Study Guide

Goodfellas Power

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HENRY: For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.

A mob boss like Paulie can't veto a bill or start a war with Greenland, but in Brooklyn, he might as well be the king of the world. He controlled almost everything and everyone.

HENRY: That was it. No more letters from truant officers. No more letters from school. In fact, no more letters from anybody. Finally, after a couple of weeks, my mother had to go to the post office and complain. How could I go back to school after that? Pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through good government bulls***?

Nobody is too small to be intimidated by the mob. When Henry sees Tuddy's guys shove his poor mailman's head into the pizza oven, he gets one of his first tastes of power. Even for something as trivial as getting your attendance records sent home, there are wiseguys around to make sure it won't happen again.

HENRY: Hundreds of guys depended on Paulie, and he got a piece of everything they made. It was tribute, just like in the old country, except they were doing it here in America. And all they got from Paulie was protection from other guys looking to rip them off. And that's what it's all about. That's what the FBI could never understand. That what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can't go to the cops. That's it. That's all it is. They're like the police department for wiseguys.

Comparing Paulie's powerful thuggery to the police department is a stretch, and it shows how, even at a young age, Henry starts to rationalize the shady ways the mob uses and maintains its power. To him, they're the heroes in this story. (We bet the mailman-turned-pizza would disagree.)

KAREN: One night, Bobby Vinton sent us champagne. There was nothing like it. I didn't think there was anything strange in any of this. You know, a 21-year-old kid with such connections. He was an exciting guy. He was really nice. He introduced me to everybody. Everybody wanted to be nice to him. And he knew how to handle it.

He was really nice? Jeez, Karen. Henry's power is intoxicating to Karen and blinds her to all of the bad stuff he's getting up to when they're not sipping bubbly.

KAREN: I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn't. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.

That's more like it. Here, Karen finally acknowledges that her powerful boyfriend isn't an ordinary—or law-abiding—guy. Does that worry her? Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact. No doubt Karen has been perusing the works of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wrote that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." (Source)

HENRY: You know, when you think of prison, you get pictures in your mind of all those old movies with rows and rows of guys behind bars. But it wasn't like that for wiseguys … I mean, everybody else in the joint was doing real time, mixed together, living like pigs, but we lived alone. We owned the joint.

Even behind bars, the wiseguys grease the wheels with bribes. While their power in the outside world is tied up, inside the joint, they can still get away with almost anything, except a file hidden in a salami.

PAULIE: Listen, I ain't gonna get f***ed like Gribbs, you understand? Gribbs is 70 years old, and the f***in guy's gonna die in prison. I don't need that. So I'm warning everybody, everybody. It could be my son; it could be anybody. Gribbs got 20 years just for saying hello to some f*** who was sneaking behind his back selling junk. I don't need that. Ain't gonna happen to me, you understand?

HENRY: Uh-huh.

PAULIE: You know that you're only out early because I got you a job. I don't need this heat, understand that?

HENRY: Uh-huh.

PAULIE: And you see anybody f***ing around with this s***, you're going to tell me, right?

HENRY: Yeah.

PAULIE: [slaps Henry] That means anybody!

HENRY: All right.


HENRY: Yeah, of course.

Paulie is getting paranoid about his power here. He has a good reason to be. Trusting Henry to drop the drugs? Big mistake. Dying powerless as a frail, irrelevant old man in the slammer scares the heck out of Paulie.

POLICE DETECTIVE: What, were you guys grocery shopping? What, are we gonna make a cake? Gonna make a f***ing cake? You got anything good in there, or what?

[A detective tastes the residue in a pan.]


[The detective nods in the affirmative.]

POLICE DETECTIVE: [to Henry, laughing] Bye, bye, dickhead. [laughing] See you in Attica, dick.

When Henry gets busted, the power changes hands abruptly and embarrassingly—which makes sense given the way the mob has continually flaunted their supremacy in the police department's collective face.

HENRY: See, the hardest thing for me was leaving the life. I still love the life. And we were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids, everybody rode along. I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen. I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed ... Anything I wanted was a phone call away … We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now, it's all over.

When Henry rats out his friends, he doesn't feel guilty about it. He just wants his mob hall pass back. The power was addictive.

HENRY: Today, everything is different; there's no action ... I have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody. Get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

In addition to his life in exile being a total bore to him, Henry can't stand being just like everyone else.

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