Monday, September 21, 2015

Living in a Material World

"Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody."

Henry (Ray Liotta)

So much has been said about "Goodfellas," which premiered on this date in 1990, that it almost seems redundant to go over the plot.

So I will content myself with making some general observations.

First of all, let's talk about its place among the great films of all time. The American Film Institute ranked it #92 of all time — only about one–tenth of the movies that were ranked ahead of "Goodfellas" were made after "Goodfellas" made its debut, and I can't really quibble about any of them except for "Titanic" — which I thought was good but not great.

The thing about "Goodfellas" was that the motivation was the desire to be treated like someone special. There have been other great movies about organized crime in my lifetime — the first two "Godfather" movies come to mind — but I never got the sense that the central characters were motivated by a yearning to be treated better than anyone else, although I suppose that was always implied. Those other movies have always seemed to me to be more about money and power, but "Goodfellas" was about a bunch of guys who grew up in underprivileged homes and wished to have the privileges they had been denied. Driving fancy cars and wearing fancy suits were ways of showing that one had risen above humble circumstances; so was having all the people around fall all over themselves to satisfy your every whim.

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," said Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), whose life story inspired the movie. "To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States."

At the end of the movie, Hill was nostalgic about the old days. "We were treated like movie stars with muscle," he recalled. "Today, everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else."

Roger Ebert described this sense of entitlement in the context of "the most famous shot" in the movie: "[Henry] takes his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to the Copacabana nightclub. There's a line in front, but he escorts her across the street, down stairs and service corridors, through the kitchen area and out into the showroom just as their table is being placed right in front of the stage. This unbroken shot, which lasts 184 seconds, is not simply a cameraman's stunt, but an inspired way to show how the whole world seems to unfold effortlessly before young Henry Hill."

Bracco's character was groundbreaking in that she was allowed to speak at length. Most of the time, even today, the women in gangster movies are occasionally seen (if they are lucky) but never heard.

Violence always comes with the territory in a gangster movie, and in trademark Martin Scorsese fashion, the violence in "Goodfellas" could be shocking and explicit. I guess it needs to be that way in a gangster movie to underscore how things are done in that universe.

The violence, Ebert wrote, "is a story of economic ambition. Henry and Karen come from backgrounds that could not easily lead to Cadillacs, vacations in Vegas and fur coats, and she justifies what he has to do to pay for the lifestyle."

Robert De Niro, of course, was great in his role as Jimmy the Gent — but, really, doesn't De Niro seem to belong in gangster movies?

One final observation, and this has to do with Joe Pesci.

Pesci won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a psychopathic gangster. It is the same award for which he was nominated 10 years earlier but didn't win. Although he has given performances since "Goodfellas" that were worthy of Oscar consideration, I do not think he has been nominated again.

Perhaps that mistake will be corrected one of these days.