GoodFellas (1990): Scorsese’s Exuberant Biopic of Mobster Henry Hill

Scorsese’s exuberantly vivid GoodFellas is the tale of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife (Lorraine Bracco), who are put in the federal witness protection program after Hill realizes that it’s the only way to save his life.

Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book “Wiseguys” and adapted it to the screen with Scorsese, has said that, “Discovering Hills as a magazine journalist was like getting hold of a soldier in Napoleons army. Detail, detail, detail. Everything was detail. Scorsese affirmed, You could have made an endless number of films out of that single book.

After a brief beginning, the film flashes back to Hill’s boyhood in Brooklyn and his fascination with the Mafioso figures around him, such as Robert De Niro and particularly Joe Pesci, as a mean, moody man who can snap from the jovial to the deadly within seconds.

Dramatically flawed (the narrative is a bit shapeless and the ending could have been more powerful), “GoodFellas” nonetheless is a supremely crafted piece of filmmaking from a director at the peak of his form.

Splendidly filmed by Michael Ballhaus, the film is replete with claver and bravura scenes, with asides to the camera, voice-over narration, dark humor, and astonishingly cruel violence.

The final shot of Tommy shooting toward the camera borrows from the seminal 1903 silent, “The Great Train Robbery,” which end the same way.  This explains Tommy’s anachronistic clothes as well as his sudden appearance after his character’s death.

Most film critics raved about the film, but the audience and the Academy preferred Kevin Costner’s middlebrow Western “Dances With Wolves,” which swept the Oscars, including Best Picture and Director.

Eeven so, the film offers a vividly detailed portrait of an anti-hero who is not very bright, finding himself in well over his headand not knowing how to get out of it.

De Niro, who plays a supporting role here, was nominated in 1990 for the showier lead role in Penny Marshall’s melodrama, “Awakenings,” as a comatose man.

Joe Pesci, who had been nominated once before, also for a Scorsese film (“Raging Bull, in 1980) was rightly voted by the Academy for a performance that reportedly scared his colleagues on the set, including Scorsese’s own mother, who plays a bit part. Lorraine Bracco lost the Supporting Actress to Whoppi Goldberg in “Ghost.”

Despite multiple nominations and respect, the Oscar has eluded Scorsese for decades, largely because the Academy prefers predictable competence to individual genius. As noted, Scorsese lost out to Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves. The script lost to Michael Blakes “Dances With Wolves,” which also won editing for Neil Travis.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by Irwin Winkler.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay (Adapted): Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese
Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci
Supporting Actress: Lorraine Bracco.
Film Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker

Oscar Awards: 1

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context:

In 1990, Coppola’s last chapter of his mafia saga that began in 1972, “The Godfather, Part III” Competed for the Best Picture with “GoodFellas,” which received 6 nominations; two melodramas, “Awakening,” with 3 nods, and the supernatural romance “Ghost,” with 5. The big winner was Kevin Costner’s epic Western, “Dances With Wolves,” which was honored with the largest number of nominations (12) and Oscars (7), including Best Picture and Best Director. “The Godfather, Part III” and “Awakenings” emerged as the big losers, as each film failed to receive a single award.