“One day some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.”
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas came at a time when there was a whole series of great Gangster films to look up to. There were the Godfather Films, Brian De Palma’s Scarface and The Untouchables, and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. These films were milestones of the genre and set the bar high enough for any future gangster film.
So, what did Martin Scorsese achieve by adding one more film to the list? I have to admit that the first time I watched Goodfellas, I was a 20-year-old kid, who probably liked it for all the wrong reasons. But then last year I had the opportunity to rewatch Goodfellas at the Goa Film Festival and only this time did I realize that as a 20-year-old I miserably failed to notice that Goodfellas is a biting satire on the supposedly cool life of a gangster, and essentially aims to enlighten us about who our heroes should or shouldn’t be.
The film’s opening line, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” is not just Henry Hill recounting his early fascination about being a gangster, but also makes us think who we wanted to be like when we were young. Goodfellas demands us to investigate who our “heroes”, really, are because the life ahead is going to become a series of decisions we’ll take to imitate our flawed heroes. Do we really need that kind of life for us?
When Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito couldn’t handle his anger and ended up killing a couple of men over little verbal altercations, being a gangster stopped being fun. It became a tedious exercise of burying the body and cleaning up the bloody mess. Was that part of Henry Hill’s fantasy about being a gangster, probably not.
Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway gave all kinds of sermons about friendships and the mafia code but he also violated them when he had his own men killed after a heist so as to keep their share of the robbery. So, was he an honorable man? No. He was so not an honorable man, so much that after a point, even Henry started to feel unsafe with Jimmy. Wasn’t it supposed to be something about looking out for your friends? When did the rules change? So, are gangsters honorable men? Maybe yes, but primarily they are criminals, and these ideologies and principles that they throw away in one’s face are just excuses to fetch some “respect” for themselves, but it’s always fear but respect or it just helps them sleep better at night. You never know.
Eventually, Tommy was killed by his own bosses when he was tricked into attending a ceremony that was supposed to make him a made man. He was the Italian-American, he should have been safe in an organization of Italian American mobs but he wasn’t. That was another harsh reality Scorsese spotlights in Goodfellas. Is there a safe haven, even in this line of work? clearly not.
Throughout the third act of Goodfellas, Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill is looking over his shoulders. From the neighborhood kids carrying his mother’s groceries out of respect to constantly evading the FBI and the Police to the point of Paranoia, how did he end up there? Goodfellas is a story of how we end up there when we don’t choose our heroes wisely. The reason we root for Henry Hill is because he is not just a gangster, he is an everyman like us, one with aspirations and the capability to become a criminal when we are given some shallow respect and a shit ton of money to go with it. There is a Henry Hill in all of us. Noone’s really a goodfella.
Here are 10 facts you ‘probably’ didn’t know about Goodfellas:
1. According to Martin Scorsese, Marlon Brando tried to persuade him to not make Goodfellas. He thought Scorsese would be just repeating his work done in ‘Mean Streets ’ and ‘Raging Bull ’. But he still made it as everyone in the crew believed that Goodfellas was a fresh and funny take on the Gangster genre.
2. “As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” This iconic line found a place at the 20th position in Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Lines.
3. This could have been the first Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino collaboration. Al Pacino denied the role of Jimmy Conway as he feared of being typecasted as a Gangster. Ironically the same year, he did Warren Beatty’s ‘Dick Tracy’, where he played an even more stereotypical Gangster. Pacino admits that he regrets this decision.
4. There were many actors who were eyed to play a part in this film; John Malkovich and Al Pacino were considered for the role of Jimmy Conway, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise were considered to play Henry Hill and Alec Baldwin auditioned for the role of Henry Hill.
5. As a young man, Joe Pesci used to work in a restaurant and once he told a mobster that he was funny and it made the mobster very angry. He told about this incident to Scorsese and he allowed it to reenact the event with Ray Liotta on the receiving end. The result was the memorable “You think I am Funny?” Scene.
6. The producer’s original choice for Henry Hill and his wife was Tom Cruise and Madonna, however it could not materialize and it went to Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco. Scorsese liked Liotta ever since he saw him in ‘Something Wild ’.
7. Robert De Niro was offered to pick one from the two characters Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito.
8. Ray Liotta turned down the role of Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s ‘Batman ’ and instead chose to work on Goodfellas.
9. The real Henry Hill claimed that Robert De Niro used to call him 7 to 8 times a day to ask about little details of the life of Jimmy Conway. As little details as how Jimmy used to hold his cigarette or how he would apply his tomato ketchup.
10. The word ‘Fuck’ and its forms were used 321 times; almost half of them were spoken by Joe Pesci.