Wednesday, September 23, 2015


“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
This month marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS.

Based on the 1986 non-fiction book by Nicholas Pileggi called Wiseguys, GOODFELLAS was a crime film which told of the rise and fall of Lucchese crime family associates Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), and his best friends Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).

Development of the film went as far back as the early 1980’s. Scorsese, whose name in time would be synonymous with organized crime movies, had no interest in mob dramas before reading Pileggi’s book. Scorsese intended to make the film prior to his THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988), but put the Wiseguys adaptation on hold when funding for CHRIST came through first. When they revisited the project later, Scorsese saw the film in a new light; instead of a straight-up gangster film done in the spirit of James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, it would be a mob home-movie, showing how those guys lived their every-day lives.

Scorsese and Pileggi collaborated on the screenplay, taking their favorite parts of the book and expanding on them. Character’s names were slightly altered, and the name would be changed to GOODFELLAS because Wiseguys had already been used as a 1986 comedy film by Brian DePalma. The main actors, Liotta, DeNiro, and Pesci, rehearsed by ad-libbing scenes…and Scorsese took the best ad-libs and inserted them in the screenplay. DeNiro consulted with the real-life Henry Hill in preparation for the part.

Filming was on-location in Queens, New York, New Jersey, and parts of Long Island. The approach was to make things feel out-of-control with many tracking shots, lots of movement, and multiple location switches. Scorsese was heavily influenced by the film JULES AND JIM (1962), and used extensive narration (by Liotta, in character), quick edits, and freeze frames (all of which would become a Scorsese trademark).

The cast of Liotta, DeNiro, and Pesci put in inspired performances, and they were joined by equally energized performances by their co-stars; Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Vincent, and Chuck Low. Scorsese’s mom made an appearance as Pesci’s character’s mom. The soundtrack was composed of music from the time periods scenes took place in (1955-1980).

GOODFELLAS would premiere at the 47th Venice International Film Festival, and Scorsese would receive the Silver Lion Award for best director. The film would open in September, just in time for Oscar Season, to outstanding reviews. Film critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and Peter Travers would rank the film #1 of the year. It would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and Joe Pesci would win for Best Supporting Actor. It would win Best Film and Best Director at the BAFTA’s that year along with three others. Today, it appears on many Best Of lists by the American Film Institute, and in 2000 would be included in the National Film Registry. GOODFELLAS would inspire countless other mob-inspired stories on TV and on the big screen, and its sharp script would produce many quotable lines which reside firmly in pop-culture today. The 2014 ESPN 30 FOR 30 documentary PLAYING FOR THE MOB, which told the story of Henry Hill’s involvement in a points-shaving scandal, was narrated by Ray Liotta and was setup in a way that knowledge of GOODFELLAS was a requirement.

A very long time ago, when this Blogger was taking his Film Appreciation class, there were certain directors and films which we were required to study, and Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS was at the top of the list. That class was the first true exposure of the film to this Blogger, and to this day am still impressed with the tremendous amount of energy the film has; there is always a sense of perpetual motion…characters and plot careening towards something at all times. That is a difficult thing to maintain in film, and GOODFELLAS did it in a way which serves as a template for all future filmmakers. Today, it is difficult to get through a week without hearing a quote from the film, and the dynamic personalities of Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy is something that lives on forever on the screen and in our heads. It’s not easy to find empathy for characters who are all crooks, but Scorsese pulled it off, making GOODFELLAS not only a classic but a transcendent film. It doesn’t get much better than this.

“You’re gonna like this guy, he’s a good fella.”

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