Up on stage at the Beacon Theatre in Tribeca last weekend, Ray Liotta basked in the love for Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”, which had just screened as part of the film’s 25th-anniversary celebration. Afterwards, the author Nicholas Pileggi (on whose book the movie was based), Liotta, Robert De Niro and other cast members took to the stage to swap anecdotes, some well known, others not – such as the time Liotta got a call to meet Henry Hill, the mobster he was playing, at a bowling alley in Los Angeles. A somewhat scared Liotta came to the appointed place, only to have Hill walk up to him and say, “Thanks for not making me look like a scumbag.” Liotta couldn’t believe his ears. The film had shown Hill bludgeoning a neighbour with the butt of his gun, sinking into cocaine addiction and ratting on his friends. “Did you see the movie?” he asked incredulously.
“Goodfellas” has always bulged with extremes. As hedonistic a picture about a life of crime as has ever been committed to film, it is not about guilt or male angst or Catholicism – or any of the themes that cross-hatched Scorsese’s work in the Seventies. It doesn’t tell us that crime doesn’t pay, or that it is morally wrong. Instead, it tells us what gangster pictures had been trying to tell us since the days of James Cagney but didn’t quite have the guts to spell out. “Goodfellas” tells us that crime is fun – enormous, outsized, XXL-fur-coat, spending-spree-with-a-cherry-on-top-style fun. The fun doesn’t last forever – as addicts like to say, first it’s fun, then it’s fun with problems, then it’s just problems – but who said it would? That’s precisely what makes it fun.
That is why Hill’s response feels truest to the film that plays today. The disastrous original test screening in Orange County, from which 70 people walked out, feels like a report from another country, or even planet: Orange County is blue-rinse central. These days, “Goodfellas” feels more like a much-loved comedy or musical. The audience at the Beacon Theatre cheered Hill’s opening monologue (“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…”). They roared at certain musical cues like “The Sound of Music” enthusiasts, and applauded Joe Pesci’s head-spinning series of fake-outs at the Copacabana (“Funny how?”), murmuring his lines along with him as if repeating Abbott and Costello’s “who’s on first” routine. “Goodfellas” may not be Scorsese’s greatest film – that title still belongs to one or other of his two deep-bore character studies with De Niro, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”. But it is his most enjoyable, and marks his most ebullient performance as a director, a full polyphonic work-out for all the stylistic felicities he had enjoyed as a documentary filmmaker and student of the New Wave: multiple narrators, virtuoso tracking shots, freeze-frames. He’s showing off, to be sure, but that’s what the film is about: sprezzatura, peacock display, plumage.
Is there a faster two-and-a-half-hour movie in existence? The film doesn’t cleave to the stately rise-and-fall structure of your typical gangster epic. It starts with the murder of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) in the boot of Hill’s car – in classical Greek terms, the act of hubris that precipitates the fall of our three anti-heroes, for Batts is a “made” man and therefore untouchable. But Scorsese begins with it, just as he did in “Raging Bull”, which kicks off with Jake LaMotta (De Niro) begging his little brother (Pesci) to punch him in the face, both of them snarled up in Jake’s self-destructive instincts from the start. The fall is already underway. Scorsese shoots criminal careers the way the Dutch masters painted apples, with a tactile feel for the bloom and decay of organic life – even as his hoodlum anti-heroes suck the life from those around them, grinning their death’s-head grins, laughing as if they are the only ones in the room allowed to laugh.
“It’s what I thought about these people when I was eight,” said Scorsese, whose layering of detail and faux-documentary technique in the film is such that it’s easy to miss the throb of wish-fulfillment beating at the heart of it, which is the reason for its immense popularity. The film fulfills a childhood fantasy every bit as potent as Spielberg’s wish to be befriended by aliens in “E.T.” “Goodfellas” is an almost exact simulacrum of what it is like to be accepted by brutes – to feel their hands on your back, their breath on your neck, their praise in your ears. From Batts’s killing we backtrack to Hill’s boyhood, his schooling in the ways of the wiseguy. We then get about an hour of the good times, before arriving back at Batts’s death and starting the long, slow slide into chaos. It ends in frenzy, as Hill attempts to make spaghetti sauce, snort coke, meet with Jimmy (De Niro) and dodge the feds, all at the same time – tragic fall recast as giddy moral free-fall.
But then Scorsese knew all about that. He, too, had arrived in a blaze of glory with “Mean Streets” in 1973, before surpassing himself with “Taxi Driver” and turning into the consummate auteur-asshole while making “New York, New York”, his extravagant recreation of the musicals of the 1940s. The resulting crash was burned into his neurons, for his filmmaking thereafter retains a vivid sense of over-reach – what it feels like for success, grasped too greedily, to ripen into rot. The latter half of his career would see him take on many projects simply to keep moving, or pay for his kids’ education. But any time a film of his came close to tracing the Icarus arc first outlined in “Goodfellas” – notably in “Casino”, parts of “The Aviator”, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” – his filmmaking would start to pick up some of the old heat. If Scorsese’s career poses something of a riddle – what’s a personal filmmaker to do after he runs out of personal material? – “Goodfellas” supplied us with the answer. You make a picture out of your own vertiginous fall, only you make that fall feel like you’re flying. The career of a film director and that of a gangster have never seemed so similar. Want. Take. Simple.
Goodfellas 25th anniversary Blu-Ray is released on May 5th in America and May 25th in Britain