Friday, April 13, 2012
(September 1990, U.S.)
"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." From the moment Ray Liotta's character of Henry Hill says that great line, we know we're in for a rollercoaster ride of Mafia fun, Martin Scorsese-style! Even though Scorsese hadn't done a gangster film since MEAN STREETS (1973), when I first learned of GOODFELLAS, I figured I knew enough about the famed director to know what to expect as soon as I got on line to buy my ticket. I wasn't disappointed, nor was any other fan of the genre. After all, it's DeNiro, it's Pesci, it's Scorsese...it's fucking GOODFELLAS, people, and you know you love it!
Unlike Francis Ford Coppola's legendary GODFATHER trilogy, GOODFELLAS is an American crime saga that takes the viewer deep into the organization and this is, admitedly, largely due to Henry Hill's ongoing narration throughout the film. The narration, though, is not your tradional verbal entourage that you may have heard in classic film noir stories or the like. Henry is telling us a story as if we were having a deeply personal conversation with him throughout his colorful life. With phrases like, "Believe me..." and "What you have to understand...", we're being taken along on a very intimate journey through his life in the Mafia and the connections and relationships he's formed along the way.
But just why is it that we love Mafia wiseguys so damn much? Why do we love Mob movies and why were most of us glued to HBO every week to see the latest episode of THE SOPRANOS? Yes, they're flashy, they're colorful, they do whatever the fuck they want and they don't give a fuck what others think about it. Perhaps, as everyday human beings, we can only fantasize about having such a lifestyle where we have the ultimate freedom to live as we choose, take what we want and tell the world to go fuck itself. Even when these colorful, and undenyably very dangerous characters are facing great peril in their lives, it's easy to find ourselves so caught up in things that we wish the "bad guys" all the luck in the world that will get them out of it. For myself, whenever I'm watching that specific race-against-time-day in May 1980 of Henry Hill's life unfold nearly hour-by-hour, I'm actually nearly sick to my stomach with tension because I already know that something real bad is going to happen by the time the day is concluded. This is the time when Henry will finally pay his dues to not only society, but to those he's been around all his life. For this film, it's almost sad because, like it or not, we've been rooting for the "bad guy" all along.
More than any earlier film of Scorsese, GOODFELLAS is memorable for the ensemble nature of the performances of Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro and crazy Joe Pesci. The film is beautifully cast from the leading roles to even the bit parts. How can one resist not feeling affection for the ensemble group of gangsters we're introduced to in the nightclub as Henry tells us their outrageous names that makes you feel like you're hearing names from the "Little Rascals". How many times have you found yourself saying "Get the papers, get the papers" as an homage to Johnny "Two Times"? And not to be ignored, there's also the flash in some of Scorsese's directorial choices, including wonderful freeze frames, fast-cutting and the occasional long tracking shot. None of it seems superfluous, in the least. Every crisp minute of this long, teeming Mafia film vibrates with absolute outlaw energy that is both powerful and explosive. It's simply one of the best films of Martin Scorsese's long career. In fact, I can safely say that if he'd done no other film but GOODFELLAS, RAGING BULL (1980) and TAXI DRIVER (1976), he would have been a legendary filmmaker, nonetheless.
Now here's an interesting personal story. In 1997, I was taking a class at New York University on screenwriting. During his lecture, the young professor made it a point to stress that writing a story with narration was very ill-advised and he proceeding to give us a list of bullshit reasons for such a claim. Finally, not being able to listen anymore, I felt the need to call him on his conviction and list more than several very successful film that featured narration, including MILDRED PIERCE (1945), LOLITA (1962), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), ANNIE HALL (1977), BLADE RUNNER (1982), FIELD OF DREAMS (1989) and FORREST GUMP (1994), just to name some. But the film I stressed more than any other to discredit the professor's point was GOODFELLAS. When I was finally finished shooting off my big mouth, I asked him, point blank, how he could make such a claim and teach it as a rule of writing. While I can't recall his exact response, I do remember that he managed to change the subject on me and suggested that we all move on. It was then and there I decided that these teachers of screenwriting didn't have a fucking clue of what they were talking about and it was the last time I ever took a screenwriting course. Yes, people, I had FOUGHT THE POWER!
Finally, there's a particular moment that takes place in the kitchen of Henry and Karen Hill that I'm afraid I'm forced to call Mr. Scorsese on due to its gross inaccuracy, and that's this - married Jewish women do NOT, under any circumstances whatsoever, EVER willingly get down on their knees to give their husband a blowjob, no matter how grateful they may be! Ask any man out there who's married to a Jewish woman and he'll tell you the same goddamn thing! It just doesn't happen (not on THIS planet, anyway!).
Despite my great love for DANCES WITH WOLVES (my wife's favorite film!), it's GOODFELLAS that I feel should have won the Oscar for best picture of 1990. It's certainly one of my top ten favorite films of that decade.
Favorite line or dialogue (you KNOW what I'm going to write, don't you??):
Henry Hill: "You're really funny. You're really funny."
Tommy DeVito: "What do you mean I'm funny?"
Henry: "It's funny, you know. It's a good story, it's funny, you're a funny guy."
Tommy: "What do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What?"
Henry: "It's just, you know. You're just funny, it's...funny, the way you tell the story and everything."
Tommy: "Funny how? What's funny about it?"
Anthony Stabile: "Tommy no, you got it all wrong."
Tommy: "Oh, oh, Anthony. He's a big boy, he knows what he said. What did ya say? Funny how?"
Henry: "Just...ya know...you're funny."
Tommy: "You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little fucked up maybe, but 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?"
Henry: "Just...you know, how you tell the story, what?"
Tommy: "No, no, I don't know, you said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the fuck am I funny? What the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me! Tell me what's funny!"
Henry: "Get the fuck out of here, Tommy!"
Tommy: "Ya motherfucker! I almost had him! I almost had him! Ya stuttering prick, ya! Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning."