Considered by many to be the jewel in director Martin Scorsese’s heavily-bedecked crown, the film “Goodfellas” is based upon the real-life story of Henry Hill, an Irish, Italian gangster and associate of the brutal, New York-based Lucchese crime family from 1955-1980. Scorsese’s first major film about organized crime, “Goodfellas” gritty realism and expert direction would inexorably link his name with the genre.
Bringing a Book to Life
Hill’s meteoric rise and fall from gangster-wannabe street kid to mobster turned snitch is the focus of crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction masterpiece, “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family.” Scorsese was captivated by the book’s realism and honest day-to-day drawing of what life in a mob family was really like. Drawn to the story, he called Pileggi out of the blue. The two met and joined forces to co-write the “Goodfellas” screenplay, which is based upon the book. The undertaking took 12 drafts.
Creating the Cast
Scorsese postponed the project when funding came through for another one of his films, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Upon completion of the project, he turned his attention back to “Goodfellas,” reaching out to long-time associate Robert De Niro with the offer to play Hill’s mentor, gangster Jimmy Conway. Once De Niro was in the mix, funding followed and the rest of the cast was solidified. Ray Liotta’s brilliant performance as Henry Hill is considered to be one of the best of his career. Seminal performers Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino and Lorraine Bracco joined the cast as did Scorsese’s parents, Catherine and Charles, in small but significant roles.
After casting, Pileggi remained a vital on-set presence. The author’s fascination with the Mafia and extensive research into Hill’s life produced vast amounts of material which never made it into his original book, but which he was able to share with the film’s stars. This provided a richer understanding of both Hill and the money-centric world he lived in. Liotta further researched his role, utilizing FBI tapes featuring Hill in order to capture his talking style and nuance.
Real, But Not Too Real
Unlike many fictionalized portrayals of Mafia families, “Goodfellas” shies away from over-romanticizing their lifestyle. Some of the characters are frighteningly likable at points — despite the violence they perpetrate — but in the world of “Goodfellas,” realism rules. Comic relief is provided by Joe Pesci’s brutal portrayal of mobster Tommy DeVito, Lorraine Bracco who brilliantly plays Hill’s wife, Karen, and one of Hill’s later-day mistresses, played by Debi Mazar. The film’s brutality is also tempered by its unrelenting, period soundtrack featuring songs that were popular from the 1950s through to the 1980s, including Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
A Celebrated Success
The film received unparalleled accolades from both critics and fans. Pesci received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and gave the shortest acceptance speech in the award’s history. The film received an additional six nominations. It also won five British Academy Film Awards, five Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and five Golden Globe Award nominations.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.