MOTW: The Perfect Gangster Movie: "Goodfellas"

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Henry Hill has begun his career as a gangster, with is friends Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito. These three set their sights on being head honchos of the Mob, but as it starts to become a reality, will they lose everything?
Photo Credit: Warner Bros
April 8th, 2013

MOTW: The Perfect Gangster Movie: "Goodfellas"

"Goodfellas" wasn't the first mobster movie to hit the big screen, and it wasn't the last, but audiences still consider it one of the most memorable. Based on the Nicholas Pileggi book "Wiseguy: Life in the Mafia Family," the movie takes viewers through the rise and fall of New York's Lucchese crime syndicate from the 1950s through the 1980s.

The story focuses on Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who grew up on the rough streets of Brooklyn. From the time he was a young boy, he had dreams of becoming one of the Mafia's chieftains. He starts out by running errands and doing odd jobs for the Mob and is finally noticed by one of the higher-ups, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), when he chooses to spend time in jail instead of talking to the authorities. As a young adult, he partners up with petty thief Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and takes on a mentor, James Conway (Robert DeNiro).

The bulk of the story takes viewers through the years as Hill rises up in the syndicate, marries the girl of his dreams, and deals with rival gangs. Just as he thinks his dream is coming true, Conway tells him the dark truth: he will never be a "made guy" in the Mafia because he is partly of Irish descent. Soon after that, Hill finds himself sandwiched between the Mafia and the feds, and he opts to spill his secrets to the authorities and enter the federal Witness Protection Program, leaving both the Mob and his life's work behind him.

One of the most important things that sets "Goodfellas" apart from other Mafia movies is that it doesn't focus on the blood and gore that seem to go hand in hand with the Mob. Instead, it takes the audience on a journey through the details of the sometimes exciting and often mundane day-to-day lives of these characters. Violence is still present, however, and the movie actually starts off by detailing a grisly murder. Instead of being worked in as a cheap thrill to get a rise out of the audience, the violence is simply depicted as an occasional component of Henry Hill's life.

When writing the book, Pileggi opted to pursue realism rather than thrills. Although Henry Hill wasn't the most exciting character in the Lucchese clan, he was available. Pileggi had many long interviews with the real Henry Hill, who gave him an in-depth look into his life and the people who played a part in it. Before filming began on the movie, Pileggi had several meetings with DeNiro, Liotta, and Pesci in which he shared with them many of Hill's details and stories that were not covered in the book.

What resulted from all of this was a movie so true to life that even Henry Hill remarked on it. He said that if Joe Pesci were just a little bit bigger, he could have been mistaken for the real Tommy DeVito. The setting, the storyline, the characters, and even the soundtrack of "Goodfellas" combine to transport audiences into the nitty-gritty life of the New York Mafia.

Producer Irwin Winkler and director Martin Scorsese hit the ball out of the park with their casting, although they had a few near misses. The part of James Conway was originally offered to Al Pacino, who turned it down for fear of being typecast after playing the role of Don Michael Corleone in "The Godfather." He now admits to regretting that decision, and he even went on to play Big Boy Caprice in "Dick Tracy" the same year "Goodfellas" was released.

Even though he was the second choice, Robert DeNiro was perfect in the role. He had already honed the part of the quintessential gangster by playing roles such as Vito Corleone in "The Godfather: Part II" and Al Capone in "The Untouchables." His age and rough-around-the-edges looks allowed him to play a very convincing James Conway.

Ray Liotta, who played the part of Henry Hill, was another near miss. He was fairly new in the acting business when Scorsese decided to make the film. Once Scorcese saw Liotta in the role of the psychotic ex-con in the 1986 release of "Something Wild," he knew he had found Henry Hill. Producer Irwin Winkler was not convinced, saying he felt Liotta didn't have enough charm to pull off the role. Eight months later, Liotta approached Winkler in a restaurant and convinced him that he should play the part.

Joe Pesci was another perfect fit for the movie. He had played alongside DeNiro in both "Raging Bull" and "Once Upon a Time in America," and he had perfected his Brooklyn accent while growing up in nearby Newark. He did such a good job in this role that he was the only cast or crew member to receive an Oscar for his performance. After "Goodfellas," Pesci went on to perform in hit movies such as the "Lethal Weapon" and "Home Alone" franchises, as well as "My Cousin Vinny" and "A Bronx Tale."