September 24, 2020
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 modern classic, Goodfellas. I like to boast that I have watched Goodfellas well over 50 times and have most of the film’s dialogue and soundtrack firmly etched into my memory. But I have a confession: I’ve only watched the first half of Goodfellas over 50 times. The full film, start-to-finish, I have watched around 5 times (at least three of which were with former girlfriends who I fervently tried to convince they’d just seen the best movie of their lives).
And this is because Goodfellas is a film of two sides. The first half of the film, its A-Side, is an all-you-can-eat buffet of hedonistic, unbridled, and testosterone-fueled fun. All tuned and engineered for the male gaze.
Sitting confidently in Hollywood’s halls of approbation as one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of cinema, Scorsese immediately draws you into his world, planting you in Henry Hill’s Chevy Impala as it barrels down the highway with your favorite antiheroes: Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) riding shotgun and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in the backseat. You witness Billy Batts’ (Frank Vincent) pitiless murder, after which Henry Hill stares down at the bloody carcass under the deep red hue emanating from the headlights of his car. He’s staring down in the abyss, into the chasm of hell, and he says, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Once Tony Bennet’s “Rags to Riches” swoops in and he sings those first few lyrics, “I know I’d go from rags to riches,” the setup is complete.
The A-Side of Goodfellas follows Henry Hill on his ride through the venal annals of organized crime
Along his journey, under the influence of his mentors Jimmy and Tommy, Henry fundamentally rejects and denounces the basic laws and tenets of society. Henry regards basic precepts like hard work and honesty as banalities of commoners, peons such as his hardworking blue-collar parents. Like Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Henry considers himself above the basic morality that governs society.
Describing his crass and unruly lifestyle, Henry boasts, “For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice, they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”
This is what makes Goodfellas (at least its first half) the ultimate male fantasy. Its ethos is simple: bear balls of steel (or even diamonds!) and the hubris to take whatever you want from whomever you want.
As a result, unburdened by any conscience or semblance of moral culpability, Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy murder and steal their way into tailored Italian suits, fine cars, and women and mistresses. The women, they cheat on and treat, to borrow a song title from the Rolling Stones, like yesterday’s papers.
If anyone gets in their way, or tries to “bust their balls,” they put them in their place. Billy Batts, from the opening scene, can attest to this.
Martin Scorsese gregariously invites you to live out your deepest and most power-lusting fantasies vicariously through the ridiculous and fabled lives of these antiheroes, gorged with the unnerving temperament of lovable sociopaths like Tommy who, at any moment, could shoot anyone and apologize by explaining, “Good shot. What do you want from me? Good shot.”
But the B-Side, the second half of Goodfellas carries a palpably different tone. It is the tragic decline and fall of the frightening new friends we made in the first half of the film. Consumed by their lives of debauchery and sin, the “wiseguys” now face a harsh reality. They too, despite all their swagger, are bound to the same laws as all the – as Henry Hill described them – goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks.
In one interview, Scorsese explained the making of Goodfellas, “In Scarface, you have this situation, where these characters who were really despicable, are presented in such a way that you like them. And that was the key.” It is precisely this chic, lustrous façade that Scorsese draped over the lives of his antiheroes that makes Goodfellas‘ second half, the descent, so much more difficult to watch and ultimately thumps you straight in the solar plexus.
Your favorite characters each fall victim to their vices. Their lives, their marriages, and their friendships are all torn apart and burned to ash.
At the beginning of Goodfellas, Henry Hill first introduces Jimmy Conway as, “the kind of guy that rooted for bad guys in the movies.” By the end of the film, we realize the joke was on us. We were rooting for the bad guys all along.