Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Goodfellas: The Charisma of Crime

Director Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas is ostensibly a true story about the organized crime underworld of New York City. The protagonist, Irish-Italian Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), was a real Lucchese Family crime associate beginning when he was a kid in the 1950s until his narcotics arrest in 1980. The film is based on the nonfiction book Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family written by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, who conducted interviews with Henry and his wife Karen while they were in the Witness Protection Program. Hill participated in many famous crimes, particularly the Kennedy Airport robberies of Air France and Lufthansa. Scorsese and his team won critical acclaim and awards for their energetic style and innovative editing techniques. Liotta narrates most of the film, based on the sections of Wise Guy dictated by the real Henry Hill’s recollections. Thelma Schoonmaker received an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing.

However, as much as Goodfellas is the story of Henry Hill, the film is also designed by Scorsese as the recreation of his own childhood in Southern and Eastern New York City and his own encounters with mobsters. Scorsese retained affection for the 1950s and 60s New York, particularly Queens and Brooklyn. He previously made three films about the colorful characters, lowlifes and crime in the city of his youth: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull (1980). Scorsese used Goodfellas as another opportunity to romanticize his neighborhood and its Italian-American residents. He wanted the audience to come away remembering an exciting, idealized version of that neighborhood and lifestyle according to what Scorsese imagined it to be. As part of that goal, he and Nicholas Pileggi recreated the characters as less violent and overall more agreeable to the audience than their real-life counterparts. Producer Irwin Winkler interpreted Goodfellas this way: “The character I see most in the film, strangely enough, is Marty Scorsese. His character more than anything else comes out. His own drive, his own wanting to be part of a group of outcasts. It has Marty’s passion, his sense of violence... and some of Marty’s need to be accepted” (Goodfellas).

In many ways Goodfellas is a love letter to a community in a bygone era. The production was a family affair, because Scorsese hired many cast and crew who had grown up in the same area and had known each other prior to filming. Author Nick Pileggi had known actor Robert De Niro (who played gangster Jimmy Conway) off and on for twenty years by the time Scorsese agreed to make the picture. De Niro had known Scorsese since their childhood in Queens. Actors Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito) and Frank Vincent (Billy Batts) had been in a band and comedy act together in the late 1960s. Actress Lorraine Bracco was married to longtime Scorsese staple Harvey Keitel for eleven years. Through that relationship she was also friends with De Niro. Ed McDonald, the federal prosecutor who investigated Lufthansa and put Henry Hill into Witness Protection, grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Bracco. McDonald went on to play himself in the film. Scorsese’s parents even worked on the set as costume pressers because they were very familiar with the fashion of the era.

Scorsese had grown up near made men and had strangely admired them from afar. “I was aware of these older men and the power that they had without lifting a finger. You could just feel the flow of power coming from these people, and as a child you looked up to this without understanding it” (Thompson 151). He explained that “Elizabeth Street was mainly Sicilian, as were my grandparents, and here the people had their own regulations and laws. We didn’t care about the Government, or politicians or the police: we felt we were right in our ways” (Thompson 3). What first attracted Scorsese to the film was the “wonderful arrogance” of Henry Hill (151). Pileggi, who grew up in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, called it “opera, played out every day in the street. Marty would look out the window every day and see it. From 1910 through Prohibition especially, and into the 50s, that world [organized crime] was probably as strong an influence on the Italian-American community as there was. They were the single most powerful force for many, many years” (Goodfellas).

Actor Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), who also grew up in Brooklyn, encountered a few wiseguys at local eateries. He described them as “refrigerator sized men in dark suits” (Goodfellas). He explained that it was dangerous to even look at one of them without them getting angry and creating a confrontation. Frank Vincent saw many possible mobsters when playing with his band in various New York clubs. Songwriter Paul Anka, when interviewed on the Howard Stern show in 2007, told a story about his time in the wiseguy clubs. “If there were hecklers in the crowd in that day, they’d get smacked around and taken right out of the club and replaced with a new couple” (Howard Stern).

One of the film’s most famous scenes is a three minute Steadicam shot that follows Henry and his girlfriend (later wife) Karen as they enter the Copacabana nightclub through the back entrance, past the kitchen, and onto the main floor, all in one take. A table, chairs, and lamp are quickly produced for them. In a later scene at the club, Henry watches Bobby Darren sing his famous song “Roses Are Red (My Love).” Again, this is based on a memory of Scorsese. He attended a Copacabana dinner for his high school prom where he too saw Bobby Darren. He also witnessed tables flying in five minutes before show time for special people who would sit where ever they wanted. They would “emerge in the spotlight like a king” (Goodfellas). He thought it was the highest to which a man could aspire.

In Goodfellas, Scorsese glorified and bowdlerized the mob life by whitewashing many of the gangsters’ worst deeds. This was necessary in order to create sympathetic characters that the audience could identify with. “I knew it would make a fascinating film if we just could keep the same sense of a way of life that Nick had in the book – what Henry Hill had given him – and still have an audience care about these characters as human beings. If you happen to feel something for the character Joe Pesci plays after all he does in the film when he’s eliminated, then that’s interesting to me” (Thompson 151). Producer Irwin Winkler described the movie characters: “everything is nice, they hang around nightclubs, they have nice girlfriends, they spend money, and they wear nice clothes and have nice cars” (Goodfellas). Scorsese could accomplish this without much resistance from the audience, because most people do not have firsthand experience around wiseguys.

Scorsese’s fast, slick directing style was meant, in part, to emulate Hill’s manner of speaking: fast and direct, but also detailed and frank. Pileggi likened Hill to professional storytellers in the immigrant communities of the turn of the century. According to Barbara De Fina, co-producer and one time wife of Scorsese, he was trying hard to make a splash at that point in his career and get more respect as a filmmaker after Color of Money and the controversial Last Temptation of Christ (Goodfellas). “I discovered that scenes could be compacted, so that you could have a wedding, then go directly to the result of the marriage... I realized that if the scenes were kept short, the impact after about an hour and a half would be terrific” (Thompson 152). Scorsese dismissed conventional narrative and introduction of characters because he wanted to get to the glamour and excitement of the mob life. He wanted 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” (Thompson 152).

Scorsese planned to have “lots of movement and I wanted it to be throughout the whole picture, and I wanted the style to kind of break down by the end, so that by his last day as a wiseguy, it’s as if the whole picture would be out of control, [and] give the impression he’s just going to spin off the edge and fly out” (Thompson 153). He went on to say “there were some scenes which would take longer, because the exuberance, the exhilaration of the lifestyle carries you along, until they start to have problems and then it stops – and you have to deal with that” (151). The famous “what’s so funny about me” scene where the gangsters are having a fun dinner joking around was based on an incident in Pesci’s life, not Hill. Scorsese wanted a reckless attitude in the film. His theory was “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.”

In order to streamline Henry Hill’s story and make the characters likeable to the audience, Scorsese and Pileggi worked back and forth for two years. Pileggi called the larger details of Hill’s life, such as his time in the Army Paratroopers, “irrelevant” (Goodfellas). Hill’s military service was left out of the film entirely, perhaps because he spent most of the time loan sharking to other soldiers or incarcerated in the stockade (Pileggi 44). Most of the characters in the film became charismatic, wise-cracking, fast-talking, enterprising young men that focused their lives on having fun and escaping responsibility. Scorsese went one step further and elevated these gangsters to mythic status. He called the story “nostalgia of a world filled with gods” and that “Henry was up on Olympus and was cast down” (Goodfellas). The filmed events became less repugnant, but it was hardly accurate to the real story.

Nicholas Pileggi summed up the gangsters he interviewed in his career as “illiterate hoods” (Pileggi 3). He found the real Hill to be slightly above par, because he could speak “fairly grammatically” (4). The film describes Paul Cicero’s (Paul Vario in reality) business as security for the mob. He would defuse altercations and arrange sit-downs to work out grievances. If anything got too out of control, Paulie and his crew would settle it. In the film it all sounds detached from the uglier side of mafia activity and even reasonable. However, the real business of the Vario crew was much more. It included extortion, loan sharking, racketeering, credit card fraud, counterfeiting, illegal gambling, drug trafficking, money laundering, arson, truck hijacking, point shaving, and murder, often all in the same year. Paulie once did 7 months in prison at the age of 11. “It was understood on the street that Paul Vario ran one of the city’s toughest and most violent gangs. In Brownsville-East New York the body counts were always high” (34). Hill was particularly sought after for his skills as an arsonist, even as a teenager. He utilized toilet paper soaked in Sterno fuel along with a lit cigarette as the ignition source. It was said Hill had never set a fire that wasn’t a felony (Pileggi 41).

As the centerpiece for the film, Hill was especially cleaned up for the story. In the film, Hill only does one stint in prison. In actuality, he had been arrested dozens of times, so many times that he lost count. He was constantly being arrested for hijacking trucks or stealing cars or selling illegal goods. His police yellow sheet, or record of arrests, was the only thing that proved Hill even existed, since he had long ago learned not to put any property under his own name or pay taxes (3). Henry and Karen’s wedding was actually an elopement, while the film portrays a lavish mob wedding. Hill’s adultery began immediately afterward. The film names two characters, Janice and Sandy, but in fact it included hookers, strippers, mistresses, drug couriers, and any women he met out dancing or drinking (84).

In the film, Henry is frequently at the site of violence but rarely a participant. Scorsese seemed to be painting him as an innocent bystander in the darker side of crime. As opposed to selling untaxed cigarettes or booze, violence was true evil. In only one scene does Henry help Jimmy Conway beat someone (Jimmy Burke in reality) over a money dispute. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Tommy are committing hits without remorse. In the murder of Billy Batts, for example, Liotta acts just as shocked as the audience when Jimmy and Tommy nearly beat a man to death. In this way, the audience can see the events through Henry’s eyes as a kind of everyman, who is just in over his head. The film shows the incident occurring over an insult to Tommy (Pesci). As bad as the characters and events are in the film, the reality was much worse. In actuality, Jimmy Burke had taken over the loan sharking business previously run by Batts. When Batts was released from jail, Burke stood to lose considerable income, so he recruited Tommy to help him eliminate Batts. Money was often the deciding factor when violence was committed.

Similarly, the murder of Spider (Michael Imperioli) during a card game shows Hill as mortified about the shooting. The real story proves that no one should have been shocked. Tommy had a long-standing feud with Spider over Spider’s fast rise in the Lucchese crime family, despite Tommy’s longer membership. Spider was making a lot of money in smuggling and auto theft. Once Spider insulted Tommy in front of his friends, Tommy finally had the excuse to bump Spider off. In both cases, Henry watches from the sidelines disapprovingly. However, Hill frequently calls in to the Howard Stern show. In one drunken phone call in 2003 he admitted to killing three people, the first when he was a teenager (Stern). On another day, when sober, he tried to call back and recant. This admission was not in Pileggi’s book. Hill apparently doesn’t want to remember these details, and by not mentioning them he doesn’t want anyone else to remember either.

The violence left off-screen is even more despicable. In one case a union trucking official gave Jimmy a hard time on an illegal shipment the gangsters were unloading at the man’s warehouse. Jimmy sent Stanley Diamond and Tommy DeVito (DeSimone in reality) over to the man’s house in New Jersey to rough him up so he would mind his own business. Instead they couldn’t help themselves and killed the man. “They were so pissed the guy wouldn’t listen to Jimmy, that he lived in the boondocks of Jersey, and that they had to go all the way out there just to talk to him, they got themselves so worked up that they just couldn’t keep from killing him” (Pileggi 138). In another case, when Hill is doing time for beating the man in Florida with Jimmy, Henry is living in a prison room with a man named Johnny Dio. The real Johnny Dio was sent to prison for arranging a low-level gangster to throw acid in the face of a journalist he didn’t like. The man was blind for the rest of his life. Paul Cicero is shown in prison with Henry “serving six months for contempt” according to the film, when the real Paul Vario was serving two and a half years for tax evasion.

One event in Hill’s life, besides all the killing and stealing, could have turned audiences against him more than anything. It was not included in the film. Henry had connections through his stolen car business to people in Haiti, and these people were involved in human trafficking. In 1967, Hill tried to buy his own Haitian slave to work in his house. “They had the right connections in the mountains, where they would buy young girls from their families. The girls were then shipped to Canada on a tourist visa and their new owners would go to Montreal and pick them up” (Pileggi 124). His girl cost only $600. When she arrived and upset Hill’s two daughters, he decided to send her back.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Pileggi’s book is nearly 300 pages of inexplicable, casual violence and greed. These were not pleasant, likeable people. Scorsese and Pileggi had their work cut out for them to make the story palatable for a mainstream movie-going audience. One of their solutions was to change the scenes to be humorous. Toward the beginning of the film, when Henry is still a kid, some wiseguys grab Henry’s mailman off the street and threaten to put him in a pizza oven if he delivers any more truancy letters to Henry’s house. As directed, it is an amusing part of the movie. In truth, Henry hated this experience. “The guy was crammed in the back of the car and he was turning gray. I was ashamed to look at him. Nobody said anything” (Pileggi 25). In another scene, Jimmy and Henry drive to the Tampa City Zoo and threaten to throw a man into the lion’s den if he doesn’t cough up some money. This is funny, but fictional. Instead they simply beat the man at gunpoint in the middle of a Tampa bar and then drove him home to get the cash.As the film progresses chronologically and moves away from the 50s and 60s period of Scorsese’s youth, it gets noticeably less romanticized and more dark and violent. Winkler said “it was a very glamorous world that we presented until the murder of Spider” (Goodfellas). Still, most of the murders occur off-screen. After the Lufthansa heist, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) orders the killing of at least five people so he can keep their cut for himself. The audience only sees one of these murders, and the rest are revealed through a montage of police officers, garbage men, and neighborhood kids finding the other bodies. De Niro is never shown killing these people himself and is only directly involved with the Billy Batts blowup. Tommy (Joe Pesci) smashes a bottle on a restaurant owner’s head and later kills four people (Morrie, Spider, Stacks, and Batts) but the film avenges these immoral actions by showing Tommy get whacked himself.The actual Jimmy Burke was an unpredictable, sadistic thug. Scorsese and Pileggi’s writing and De Niro’s acting instead made him a charismatic gentleman Mafioso. Burke had been in the foster system his entire childhood, where he grew up being beaten, sexually abused, and locked in closets. As an adult his violent streak was legendary. “Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn’t matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert” (Pileggi 24) and “his explosive temper terrified some of the most terrifying men in the city” (94).

All of the work of Scorsese and Pileggi culminated in a very memorable movie. To this day certain scenes have added to the cultural lexicon. People quote lines such as “go home and get your shinebox” or the “you think I’m funny” scene. Lorraine Bracco said “It’s embedded into our culture” (Goodfellas). Ray Liotta has stated that once you start watching Goodfellas, it’s impossible to stop until it’s over. “It seduces you and sucks you in” (Goodfellas). But it has done more than create memorable dialogue. The film downplayed Hill’s alcoholism and Quaalude addiction. Fans of the film are surprised that the real Henry Hill doesn’t look or sound anything like Ray Liotta. Instead, Hill is a barely coherent alcoholic with bouts of crack cocaine and crystal meth problems. He has since been thrown out of Witness Protection.

A powerful, “true” story like Goodfellas will always impact truth, because it is so entertaining and seems so real that audiences don’t question it. Therefore, the film itself is influential on memory. Goodfellas convinces people this is how the mob really was, when the truth is much worse than any film could depict. Frank Vincent commented on the difference between Goodfellas and a mob movie like The Godfather. “It really happened. People can remember Lufthansa. They can remember The Suite and all the places this really took place” (Goodfellas). Beyond that, Vincent believes, the film is so influential it has become the archetype for modern Mafiosi. “Mob guys all used this [movie] to be mob guys. That’s what a mob guy is. He’s Bob De Niro!”

Works Cited

Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino. Warner Bros. 1990. Commentary from the Film.

Hill, Henry. Interview with Howard Stern. The Howard Stern Show. Sirius Satellite Radio. 22 July 2003; 18 Nov. 2003; 19 Sep. 2007. Radio.

Pileggi, Nicholas. Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family. New York: Pocket Books, 1985. Print.
Thompson, David and Ian Christie. Scorsese on Scorsese. New York: Faber and Faber, 2003.
Print via Web. http://books.google.com/books?id=iZvyBBGAzHgC

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