Things You Never Knew About 'Goodfellas'
Ray Liotta is gone, but the gangster classic lives forever.
Don't flinch, but it's been over 40 years since director Martin Scorsese unleashed Goodfellas on the world. And movies haven't been the same since. The film has influenced a generation of writers, directors, editors, and cinematographers who've tried to emulate its authoritative coolness... to varying degrees of success.
There's no substitution for the original. Goodfellas is, and will always be, one of the gold standards in modern American filmmaking. Scorsese's resume was already well-established by the time the film was released on September 21, 1990. But Goodfellas would make his name ring out. By the time the world saw it, the director had become Hollywood royalty.
Goodfellas would garner six Academy Award nominations in 1991, a shameful amount given the movie's influence and place in history in retrospect. But the Oscars did award Joe Pesci Best Supporting Actor for his role as Tommy DeVito, a satisfying vindication. Nevertheless, Scorsese was robbed of Best Director (Kevin Costner would win for Dances with Wolves, a travesty on so many levels).
If TV is the writer's medium, film is for the directors, and there are few movies that bear such an indelible artistic mark. Goodfellas is Scorsese's vision front to back. His mind ran wild after reading Nicholas Pileggi's source novel, Wise Guy, and his ideas spilled out onscreen for us to soak up. It's been 30 years since the movie came out and you've probably seen it multiple times. If you're anything like me, you've seen it hundreds of times. But there are secrets to any movie, and stories behind every shot. With that in mind, I've put together a list of some interesting facts about the production that might change the way you watch it.
1. Scorsese wanted Goodfellas to feel like a movie trailer. From the director: "To begin Goodfellas like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. I think it's the only way you can really sense the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and to get a sense of why a lot of people are attracted to it."
2. Goodfellas is film history. Scorsese blends many genres, from Italian Neo-Realism (using non-actors) to French New Wave (freeze frames, voiceover) to create the film's incredible style. The script, written by Scorsese and Pileggi, forsakes traditional structure by starting in the middle before taking us back to the beginning. And don't blink—some scenes are seconds long. Scorsese believed compact sequences would be worth it once the finished product was seen. You can see the brushstrokes taken from everything from New Wave classic Jules and Jim (opening narration) to The Great Train Robbery (final shot of Tommy pointing his gun at the camera). Scorsese wanted the reckless style of the movie itself to reflect the lifestyle depicted: "So if you do the movie, you say, 'I don't care if there's too much narration. Too many quick cuts?—That's too bad.' It's that kind of really punk attitude we're trying to show."
3. The Copacabana tracking shot wasn't planned. One of the most famous "oners" or tracking shots in movie history—the sequence that begins on the street and follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his new girlfriend, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), as they enter through the Copacabana service entrance—was improvised on set. The production couldn't get permission to enter the club through the front, as planned, so Scorsese decided on the unbroken take (inspired by a similar shot in The Untouchables). They got it in eight tries. The sequence seems to belong to Karen, who's obviously floored by the "secret entrance," and Henry himself, who's a rock star at the club. But Scorsese has explained the seduction works on two levels: "It's his (Henry's) seduction of her (Karen), and it's also the lifestyle seducing him."
4. The "funny how?" scene really happened to Joe Pesci and was improvised. In rehearsals, Scorsese allowed his actors to improv and do whatever they wanted with certain scenes. He made transcripts and kept what he liked for the movie. During rehearsals, Pesci broke out the now-famous dialogue, based on an experience he had with a real mobster while waiting tables in Queens. Scorsese rewrote the dialogue and inserted the sequence in a revised script. During shooting, he kept the story from the actors sitting around Pesci and Liotta so their reactions would be authentic.
5. Al Pacino was almost in the movie. Pacino was offered the role of Jimmy Conway, but was hesitant to accept because of his history making gangster movies (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Scarface, and Godfather III). But the actor would accept a role as crime boss Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy shortly after, and then as gangster Carlito Brigante in Carlito's Way soon after that. Goodfellas, Godfather III, and Dick Tracy were all released in 1990, so if Pacino had accepted, he would've appeared as a gangster in three films in one year. He reportedly regretted the decision to turn Scorsese down.
6. The non-actors are just as memorable as the real ones. In addition to the inclusion of real gangsters, great faces like Tony Lip (Frankie the Wop), Anthony Powers (Jimmy Two-Times), and real-life figures Ed McDonald (who prosecuted the real Henry Hill), Robbie Vinton (who plays his famous father Bobby), and legendary comedian Henny Youngman, the director also cast his parents, Charles and Catherine Scorsese, as he had done in Raging Bull. Catherine plays Tommy's mother and she has a great scene where she feeds her "son" and his friends on their way to bury Billy Batts. Also, the story behind Mrs. Scorsese's painting (which is actually based on a real one) is worth a look. As is the story behind Morrie Kessler, played by De Niro's landlord, Chuck Low.
7. The costume design was exact. Scorsese was so enveloped in creating the world of Goodfellas, he took a hands-on approach with everything, including the costumes. According to Liotta, the filmmaker even tied the actor's ties for him to ensure accuracy. De Niro had a matching watch and pinky ring for every outfit. And Lorraine Bracco insisted Karen's jewelry should be real so armed guards were present whenever the jewels were on loan.
8. The producers wanted Tom Cruise and Madonna in the movie. Early stages of production on Goodfellas were frought with creative peril thanks to know-nothing producers at Warner Brothers. Early casting suggestions had Tom Cruise and Madonna as Henry and Karen Hill. No one wanted Ray Liotta, a virtual unknown at the time, and the actor had to convince producer Irwin Winkler at a restaurant that he would be right for the role.
9. Robert De Niro took his method to insane detail. De Niro, who is well known as an obsessive method actor, wanted to know everything about Jimmy Burke, the man Jimmy Conway is based on. De Niro went so far as to inquire about Burke's method for putting ketchup on a burger. He also called Henry Hill multiple times a day to ask questions. He wanted to know everything from how Burke walked to how he smoked a cigarette.
10. Scorsese's final shot says it all. The last thing we see in Goodfellas is Tommy firing a gun at the camera. It's an homage to The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the earliest examples of film technique at work, which ends with a similar shot. Scorsese wanted to end Goodfellas by circling back to the beginning of the medium. He explains this in an interview with critic Mark Cousins: "Well that's a reference right to the end of The Great Train Robbery, that's the way that ends, that film, and basically the plot of this picture is very similar to The Great Train Robbery. It hasn't changed, 90 years later. It's the same story. The gunshots will always be there. He's always going to look behind his back, he's gotta have eyes behind his back, because they're gonna get him someday."