It didn’t win a Best Picture Oscar (damn you, ‘Dances with Wolves’) nor did it become a blockbuster, yet there’s no denying that ‘Goodfellas’ has become a modern classic. The movie is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, but for all its status as a masterpiece, Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic may, in fact, be underrated. It’s snuck up over the years and now feels like Scorsese’s best (in a career that also includes ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Taxi Driver’), as well as his most culture-changing effort. Here’s why.
Funny how? Like I'm a clown? I amuse you?
‘Goodfellas’ is, of course, a mob movie – a rise-and-fall picture, a satire of the American dream, a love story, you name it. But above all, it’s a comedy, filled with quotable jokes and riotous reaction shots. That’s actually its most beloved aspect and why it’s even nudged even the more solemnly classical ‘The Godfather’ out of the top spot for many gangster-movie fanatics: ‘Goodfellas’ rides on a mountain of laughs.
‘Goodfellas’ opened the door to chatty criminals
Developed by an improvising cast of actors (more like old friends) and retroactively shaped by co-screenwriters Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese, the movie places an unusual emphasis on verbiage: beautiful arias of profanity, neurotic scheming, paranoid delusions. It’s impossible to imagine a gab-happy filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino rising without ‘Goodfellas’: ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992) and ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994) are both indebted to Scorsese’s drawn-out exchanges and digressions.
The golden age of TV starts right here
‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘The Wire’, ‘The Shield’ – all of our ambitious TV sagas, criminal or otherwise, owe a debt of creativity to HBO’s landmark ‘The Sopranos’, a show that simply wouldn’t have happened without Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece. Creator David Chase has called ‘Goodfellas’ his Koran. Not only did he poach two of the film’s signature actors for key roles (Lorraine Bracco and Michael Imperioli), Chase expanded richly on Scorsese’s comic banality and internal rot.
‘Goodfellas’ saved Scorsese from himself
Scorsese had his classics beforehand (‘You talkin’ to me?'), but by the end of the ’80s, he was flailing between misunderstood passion projects (‘The Last Temptation of Christ’) and studio fare that was beneath him (‘The Color of Money’). The massively popular ‘Goodfellas’ was a shot in the arm commercially, finally earning Scorsese his 'greatest living American director' sobriquet in the public eye. It also clarified his gifts for performance, Italian American details and formal style. Scorsese himself would copy ‘Goodfellas’s punchy arc for movies like ‘Casino’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.
This is a movie you sing to
It’s sometimes called the ‘needle drop' – when a director cues up a piece of pre-existing music and lets a pop song do the dramatic work. Scorsese is widely considered the master of this, and 'Goodfellas' was his Sistine Chapel: crammed with euphoric ’50s doo-wop, aching ’60s Motown and the sounds of the ’70s crashing violently to a close, the film set the standard for using songs creatively. 'Goodfellas's twin peaks of musical invention both feature the riffage of Eric Clapton: Robert De Niro cuts loose with a devilish scowl to Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, while a classic revenge montage is scored to the coda of ‘Layla’.
Scorsese made the dazzling long take a topic of conversation
Yes, there were lengthy, choreographed one-shots in the past, most notably Orson Welles’s swirling intro to 1958’s ‘Touch of Evil’. But ‘Goodfellas’s snaking three-minute entry into the Copacabana Club’s back entrance carried the concept to delirious heights (and still made sense as a reflection of the sexy momentum of power). The shot is still the most logistically challenging of Scorsese’s career; they pulled it off in eight takes and then broke for lunch. The director would see his Steadicam creation paid homage to as quickly as 1996’s ‘Swingers’.
‘Goodfellas’ made it okay to love narration again
To hear Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) tell his story – ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ – is to be swept along by an actor’s vocal enthusiasm. Not since Martin Sheen growled his way through ‘Apocalypse Now’ had a performer so thoroughly added to a movie’s success via narration. Scorsese doubles down on the complexity by interrupting Henry’s flow with the thoughts of Karen (Lorraine Bracco) – ‘I couldn’t stand him…’ – turning ‘Goodfellas’ into a kind of he-said-she-said. We don’t have to imagine what 'Goodfellas' would be like from a female perspective, because it already has one.
There's no PT Anderson without ‘Goodfellas’
Paul Thomas Anderson (‘The Master’, ‘Inherent Vice’) has developed into one of the most singular, uncompromising filmmakers in the world, but it’s important to note how thoroughly indebted his 1997 breakthrough was to ‘Goodfellas’. Almost like a checklist, Anderson crafted two of his own long-take sequences, charted an exciting rise and fall, and loaded his movie with pop songs. The whole thing felt like Scorsese done with a reverent, coked-up glee. To some eyes, ‘Boogie Nights’ remains Anderson’s most enjoyable movie – simply put, his career wouldn’t have happened without ‘Goodfellas’.
‘Goodfellas’ sparked a real debate among Italian Americans
As thrilled as audiences were (including the real-life Henry Hill, who often screened the movie for friends), Scorsese and co-screenwriter Pileggi found themselves targeted by Italian Americans upset over the movie’s portrayal of their culture. At 2015’s closing-night anniversary screening of ‘Goodfellas’ at the Tribeca Film Festival, Scorsese revealed that he and Pileggi were declared personae non gratae at one of their favourite restaurants due to the film. The controversy is important: Scorsese was still touching a nerve. He’d lost none of his edge.
Just try turning it off
‘Goodfellas’ has become one of those rare movies you simply can’t change the channel from – it’s consistently excellent from scene to scene. That’s how passionate people are over it. Fans quote lines back at the screen. It’s a new ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’. Nothing is spoiled by previous viewings. So go get the papers (get the papers) and see it again.
Read more on ‘Goodfellas’
Scorsese's fast, violent, stylish mobster movie is a return to form, De Niro, and the Italian-American underworld. But in following, from '55 to the late '70s, the true-life descent into big-time crime of Henry Hill (Liotta), he and co-writer Nick Pileggi seem less concerned with telling a lucid, linear story than with providing sociological evidence of an ethically (ethnically?) marginalised society united by the desire to make a fast buck.