Study Guide

Goodfellas

Goodfellas Introduction


Release Year: 1990

Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writers: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese

Stars: Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta


When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A doctor? A space cowboy? Taylor Swift?

Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster.

Goodfellas (a.k.a. GoodFellas), which charged into cinemas on September 19, 1990, charts Henry's meteoric rise and spectacular fall in the mafia underworld. The American Film Institute ranks it as the second-best gangster film of all time.

Yep, it beat Scarface.

Goodfellas, which is based on a true story, was directed by Martin Scorsese, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who knows a thing or two about crime dramas. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street: all Scorsese joints.

On the other side of the camera, Goodfellas' cast is a murderer's row of acting heavyweights, each at the top of their respective games: Robert De Niro. Joe Pesci. Ray Liotta. Lorraine Bracco. Yeah, this gritty New York mob story isn't messing around.

At least, not with its cast.

In fact, many of the film's extras were honest-to-goodness gangsters. Asked for their Social Security numbers so they could get paid, "the wiseguys said, '1, 2, 6, uh, 6, 7, 8, uh, 4, 3, 2, 1, 7, 8' … They just kept reciting numbers until they were over," recalls Nicholas Pileggi, the crime reporter-turned screenwriter who penned the film with Scorsese. "Nobody ever figured out where that money went or who cashed the checks" (source). Bottom line: Goodfellas' look at the shady, street-level dealings of the mafia is as authentic as it gets.

And Goodfellas doesn't pull any punches in its violent portrayal of modern mob life. "The movie sort of grabs you by the throat from the very beginning and doesn't let you go for two and a half hours," explains Moviefone's Gary Susman (source). Unsurprisingly, Goodfellas' visceral style was a tough pill for some film fans to swallow. So tough that plenty of 'em walked right out of the theaters.

But savvy critics dug Goodfellas from the jump, and they got average Joe and Jane Moviegoer on board. Goodfellas would go on to gross $46,836,214 domestically and scoop up six Oscar nominations and one win—for Pesci, who, ironically, plays the film's most violent wiseguy by far.

Goodfellas' lasting legacy lies in its insider approach to portraying three decades in a mafia family. It's both intimate and larger than life. "Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you've returned to the real world," Roger Ebert writes in his Goodfellas review. "Not this film, which shows America's finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime" (source).

And since we like to have the last word—even when we're up against Roger Ebert—we just want to leave you with one of warning:

Don't bring the kids.

What is Goodfellas About and Why Should I Care?

Goodfellas isn't your mama's mob movie.

While other mafia flicks present a sweeping, romanticized view of life in "the family," Goodfellas keeps it real and takes it to the bloody, ruthless streets. By stripping the mafia lifestyle of its traditional Sicilian, The Godfather-esque splendor, Goodfellas shows how straight-up scary it is to be a wiseguy. As David Sims of The Atlantic put it, the film "upended every concept of nobility and honor in organized crime. […] It never cops the posture of something Important" (source). It's different because of "its authentic sense of real lives being lived," writes Joe McGovern of Entertainment Weekly (source).

But, it's not just that.

In a mob film genre that's bursting at the seams, Goodfellas is the only one that's about what it feels like to be in the mafia. The emphasis isn't on plot, which is a series of disconnected events and jumps back and forth; it's on one mobster's experience—which, by the way, was taken straight from a biography about him.

Via voice-over, we see 30 years of that life through Henry's slightly bloodshot eyes, and we get to feel the rush he gets from the power and luxury that the life provides. The famous tracking shot of him wining and dining Karen at an exclusive table at the Copacabana clues us in to what it felt like for a 21-year-old guy to be treated like royalty in front of his girl—just what he dreamed it would feel like when he was a kid. We see his excitement about the heists, his sense of superiority to ordinary law-abiding mortals, and his surprise at how his more, um, temperamental companions would just as soon shoot someone as look at 'em.

Henry's American Dream eventually turns into an American nightmare, and we get up close and personal with him as his life comes crashing down around him. Roger Ebert again:

Scorsese has never done a more compelling job of getting inside someone's head as he does in one of the concluding passages of "GoodFellas," in which he follows one day in the life of Henry Hill, as he tries to do a cocaine deal, cook dinner for his family, placate his mistress and deal with the suspicion that he's being followed. (Source)

The scene is as fast paced and chaotic as Hill's state of mind, which on that day is a cocaine-powered cocktail of paranoia and panic.

One last thing: Goodfellas invented the talkative gangster. You'll find no "strong and silent" types here. The mobsters in Goodfellas can't shut up—least of all Henry, our protagonist who narrates the film in diligent detail. As a character, Henry set a standard for decades of verbose big-screen bad guys to come. Try The Sopranos or virtually any of director Quentin Tarantino's films, and you'll see what we mean.

You're welcome in advance.

Trivia

Tom Cruise and Madonna were considered for the roles of Henry and Karen Hill. Fortunately, the producers decided to go in a different direction, sparing us from a musical number and Henry dangling off the side of an airplane or the Burj Khalifa. (Source)

The Lufthansa heist remained an unsolved mystery until 2014. Most of the members of the crew that were still alive were (A) super old and (B) super arrested. (Source)

Talk about keeping it all in the family: Goodfellas shares more than 20 actors with HBO's television hit The Sopranos, most notably Lorraine Bracco (Karen, Dr. Melfi) and Michael Imperioli (Spider, Christopher). (Source)

If Henry looks shocked when Paulie smacks him, it's because Ray Liotta really was. Paul Sorvino improvised the slap. How method! (Source)

Don't have a cow, man! In 2014, actor Frank Sivero, who played Frank Carbone—the guy who meets his demise in a frozen meat truck—sued The Simpsons for $250 million, claiming that the show ripped off his look for the Springfield mobster Louie. (Source)

Goodfellas Resources

Websites

The Official Goodfellas Website
We think the name says it all, but if it doesn't, this is the movie's official slot on the Warner Brothers website.

Goodfellas at the Mafia Wiki
Start with Goodfellas, and fall down a mob movie black hole.

@SundayMay11th
Relive Henry Hill's worst day ever on Twitter. And don't forget to stir the sauce.

Turner Classic Movies: Goodfellas
TCM's entry on Goodfellas shows that the network isn't just for grandpas.

50 Genius Facts About Goodfellas
Think you know all there is to know about Goodfellas? Think again, wiseguy or -girl.

Book or TV Adaptations

Goodfellas: the TV Series?
In 2012, AMC announced plans to turn Goodfellas into a television series. It has yet to materialize.

Articles and Interviews

"Bringing It All Back Home" (November 1990)
Empire's Henri Behar hits the "mean streets" with Scorsese and his cast and crew. Get it? 'Cause Mean Streets is another famous Scorsese flick?

Roger Ebert's Great Movies Review (November 24, 2002)
In which, shockingly, he gives Goodfellas one star. Just kidding. He loved it.

"Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas: A Complete Oral History" (September 20, 2010)
The real scoop from the guys and dolls who were there.

"The Godfather vs. Goodfellas" (August 12, 2011)
Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Labrecque and Kevin P. Sullivan duke it out—because when it comes to mob movies, "there can only be one boss."

"Is Goodfellas the Perfect Gangster Film?" (April 22, 2015)
The BBC's Tom Brook looks back at the birth of the chatty gangster.

"Goodfellas Is 25. Here's an Incomplete List of All the Movies That Have Ripped It Off." (April 29, 2015)
The Washington Post takes a look at all of the films influenced by Goodfellas. It's an impressive list.

Video

Goodfellas Official Trailer (1990)
Here's the teaser that got audiences stoked to see the film. Check out that totally '90s, "in a world…" flair!

Lego Version
There's always a Lego version.

"Meet Jimmy"
Henry's first introduction to Jimmy Conway. His hobbies include hugging, gambling, slipping people money, and stealing every single thing he can get his hands on.

"Tommy's Mom's House"
Cooking massive meals in the middle of the night. Not asking too many questions when you want to borrow a butcher knife. Aren't moms the best?

"Funny How?"
Don't tell Tommy DeVito he's funny. (And, heads up, this one contains some seriously salty language.)

Funny Bow-wow
Another take on Tommy's "funny how?" scene, this time with pooches. Be warned: they didn't clean up the language.

Siskel & Ebert: Goodfellas Review (1990)
Spoiler alert: Gene and Roger give it two enthusiastic thumbs up.

Martin Scorsese Discusses Goodfellas
In this undated clip from the American Film Institute, the fast-talking director goes deep about Goodfellas' cinematic roots.

Joe Pesci Wins the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (1991)
Pesci still holds the record for the shortest Oscar acceptance speech ever.

Martin Scorsese Talks About His Mother's Role in Goodfellas (2010)
Directing Your Mom Tip #1: Don't tell her there's a body in the trunk.

Goodfellas' Cast Reunites 25 Years Later (April 2015)
Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Lorraine Bracco dish the dirt with NBC. Nobody gets whacked.

Audio

The Goodfellas Soundtrack: A YouTube Playlist
Rock out to the soundtrack of Henry Hill's life while you study for your biology final.

Images

Martin Scorsese directing Robert De Niro and Lorraine Bracco
Director and stars on the set.

Too Cool
The official, dorm room-approved movie poster.

Mazel Tov!
Henry and Karen's wedding.

Underdressed
One of these wiseguys is not like the others.

Gangsters Just Gotta Have Fun
Jimmy Conway, prankster extraordinaire.