Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco
Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Based upon the true story of Henry Hill, "Goodfellas" is Martin Scorsese's "Shoulda won the Oscar" film. I mean, really, think about it- I know he was a sentimental favorite, but did he really deserve the Oscar for "The Aviator?" The answer is a resounding "No!" The same is true for his "Gangs of New York," a sentimental favorite that was well done but definitely not solid enough to really earn the Best Director Oscar. "Goodfellas", however, is another story. For "Goodfellas," Scorsese should have blown away that wolf dancing Kevin Costner.
In the film, Henry (Ray Liotta) sole ambition beginning in childhood is to be a "wise guy," a member of the Mafia. He is in no way actually connected to The Family, but he's single-minded in his vision of a life as a mafioso. The film is based upon the real life Hill's story, told while in the Federal Witness Protection Program, to Nicholas Pileggi.
One could easily look over at Francis Ford Coppola and wonder why he wasn't given a crack at this material, and yet, upon further thought it becomes clear that Scorsese is truly the only director who could possibly direct a film with the authenticity and imagery of "Goodfellas." Hill's wife notes in the book based on their lives that she became so accustomed to living the mob life that it became normal to her. She was so deeply integrated into the circle that any other sort of living felt foreign to her.
That's precisely the beauty of "Goodfellas." While it is a dramatized account of Henry Hill's rise into the Mafia ranks, it is done with such complete research, such devotion to detail by Scorsese that it simultaneously feels like drama, documentary, and biopic combined with a touch of urban poetry. "Goodfellas" isn't so much about the events and actions of a mob figure. These things are only the tools that Scorsese uses to create what it truly feels like to be a mob figure.
Scorsese taps not only into the Pileggi book, but also his own life experiences sitting in his home, watching the gangsters across the street. He would sit in is window day after day after day. In some ways, he could do nothing but he could observe everything.
As in every Scorsese film, music is essential to communicating the story and the feelings of the film. Every transition is filled with music that takes the audience to a new place from Hill's early experiences to his rise through his ranks and, finally, through his own paranoia as the walls started closing in.
Liotta immerses himself in the role of Henry Hill. Henry Hill is truly the performance of Liotta's life, and his Oscar nomination was well deserved as we follow him from determined young man to rising star in the Mafia to fallen star and ultimately to betrayal. Liotta sparkles through this wide array of emotions, and his scenes with Lorraine Bracco as his wife are filled with passion and loyalty and romance and, yes, more betrayal. Likewise, as The Don, Paul Sorvino explodes on the screen along with Robert DeNiro as Jimmy and Danny Devito as Tommy.
The miracle of "Goodfellas" is the regret we feel for Henry Hill, who has been so consumed by life in this Mafia family that when he ultimately betrays himself and his family everything he has ever wanted and dreamed of is finished. Becoming part of the Federal Witness Protection Program brings to an abrupt halt a life for which he certainly feels guilt, but the guilt is more about his own betrayal than it is any wrongdoing. It is a life he loved living, and there is literally no doubt he would choose to do so again.
If Scorsese somehow dies without finally winning his Oscar, hopefully he can rest in peace knowing that in his career he has created films that challenge, entertain, educate and inform like virtually no other director. "Goodfellas" is a brilliant film from a brilliant director, and the failure of the Academy to recognize it is a reflection only of their poor judgment.
In many ways, "Goodfellas" is Henry Hill's love song to his life in a Mafia family. Like every powerful love song, it is a song you will feel long after you have watched the film. Indeed, "Goodfellas" is Scorsese's "shoulda won the Oscar" film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic