Goodfellas (1990): Portrait of a Marriage

One of the greater cruelties of Hollywood is how, after a star-making turn in Goodfellas, Ray Liotta never fashioned another career-defining opportunity since. That director Martin Scorsese is known to rely on a stable of star muses (first De Niro, then Di Caprio) with a few smaller names in their orbit (Pesci and Vincent) further amplifies the curiosity. Perhaps reality was indicative of a backstage persona, or was caused by self-destruction, but Henry Hill is the lead role in Goodfellas, no less, despite what billing order told. In a picture told virtually in voiceover, his grating inflection is the de facto soundtrack. And with that, Ray is allowed his moment in the sun, uncontested if only once.

Initial Reaction

My mobster baptism had already occurred twice—once on the Corleone dock and again in the Scarface pool. We had just gotten a DVD player for our new place and I quickly set about collecting what I had correctly took for genre essentials, at least within the realm of keeping up with popular culture. After all, these films resonate so much with audiences, audio clips of their memorable quotes were ripped to download off LimeWire in those days.

A Don Doesn’t Wear Shorts

Being a far cry from the grandiose estates and faux nobility of the Montanas and Corleones, Goodfellas’ rugged iconography beamed sharp, although before that Carlito’s Way went some way in dispelling the polished iteration for me. Comparisons of the two contrasts were inevitable. Here, the refined, honorable family man stood on one side of the scale, opposite that of the bottom-rung, orphaned variety. Criminality seemed to be stratified in high and low places, except the romanticized self-made immigrant persisted in collective imagination until Goodfellas and the Sopranos upturned that ideal. A Don doesn’t wear shorts.

Despite its 148 minutes, Goodfellas was—and still is—the brisk journey of a life in the mob thanks to ruthlessly efficient editing. Though never glamorous beyond carnal gratification (guns, gold and cocaine bowls), their world is fraught with peril and paranoia, with a Damoclean Sword furnished for every member. By foregoing preachings of a cautionary tale, Scorsese’s camera is left to do most of the talking, and there is a documentarian constitution in the frenetic pace whereby scenes never linger too long. In all its pseudo-gleeful frenzy, Scorcese’s shots were crammed full of information, of sounds and imagery, packaged as nostalgia.

Re-Appraisal

Though thoroughly entertaining, and a landmark in the gangster cannon, I have now firmly renounced any affinity to the underworld for merely standing on one specific side of the law. The thuggery of Goodfellas felt more inexcusable, and the film loses none of its stature, merely, the dying sliver of sympathy I might have once had for its subjects. Rob, kill, and steal if you wished, but check your rationalizations at the door; none of this “airport was in Paulie’s territory—it belonged to us” shit.

Scorsese starts with the proven hook of showing a moment out of sequence before going back to tell the events leading to it. An opening credit with the cast names whipping across to the patterned sound of oncoming cars. A title giving way to an impromptu burial, awash in infernal imagery. The former is in line with the constant movement—not mobility—of Henry Hill’s life, a low-level serf according to few internet searches. The latter scene, shown in full later, is backlit in taillight red, evoking visions of Hell on earth. An entire hour will have elapsed before the story loops back to that opening scene, beginning with the celebratory passages from Henry’s formative days. Those scenes are tinged with unmistakable pining and festive endorsement that neither absolve nor outright condemn the young Henry, despite his candid profession of a disdain for working dweebs.

The film plays like a conveyor belt of vignettes smoothly edited to build a story that coheres, with some shots lasting a second while others as standalone sequences. The May 10th, 1980 montage is a film within the film. Scorsese uses the gamut of filmmaking repertoire to control the mood, audience interest, and balance the pace; voiceovers, empathic freeze-frames, a broken fourth wall, etc.. There is clever sound-mixing when the volume of diegetic sounds (the extras’ voices) increases between voiceovers. When Henry is narrating one part, the camera glides past a lineup of mobsters looking at the audience, their voice is toggled louder as he pauses.

Whereas both trod in the line of fire, the Corleones’ empire dabbled in major league money, with outcomes of power and influence at stake. The hoodlums seen in Goodfellas are but hustlers ever on the fringe of respectability, forever condemned to another’s bidding. There are no sick days for earners kicking up to the boss, only a fate resigned to the endless monotony of a hamster’s wheel.

Ultimately, Goodfellas endures as a document of the collective yearning for a vulgar Americana, underscored by a jukebox-worthy soundtrack and scenes shot at diners. A time when urbanized bandits ran wild before RICO devised the legislative wherewithal to stifle their lifeline. Except Goodfellas is not Scorsese’s sentiment; his film is what a Wiseguy would direct as their own biopic. Scorsese and Pileggi, the author of the real Henry Hill’s biography and co-writer, only got inside a mobster’s head and captured that to the screen.

Henry & Karen

In the film, Henry’s life cannot be imagined without his wife, Karen. This story cannot be re-framed around other relationships, and it struck me that, as the story went on, his children and parents were either afterthoughts or a curious omission. The only kin to survive the cut from his adolescent prologue was a wheelchair-bound brother. In a film laden with Liotta’s rambling intonations, Henry finds time to mention his brother’s disability, and his inclusion in the famous May 10th segment closes the circle on the idea of gathering around the dinner table. Underneath, the film peels the layers of a marriage without distracting from the action.

Scorsese shows a humorous self-awareness of his Italian identity in playing up the couple’s stark backgrounds; beginning with Tommy’s self-conscious fears about being Italian wanting to date a Jew, and Henry—who is half-Italian—marrying one. Whether it is Henry hiding his crucifix when picking up Karen or Tommy expressing incredulity at the notion of prejudice against Italians in the 1970s, Scorsese’s comic touch is evidence of the many hats he can put on at once. The wedding plays to a ridiculous meet-and-greet of the same names and once Karen settles in the culture shock does not end there. Scorsese does not pull back on the self-deprecating depictions of mob wives with too much make up and bad skin, observations he assigns to an outsider for maximum effect.

However, once Karen is introduced, Henry’s shotgun seat is assigned for the remainder of the story. Some days that seat is occupied, on others Henry rides alone. Sometimes it is someone else altogether riding with Henry as another quotable states how Saturdays are for the wives and Fridays are for the girlfriend. The rest of the week is presumably devoted to underworld shenanigans which, perchance, involved more time at that same goomar’s place.

Foreplay & Gunplay

But it is when Henry’s wandering phallus strays too long, or far, that an intervention is staged by his peers at no other place than his mistress’. Comically enough, it is not to save Karen’s face in any way but to mitigate against her spilling the beans on their criminal enterprise. The domestic disputes continue, and shouting matches abound. However, it is when things get hands-on that Karen gives in to her shitty bargain by apologizing for broaching the issue of her husband’s absenteeism in a clear sign of her Stockholm syndrome. But lest Henry breach any reasonable doubt over his infidelity then her Hell hath no fury to direct at a man, here.

Karen does not drive Henry away from that point on so much as enable her husband, proving that behind every low man is a low woman just the same. The flip side is every cheating dog often neglects a misunderstood spouse. The basis of her attraction to Henry is eroticized danger. At first, she finds the enigma and excitement of his life arousing that, in her naiveté, she turns the gun on him thinking it will jolt a similar response when she suspects his infidelity after marriage. Maybe she wanted to kill him, but I digress; she gets slapped the way a civilian would, anyway. That cluelessness goes the other way for Henry, whose paranoia cannot see past the threat to his dominance or rep on the street.

Regardless, there is a pattern of symbiotic reinforcement between the pair except the rewards are not always reciprocal. She blows him as he leaves for work in appreciation for some pocket money. She looks the part of a mob wife, bedecked in new money regalia. Scorsese makes a point of showcasing her physique, and as a beautiful woman, the opportunity to sexualize her appears welcomed at numerous junctures. Symbols of wealth and power are deeply fetishized with guns and money rolls as proxy dicks and gold bracelets as cock rings! Case in point, Karen flushes the cocaine with the feds at the door while in a satin robe and underwear she tucks a gun in her pants. And though without “bad skin and too much make-up,” it does not stop Henry from chasing tail elsewhere. Janice Rossi? He’ll dive into that but with eyes on Sandy next.

Ironically, is with the more industrious mistress, Sandy, where Henry finds a harmonious diversion whereby his marriage somewhat stabilizes. She cuts his cocaine after he establishes a small trafficking ring against Paulie’s express orders (Paul Sorvino). Karen is now firmly committed in his side hustle, accompanying him on drug deals. What mob wife implicates herself willingly in her husband’s work? Certainly not an Italian one, familiar with that world. She was never the typical mob wife to sit back and accept the extramarital affairs, so it figures. Among the overlooked facts in the film is that Karen got into an affair herself with Henry’s boss, Paulie, which was a serious mafia taboo. In real life, Tommy attempted to rape Karen, and the wrong love triangle played into sanctioning his murder, among other transgressions. Again, it was “real greaseball shit,” with different rules for different folks.

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