If you ask any film buff what their favorite movie is, chances are they’ll tense up and think hard about their answer before saying, “I dunno, man, I like a lot.” I can identify with these people -- for a long time I had a hard time answering this question with less than five titles. It wasn’t until recently that I actually thought about all of my favorites and decided which one is my numero uno: Goodfellas. While it gets praise constantly for being a great film, I think it is one of the best films ever. Aside from being directed by one of the most talented directors of our time, Martin Scorsese, it oozes style, is packed with interesting characters portrayed by an unbelievable list of actors, and is based on a true story. What more could you want?
Ray Liotta actually sums up one of the best aspects of this film with a line delivered in regard to Robert De Niro’s character: “Jimmy was the kinda guy who rooted for the bad guy in movies.” Scorsese does such an amazing job with the characters that you almost forget that you’re paying attention to criminals. The whole film they’re running around stealing and murdering and you couldn’t care less. People are getting shot in the head, blood’s spraying everywhere, and you’re just hoping that your favorite character isn’t next, even though he probably deserves it. The characters in this film are far from perfect people, and you should want them to rot in prison (or the dirt) for the atrocities they commit. But you don’t. You want them to flourish and to continue what they’re doing. You can’t help it-- everyone loves a bad guy.
Speaking of bad guys, take a look at Joe Pesci. He delivers arguably the best performance of his career as the sadistic and horrifyingly insane Tommy DeVito. One of the most polarizing characters in the film, Tommy spends most of his screen time beating, stabbing, shooting, or verbally abusing people, and then will turn around and have a lovely dinner with his mother. The Oscar that Pesci won for Supporting Role is well deserved as he gives an absolutely unforgettable performance that is still inspiring people today. In a recent article in GQ featuring several actors known for portraying villains, both Benicio Del Toro and Ron Perlman list Pesci in Goodfellas as an inspirational and noteworthy villain. And seriously, who doesn’t know “I’m funny how? Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?” People who haven’t seen the movie can still probably quote the entire scene. Pesci’s performance is outstanding for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest is the believability; he made Tommy DeVito feel real. Nothing is scarier than a villain that could be real.
All of this can be attributed to Scorsese. He took these characters and humanized them. He made it so no matter how horrible they were we wanted more. As we watch the film, we can’t get enough of them. We watch as Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci stomp a guy and we can’t help but enjoy it. We know how bad these guys are and we still cheer for them. It’s no easy feat to manipulate the audience into caring for the bad guys, but Scorsese does it beautifully. Throughout his career he has made films about bad guys: Taxi Driver, Casino, and Gangs of New York, just to name a few. But his crowning achievement is Goodfellas. You’re not cheering for a couple bad guys, the whole cast is bad and you love them all.
When people ask me why I love this film so much, one of my biggest defenses is that it’s based on a true story. Granted, I can be a sucker for true stories, this one is different. First of all, this isn’t “based on a true story” like the generic horror films that slap those words to their trailers; the film is based on a book written by a crime reporter that spent years researching the events detailed in both the book and film. The film exposed things to the public that people didn’t previously know. When Liotta’s character, Henry Hill, is sentenced to prison by the judge, the scene cuts to him in a bar with the rest of his gangster friends. They all do a shot and then Henry walks out to the street, gets into a nice car and tells the driver, “Take me to prison.” He wasn’t shackled and thrown into a transport because that sort of thing didn’t happen to “wiseguys.”
He got to visit some friends before a personal driver took him to his new home. The movie then cuts to him making dinner with the rest of his buddies in prison. They look like they’re in an apartment and are all making something for their meal. You’ve got one guy cutting up the onions, one guy making the meat, one guy making the pasta, and another guy cooking the meat. This isn’t prison, it’s bachelor paradise! The narration goes on to state how wiseguys never get the real prison experience: “It’s not like you see in the movies.” On top of all of that, the film shows us how the mob works. It details the key players, what they did, how they did it, and how they got away with it. Some of the stuff shown looks like pure fiction and the fact that it isn’t makes it all the more interesting.
It’s hard not to like this film. The aspects that I chose to discuss above are only a handful of what you could take out of the film. There are so many more areas that are masterfully crafted and put together to make this amazing work of art. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the greatest films of all time.