(United States, 1990)
When Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas lost out in the 1991 Best Picture derby to Dances with Wolves, many die-hard cineastes were outraged at the perceived injustice. I was not among them. Although I believe that Goodfellas is the better film, Dances with Wolves is close enough in quality and entertainment value that its victory was not scandalous. Unfortunately, the widespread accolades for Dances with Wolves caused Martin Scorsese once again to be again snubbed in the director category. Now that Steven Spielberg has won his Best Director statue (actually, two of them), Scorsese stands out as the best working filmmaker never to have been honored by the Academy. Over the course of his career, Scorsese has made three masterpieces and a handful of good-to-great motion pictures. Since Goodfellas, his career has been in something of a decline (all the Oscar nominations for Gangs of New York notwithstanding). Nevertheless, this insider's perspective of the brutality and betrayal of mob life stands out as one of the first great films of the 1990s. It also re-affirmed that Scorsese is at his best when teamed with Robert De Niro. At the time when it was released, Goodfellas was viewed as an extremely violent, but, in the wake of Tarantino and his imitators, nothing in Goodfellas seems shocking or outrageous. The movie is a brilliant character study and thriller, and clearly illustrates the kind of power that Scorsese can generate at the top of his game. One can argue whether Goodfellas or Dances with Wolves deserved to win Best Picture, but, as impressive as Kevin Costner was in his behind-the-camera debut, the Best Director honor should have been bestowed upon Scorsese.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Goodfellas is, as we learn at the very beginning, based (however loosely) on a true story. The movie opens by introducing us to 13-year old Henry Hill (played by Christopher Serrone as a youngster and by Ray Liotta as an adult), our narrator. It's the '50s in New York City, and becoming a member of the mob looks like one of the coolest employment opportunities around. "As far back as I can remember," Henry recollects, "I wanted to be a gangster." And no wonder - to a kid just entering his second decade of life, these men have everything: friends, girls, cars, cash, and, most importantly, respect. "Being a gangster was better than being the President of the United States." Henry pursues his goal and soon has become a gofer for the brother of Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the neighborhood boss. His first taste of the life is a heady experience. "I was treated like a grown up. I was living a fantasy... At 13, I was making more money than most of the adults in the neighborhood." By 1970, Henry has achieved a position of some importance in the organization. He and his two closest associates, hotheaded Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and no-nonsense Jimmy Conway (De Niro), are becoming involved in areas that aren't approved of by everyone in the mob - in particular, drug dealing. Henry, now married to a nice Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), leads an increasingly more reckless life that results in his taking on multiple mistresses, becoming involved in Tommy's murder of a "made" mobster, and spending a term in jail. Once Henry returns to the outside world, he becomes aware that old alliances are shifting and that his life may be in jeopardy from those he once considered to be his closest friends. There are two principles of the gangster way - never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut - and Henry may have to violate both in order to preserve his life.
There are essentially two kinds of Mafia movies: those that romanticize the life and those that depict it with gut-wrenching clarity. The best known and most accomplished of these films, The Godfather, stakes out its territory firmly in the first area, leaving Goodfellas to stand atop the other. Both pictures have fully realized, three dimensional characters and strong atmospheres, but Francis Ford Coppola's effort embraces the mythos of the gangster, while Scorsese's exploration is more pragmatic. Goodfellas is as compelling and absorbing as any crime drama I have ever seen. The script shows all the facets of these characters; they are all fully developed individuals capable of great good and great evil. The moral ambiguity of their lifestyle is treated with a shrug. Goodfellas examines how a culture shapes values, life choices, and relationships, offering insight into the themes and ideas that are closest to Scorsese's heart. Goodfellas stands alongside The Godfather as one of the two greatest mob stories told on film.
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