Saturday, 7 September 2013

Scorsese: Goodfellas, Gangsters and Guilt

Goodfellas (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Goodfellas is about guilt more than anything else. But it is not a straightforward morality play, in which good is established and guilt is the appropriate reaction toward evil. No, the hero of this film feels guilty for not upholding the Mafia code – guilty of the sin of betrayal. And his punishment is banishment, into the witness protection program, where nobody has a name and the headwaiter certainly doesn't know it. What finally got to me after seeing this film – what makes it a great film – is that I understood Henry Hill's feelings. Just as his wife Karen grew so completely absorbed by the Mafia inner life that its values became her own, so did the film weave a seductive spell. It is almost possible to think, sometimes, of the characters as really being good fellows. Their camaraderie is so strong, their loyalty so unquestioned. But the laughter is strained and forced at times, and sometimes it's an effort to enjoy the party, and eventually, the whole mythology comes crashing down, and then the guilt – the real guilt, the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately – is not that they did sinful things, but that they want to do them again. – Roger Ebert
In the following extract from Richard Schickel’s Conversations with Scorsese, director Martin Scorsese discusses guilt, celebrity and the gangster in his great movie of mob life Goodfellas:

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Your next full-length feature after ‘Last Temptation’ was ‘Goodfellas’ in 1990, which I suppose with ‘Raging Bull’ is one of my two favorite movies of yours. Perhaps part of my feeling for that is based on the fact that most of us share a sort of love for gangsters as outsiders, or rebels. I mean, we always sort of sympathize with the gangster Jim Cagney, or people like him. They seem to have such a nice, rich life: lovely meals they’re always making for each other, a certain amount of friendship, brotherhood, and all that. They enjoy the good life, and at the same time they get to whack people.

MARTIN SCORSESE: When I was doing The Color of Money in Chicago, I was reading The New York Review of Books and saw a review of a book by Nick Pileggi called Wiseguy. It seemed like Nick was taking us through the different levels of purgatory and hell in the underworld, like Virgil or like Dante. Irwin Winkler said, ‘Are you interested in that?’ I said yes and he bought it for me. I said yes because I thought Nick was telling the story in a different way. It’s about that lifestyle, and the dangerous seduction of that lifestyle.

I remember I was talking to Marlon Brando from time to time, and he said, ‘Don’t do another gangster picture. You’ve done Mean Streets, you did the gangsters in Raging Bull. You don’t have to do that.’ I came to feel the same way. So I said to Michael Powell, ‘I think I don’t want to do this Goodfellas thing,’ or Wiseguys, as it was then called.

Michael Powell went back to his apartment with Thelma Schoonmaker, whom he’d married right after Raging Bull. He couldn’t see anymore, so she read the script to him. I was in the editing room, I remember, in the Brill Building, and suddenly he called and said, ‘This is wonderful. You must do it. It’s funny and no one’s ever seen this way of life before. You must do it.’ And that’s why I did it.


RS: Well, there’s a William Wellman story on ‘Public Enemy’. He found the script and he took it to [Darryl] Zanuck, who was running Warner Bros. It was then called ‘Beer and Blood.’ He loved it – these young writers had lived in Chicago and knew some of the mobsters. But Zanuck said, I can’t do another one of these. I’ve just done this, I’ve just done that. Tell me one good reason to do it. And Wellman said, ‘Because I’ll make it the toughest one you ever saw.’ And Zanuck said, ‘You got it.’ You could argue that, of all the modern gangland things, ‘Goodfellas’ is the toughest one of all. Was there some aspect of ‘Goodfellas’ for you that was like Wellman’s attitude, that you could do it tougher?

MS: I thought of it as being a kind of attack.

RS: Attack?

MS: Attacking the audience. I remember talking about it at one point and saying, ‘I want people to get infuriated by it.’ I wanted to seduce everybody into the movie and into the style. And then just take them apart with it. I guess I wanted to make a kind of angry gesture.


RS: Why were you angry?

MS: I guess I used to feel I was the outsider who has to punch his way back in, constantly. Some people don’t have to do that, but I do. I’m not just talking about films, but everything.

I get angry about the way things are and the way people are. I get very involved in stories and the way a character behaves and the way the world behaves. More than anger, I think, maybe it’s caring about how characters behave, how the world behaves. I’m curious about those things. I still get excited by the story. I still get upset by what a character does. And the anger is something to get me working. I have to get sometimes rather upset with myself or a situation before I can really start working, thinking clearly. Some other people can do it very quickly, which doesn’t mean they don’t put energy into it. But they don’t put their heart and soul into it. I’m one of those people who does. It’s every minute of the day and night.

In the Rolling Stones documentary, I do a takeoff on myself for the first ten minutes. It’s about everything that could go wrong for me as the director. And things do go wrong. And they affect you.


I remember a priest told my father to come to talk to him and bring me with him to the rectory one day. I wondered why, what I did that was so bad? I must’ve been about twelve. He said something about me going around with the seriousness and the weight of the world on my shoulders. At that age I shouldn’t be that way, the priest said. I should have been enjoying my life. And he told my father something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘This boy,’ he says, ‘behaves.’ I did really, because I always was sick and never got in trouble.

But then later, when they threw me out of the preparatory seminary, the monsignor told my father, ‘Your son? There’s a brick wall. Don’t hit your head against it, you’re going to get hurt.’ The monsignor gets up, mimes hitting his head against the brick wall, and that was the end of it.

Everybody cares about what they do. But I tend to get emotionally involved, or let it get to me. I get too emotionally involved with everything. So over the years it became funny. Except when it wasn’t funny. In my mind, whether it’s the stroke of a pen or a bullet, a lot can happen to people. In our America, businesspeople are slaughtered every day. People are robbed every day.

RS: Well, there’s that whole theory of Robert Warshow, about ‘the gangster as tragic hero.’

MS: I was going to mention Warshow.


RS: I’m not sure I completely buy into that in a movie like ‘Goodfellas’; there’s actually nothing very tragic about those guys.

MS: No.

RS: What happens to Henry Hill is not tragic; he’s just not having fun anymore.

MS: Right. Too bad for him!

RS: And it’s not a tragic ending.

MS: No, he’s still breathing.

RS: I guess I need you to explain where you’re coming from with that because it really is a unique movie, I think. You’ve said you can’t see ‘The Sopranos’ in it, but I see a sort of precursor in it.

MS: A lot of the wonderful actors in The Sopranos were in my pictures, so we always talk about it. A lot of the people in Goodfellas are not on the upper levels, so they’re not tragic. It’s just everyday tragedy. These guys are dealing on the everyday level. I knew them as people, not as criminals. If something fell off the truck, you know, we all bought it. It was part of surviving, part of living. Some of those guys were smarter than others. Some overstepped their bounds and were killed. That was based on reality.

There’s a danger in idolizing that world, but many of the police who were down there in that neighborhood were on the take. I was surprised the first time I saw the American system at work, which was in Twelve Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s film. Today, I credit the priests in the neighborhood who screened a 16 millimeter print of it down in the basement of the church for some of the kids. It was like being on Mars.


RS: The surrogate in your film, practicing that idolization as a kid, is the Henry Hill character.

MS: Yes. If you engage in that life, certain things are expected of you. First of all, to make a lot of money for everybody. Or to be the muscle. You have to perform, and you have to be careful: the scene that Joe Pesci asked to be put in, and improvised with Ray Liotta – the ‘You think I’m funny?’ scene – shows that you could be killed any second. They don’t care who’s around. The trick in the picture was to sort of ignore that danger, make it a rollicking road movie in a way – like a kind of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby picture, with everybody on the road and having a great time.

When the Sicilian police finally broke up the Mafia in the early nineties, they arrested some guy – I forget his name, but he was the second in command – and an Italian reporter asked him if any movie about that world was accurate. And he said, Well, Goodfellas, in the scene where the guy says, ‘Do you think I’m funny?’ Because that’s the life we lead. You could be smiling and laughing one second, and [snaps fingers] in a split second you’re in a situation where you could lose your life.


RS: Quite an amazing anecdote.

MS: That is exactly where you live all the time. That’s the truth of it. Now that happened to Joe Pesci, originally, with a friend of his. He got out of it just by doing what Ray did. So when he told me the story, I said, ‘We’ve got to use that. That really encapsulates it completely. That’s the lifestyle.’

Remember when Jimmy Cagney got the AFI [American Film Institute] award, he thanked somebody I think was called Two-Times Ernie and the other street guys he knew as a kid. Because they taught him how to act. The kids in my neighborhood who told stories on the street corner, they’d have you enthralled, and often with a sense of humor about themselves. And these were some tough kids.

I’ll never forget one of the toughest I’d ever met telling a story about losing a fight in such a funny way, and not being embarrassed about it. [Laughs.] Not losing any dignity. I thought, That is brilliant: to accept the fact that he was knocked down so badly, had to get up again, get knocked down again. We were all laughing, and he was laughing. I’ll never forget it.

In the Wiseguy book, Henry Hill speaks that way, almost like a standup comic. He’s got his own rhythm. There’s a truth to it. Someone owes you money, and he doesn’t pay you. So you go to him, and he says, ‘Oh, my wife got sick.’ ‘Fuck you, pay me.’ ‘My daughter is –’ ‘Fuck you, pay me,’ a guy like Hill says. ‘My mother –’ ‘Fuck you, pay me’.


RS: De Niro in ‘Mean Streets’ has no conscious sense of consequences, always living in the moment. That’s symbolized in ‘Goodfellas’ by the great tracking shot into the Copacabana, when they all go out on the town. That’s the privileged moment they pay for in blood and death.

MS: Well, the Copacabana – that’s the top of the line for Henry – it was Valhalla. When you were able to get a table there, it was like being in the court of the kings. The Mob guys were really the ones in charge. The Copa lounge was always more significant because the real guys were up there. That’s why you have a lot happening in Raging Bull in the Copa lounge. My friend’s father, the one who would read and listen to opera, his father was the head bartender there. We have him in Raging Bull. Nice guy.

Everyone paid for the privilege eventually. The danger of the picture is that young people could look at it and think, Hey, what a great life. But you’ve got to see the last hour of the picture when things start going wrong in a big way.

RS: I think in one of the voice-over lines Henry Hill says, You only have it for maybe ten years.

MS: That’s right.

RS: That made me think about celebrity. Ballplayers, for example, only have maybe ten years.

MS: Right. Actors, filmmakers, you’ve got about ten years. Some of the greatest filmmakers had a run for ten years. It’s part of American celebrity.

– From Richard Schickel: Conversations with Scorsese (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Richard Schickel.

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