There has never been a movie quite like Goodfellas. That’s because the great 1990 film is so hard to pin down.
Sure, at its core, Goodfellas is a classic “mob movie,” in which the gangsters steal money, kill a lot of people, and act like sociopaths. But the film is much more than that — and the present tense applies here because it seems to be on cable TV almost as often as episodes of Seinfeld.
Goodfellas is also all about friendship, camaraderie, and community — ideals we all aspire to enjoy in our non-mob lives — and New York City plays a huge part in presenting the story’s charm.
The City fits right in, just as it does in movies made by Woody Allen and Spike Lee. Director Martin Scorsese, who grew up in Greenwich Village — as did De Niro — has NYC in his veins. His depictions of such iconic places as the Copacabana leave an indelible mark on the moviegoer.
Sure, purists will bleat that The Godfather — which came out 18 years before Goodfellas and features an ever more distinguished cast of actors — is the all-time “mob movie,” and it’s hard to disagree.
But Goodfellas may even be more of a New York landmark. Here, we see the mobsters as people, with wives and families who happen to kill and steal for a living. In the Godfather movies, the characters were rather stick figures. We saw mobsters and nobody else, except for Michael Corleone, who struggled to hold his family together.
The enduring power and charisma of the 25-year-old film was on display when many key members of the cast reunited nostalgically to close out this year’s Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theater.
The audience was treated to a showing of a new print of the movie, followed by a question-and-answer session with moderator Jon Stewart(!) and actors Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, and Paul Sorvino, as well as co-writer Nicholas Pileggi. Regrettably, Scorsese was on location in Taipei, but he sent a long, rambling, funny speech, which the audience got to see up on the big screen.
Even more disappointing, Joe Pesci was also MIA. He sent a message, of sorts, which a bemused De Niro read to the audience: Quoting verbatim, De Niro simply repeated the F word over and over and over again. It was great. Got to love Joe Pesci.
Here are some takeaways from that very fun evening at the Beacon:
These actors must have had fun making this movie.
You could still glimpse the good feeling among the actors, 25 years later, when they talked about their collective experience. It must have been a blast making this gem.
Actors are not mobsters.
Paul Sorvino good-naturedly took pains to explain that he was not really a mob boss in his spare time. He noted that he was a singer, a poet, an author, a sculptor and, oh yes, an actor!
Ray Liotta probably felt the most pressure of any actor.
Liotta, a terrific film actor, talked emotionally about his task of trying to capture Henry Hill, who emerges as the linchpin of the story.
It took a lot of hard work to make these characters fully dimensional.
“I just did my homework,” said Lorrane Bracco, who played Karen Hill. She, too, stressed that she had been a nice girl from a Jewish neighborhood who didn’t date “made men” in high school.
Robert De Niro is a total pro.
I don’t know the man, but I imagine he is all business on set during a take. He told the audience that the humor in the film stemmed from the way the characters they portrayed talked and acted. De Niro and the other cast members were not trying to ham it up to get a few laughs in key spots; they played the parts straight, without artifice. “A hoof is a hoof,” De Niro said. If you remember the scene when they have to borrow a big knife to cut someone up, you’ll understand the reference.
The actors are pleased and surprised about the enduring popularity of this film.
“There was not a huge box office,” Liotta noted. It seems that word-of-mouth appeal has made Goodfellas withstand the test of time.
For all of the gore and blood, Goodfellas is also a VERY funny movie.
At the Beacon screening, the audience erupted in laughter about once a minute — because the scenes were so funny. No matter how often you see and hear Pesci deliver his brilliant “Why-am-I-funny” rap, you have to laugh at his terrific portrayal of a psychopath.
And dat’s dat.