtually penniless. Feeling Henry betrayed him by dealing drugs, Paulie gives Henry $3,200 and ends his association with him. Henry decides to enroll in the Witness Protection Program after realizing that Jimmy intends to have him killed. Forced out of his gangster life, he now has to face living in the real world: “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
Titles explain that Henry was subsequently arrested on drug charges in Seattle, Washington but has been clean since 1987. Paul Cicero died in Fort Worth Federal Prison of respiratory illness in 1988 at 73. Jimmy, as of 1990, was serving a 20-year-to-life sentence in a New York State prison.
Martin Scorsese never intended to make another mob film until he read a review of the book which inspired him to read it while working on the set of Color of Money in 1986. He had always been fascinated by the Mob lifestyle and was drawn to Pileggi’s book because it was the most honest portrayal of gangsters he had ever read. Scorsese cold-called the writer and told him, “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.” To which Pileggi replied “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life”.
Scorsese and Pileggi collaborated on the screenplay and over the course of the 12 drafts it took to reach the ideal script, Pileggi realized that “the visual styling had to be completely redone… So we decided to share credit”. They decided which sections of the book they liked and put them together like building blocks. Scorsese persuaded Pileggi that they did not need to follow a traditional narrative structure. The director wanted to take the gangster film and deal with it episode by episode but start in the middle and move backwards and forwards. Scorsese would compact scenes and realized that if they were kept short, “the impact after about an hour and a half would be terrific”. Pileggi added they wanted “to begin Goodfellas like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. I think it’s the only way you can really sense the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and to get a sense of why a lot of people are attracted to it.” Scorsese wanted to do the voiceover like the opening of Jules and Jim and use “all the basic tricks of the New Wave from around 1961″. The names of several real-life gangsters were altered for the film: Tommy “Two Gunn” DeSimone became the character Tommy DeVito; Paul Vario became Paulie Cicero and Jimmy “The Gent” Burke was portrayed as Jimmy Conway. Pileggi and Scorsese decided to change the title of their film to Goodfellas because Wiseguys, the same name of Pileggi’s book, had already been used for a 1986 comedy film by Brian De Palma and a TV series (1987-90).
Once Robert De Niro agreed to play Conway, Scorsese was able to secure the money needed to make the film. The director cast Ray Liotta after De Niro saw him in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and Scorsese was surprised by “his explosive energy” in that film. The actor had read Pileggi’s book when it came out and was fascinated by it. A couple of years afterwards, his agent told him that Scorsese was going to direct a film version. In 1988, Liotta met the director over a period of a couple of months and auditioned for the film. The actor campaigned aggressively for a role in the film but the studio wanted a well-known actor. “I think they would’ve rather had Eddie Murphy than me”, the actor remembers.
To prepare for their roles in the film, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta often spoke with Pileggi, who shared research material left over from writing the book. According to Pesci, improvisation and ad-libbing came out of rehearsals where Scorsese gave the actors freedom to do whatever they wanted. The director made transcripts of these sessions, took the lines he liked best, and put them into a revised script the cast worked from during principal photography.
To prepare for the role, De Niro consulted with Pileggi who had research material that had been discarded while writing the book. De Niro often called Hill several times a day to ask how Burke walked, held his cigarette, and so on. Driving to and from the set, Liotta listened to FBI audio cassette tapes of Hill, so he could practice speaking like his real-life counterpart. To research her role, Lorraine Bracco tried to get close to a mob wife but was unable to because they exist in a very tight-knit community. She decided not to meet the real Karen because she “thought it would be better if the creation came from me. I used her life with her parents as an emotional guideline for the role”. Paul Sorvino had no problem finding the voice and walk of his character but found it challenging finding “that kernel of coldness and absolute hardness that is antithetical to my nature except when my family is threatened”.
Two weeks in advance of the filming, the real Henry Hill was paid $480,000. The film was shot on location in Queens, New York, New Jersey, and parts of Long Island during the spring and summer of 1989, with a budget of $25 million. Scorsese broke the film down into sequences and storyboarded everything because of the complicated style throughout. According to the filmmaker, he “wanted lots of movement and I wanted it to be throughout the whole picture, and I wanted the style to kind of break down by the end, so that by [Henry's] last day as a wiseguy, it’s as if the whole picture would be out of control, give the impression he’s just going to spin off the edge and fly out.” He claims that the film’s style comes from the first two or three minutes of Jules and Jim: extensive narration, quick edits, freeze frames, and multiple locale switches. It was this reckless attitude towards convention that mirrored the attitude of many of the gangsters in the film. Scorsese remarked, “So if you do the movie, you say, ‘I don’t care if there’s too much narration. Too many quick cuts? — That’s too bad.’ It’s that kind of really punk attitude we’re trying to show”. He adopted a frenetic style in order to almost overwhelm the audience with images and information. He also put a lot of detail in every frame because the gangster life is so rich. The use of freeze frames was done because Scorsese wanted images that would stop “because a point was being reached” in Henry’s life.
Joe Pesci did not judge his character but found the scene where he kills Spider for talking back to his character hard to do because he had trouble justifying the action until he forced himself to feel the way Tommy did. Lorraine Bracco found the shoot to be an emotionally difficult one because it was such a male-dominated cast and realized that if she did not make her “work important, it would probably end up on the cutting room floor”. When it came to the relationship between Henry and Karen, Bracco saw no difference between an abused wife and her character.
According to Pesci, improvisation and ad-libbing came out of rehearsals where Scorsese let the actors do whatever they wanted. He made transcripts of these sessions, took the lines that the actors came up with that he liked best, and put them into a revised script that the cast worked from during principal photography. For example, the scene where Tommy tells a story and Henry is responding to him — the “what’s so funny about me” scene — is based on an actual event that happened to Pesci. It was worked on in rehearsals where he and Liotta improvised and Scorsese recorded 4-5 takes, rewrote their dialogue and inserted it into the script. The cast did not meet Henry Hill during the film’s shoot until a few weeks before it premiered. Liotta met him in an undisclosed city. Hill had seen the film and told the actor that he loved it.
The long tracking shot through the Copacabana nightclub came about because of a practical problem: the filmmakers could not get permission to go in the short way and this forced them to go round the back. Scorsese decided to film the sequence in one unbroken shot in order to symbolize that Henry’s entire life was ahead of him, commenting, “It’s his seduction of her [Karen] and it’s also the lifestyle seducing him.” This sequence was shot eight times.
Henry’s last day as a wiseguy was the hardest part of the film for Scorsese to shoot because he wanted to properly show Henry’s state of anxiety, paranoia and racing thoughts caused by cocaine and amphetamines intoxication, which is difficult for an actor (who had never been under their influence) to accurately portray. Scorsese explains to movie critic Mark Cousins in an interview the reason for the Joe Pesci shooting at the screen shot at the end of the film, “well that’s a reference right to the end of The Great Train Robbery, thats the way that ends, that film, and basically the plot of this picture is very similar to The Great Train Robbery. It hasn’t changed, 90 years later, it’s the same story, the gun shots will always be there, he’s always going to look behind his back, he’s gotta have eyes behind his back, because they’re gonna get him someday.” The director ended the film with Henry regretting that he is no longer a wiseguy and Scorsese said, “I think the audience should get angry at him and I would hope they do — and maybe with the system which allows this.”
Scorsese wanted to depict the film’s violence realistically, “cold, unfeeling and horrible. Almost incidental.” However, he had to remove ten frames of blood in order to ensure an R rating from the MPAA. With a budget of $25 million, Goodfellas was Scorsese’s most expensive film to date but still only a medium budget by Hollywood standards. It was also the first time he was obliged by Warner Bros. to preview the film. It was shown twice in California and a lot of audiences were “agitated” by Henry’s last day as a wise guy sequence and Scorsese argued that that was the point of the scene. Scorsese and the film’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, made this sequence faster with more jump cuts to convey Henry’s drug-addled point of view. In the first test screening there were 40 walkouts in the first ten minutes. One of the favorite scenes for test audiences was the one where Tommy tells the story and Henry is responding to him—the “what’s so funny about me” scene
Scorsese chose the songs for the soundtrack using only those that commented on the scene or the characters “in an oblique way”. The only rule he adhered to with the soundtrack was to only use music that could have been heard at that time. For example, if a scene took place in 1973, he could use any song that was current or older. According to Scorsese, a lot of non-dialogue scenes were shot to playback. For example, he had “Layla” playing on the set while shooting the scene where the dead bodies are discovered in the car, dumpster, and the meat-truck. Sometimes, the lyrics of songs were put between lines of dialogue to comment on the action. Some of the music Scorsese had written into the script while other songs he discovered during the editing phase.
Goodfellas had its world premiere at the 1990 Venice Film Festival where Scorsese received the Silver Lion award for Best Director. It was given a wide release in North America on September 21, 1990 in 1,070 theaters with an opening weekend gross of US$6.3 million. It went on to make $46.8 million domestically, well above its $25 million budget. It also received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won one for Pesci in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category. Scorsese’s film won five awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, including Best Film, and Best Director. The film was named Best Film of the year by various film critics groups. Goodfellas is often considered one of the greatest films ever, both in the crime genre and in general, and was deemed “culturally significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.
The film was released to critical acclaim and currently has a 97% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 89 metascore at Metacritic. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather.” In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel wrote, “All of the performances are first-rate; Pesci stands out, though, with his seemingly unscripted manner. GoodFellas is easily one of the year’s best films.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “More than any earlier Scorsese film, Goodfellas is memorable for the ensemble nature of the performances… The movie has been beautifully cast from the leading roles to the bits. There is flash also in some of Mr. Scorsese’s directorial choices, including freeze frames, fast cutting and the occasional long tracking shot. None of it is superfluous”. USA Today gave the film four out of four stars and called it, “great cinema — and also a whopping good time”. David Ansen, in his review for Newsweek magazine, wrote “Every crisp minute of this long, teeming movie vibrates with outlaw energy”. Rex Reed said “Big, Rich, Powerful and Explosive. One of Scorsese’s best films! Goodfellas is great entertainment.” In his review for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, “So it is Scorsese’s triumph that GoodFellas offers the fastest, sharpest 2½-hr. ride in recent film history”.
Goodfellas is #94 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” list and moved up to #92 on its AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) from 2007. In June 2008, the AFI put Goodfellas at #2 on their AFI’s 10 Top 10—the best ten films in ten “classic” American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Goodfellas was acknowledged as the second best in the gangster film genre (after The Godfather). In 2000, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The film ranks twelfth in the list of films that most frequently use the word “fuck” with 300.