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Mafia hit: Book recounts how ‘Goodfellas’ changed the mob’s image

“Goodfellas,” a critical but not a lucrative hit in 1990, stars (from left) Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci. TNS

TNS

By JORDAN MICHAEL SMITH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: October 2, 2020

In the late 1980s, Martin Scorsese was not yet Hollywood royalty. Coming off a string of commercial failures — the controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and “The King of Comedy” (1983), among them — he was preparing to release “Goodfellas,” but feared the worst. “I want to be a player,” he told a journalist while promoting the movie. “To be a player in Hollywood, you have to take a lot of bruising.”

But, as Glenn Kenny recounts in his book “Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas,” the pain would soon be behind him.

“Goodfellas” would cement Scorsese’s legacy and would go on to redefine not just the gangster movie but gangster television, too. “The Sopranos” creator David Chase called the 1990 film his “Koran,” and he used more than 25 of its actors for his show. Chase’s series launched the era of prestige dramas by expanding upon the film’s premise of the anti-hero mobster living everyday life.

Scorsese was unsure about making another gangster film, having already directed “Mean Streets” (1973) and the gangster-adjacent “Raging Bull” (1980). However, he was smitten with “Wiseguy,” a 1985 bestselling nonfiction book by journalist Nicholas Pileggi. “Wiseguy” told the story of Henry Hill, a New York mobster who had access to some higher-ups but worked mostly as a street-level “money man.” Precisely because Hill and his friends weren’t made — official members of a crime family — they were freelancers with more liberty to act recklessly than the subjects of other mob books.

Scorsese grew up in an Italian community in Manhattan where the mob was a powerful, respected force. “Wiseguy” captured that environment well. According to a Los Angeles Times story, Scorsese called Pileggi and told him: “I just read your book. I’ve been looking for it for years,” a revealing statement unfortunately absent from “Made Men.” While the book succeeds in situating “Goodfellas” in Scorsese’s oeuvre, it misses some of how and why the film is so influential.

Scorsese intended to make a gangster picture that was, in some ways, an antidote to the myths of “The Godfather.” That legendary movie imbued the mob with an undeserved nobility and grandiosity. Francis Ford Coppola’s film suggested that mobsters were devoted to their families above all. “Goodfellas” suggested that, in fact, money overrode family, loyalty and everything else. “All that stuff in the Mafia about honor, it’s a lot of nonsense; there’s no such thing,” Scorsese tells Kenny, in an interview relegated to a single chapter near the end of “Made Men.”

Kenny managed to track down Henry Hill’s brother Joe, who confirms that Henry was incurably addicted to drugs and alcohol and was vicious to his wife and family. With Ray Liotta in the lead role, Scorsese managed to make Henry likable by portraying him as a handsome voice of reason around his barbaric friends, played memorably by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. That artistic license endeared Henry to audiences, even as they watched him murder and steal.

Well, some audiences. Other viewers walked out of previews of “Goodfellas,” appalled at its graphic and spontaneous violence, dark second half and nonjudgmental attitude toward its characters. Warner Bros. executives wanted the entire film reshot and recut, but Scorsese refused. And it was only a modest box office success, grossing $50 million domestically on a $20 million budget.

Critics adored “Goodfellas,” however. The film won awards at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and Roger Ebert called it the best mob movie ever made. It was nominated for six Oscars, and Pesci won the award for supporting actor. Among the Academy’s many historical flubs, best picture (for which “Goodfellas” wasn’t even in contention) went to the forgettable “Dances with Wolves,” which also won a best director prize for Kevin Costner.

Not that it affected “Goodfellas’ ” reputation. Its stature has only grown as the decades pass. Kenny writes, “Its influence on other films is difficult to quantify.” Influence and criticism are always difficult to quantify, of course, but the film’s impact is apparent in “Trainspotting” (1996) and “American Hustle” (2013). And the works of Quentin Tarantino mimic “Goodfellas’ ” blend of humor and violence, distinctive camerawork, use of pop music, and lightning-speed editing and pacing. “A Bronx Tale” (1993), “Donnie Brasco” (1997) and “Blow” (2001) likewise employed elements of Scorsese’s film. Bill Hader tells Kenny that his show “Barry,” about a hitman-turned-actor, owes much to “Goodfellas.” And, of course, there’s “The Sopranos,” the show that changed everything.

Not bad for a film that some audiences initially fled from watching.