Most people’s only experience with Shakespeare is their freshman English
To call Goodfellas a masterpiece is to say, in a certain sense, that Martin Scorsese hasn’t directed two or three masterpieces in his career (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver). Nevertheless, Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film is widely regarded as one of the best films of the decade, and was notoriously beat out on Oscar night by Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves.
The story of Henry Hill and his rise and fall through the ranks of the New York mob scene, adapted from Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, fires on all cylinders. It comes at you like a rocket, relentless in its energy and authenticity, and its violence.
Here are 17 interesting things about the film’s history…
1. According to author Nicholas Pileggi, some actual mobsters were hired as extras to lend authenticity to scenes. The mobsters gave fake Social Security numbers to Warner Bros. and it is unknown how they received their paychecks.
2. Relatively unknown Ray Liotta turned down a small role as Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman to play Henry Hill. Scorsese wanted him after seeing him in Field of Dreams.
3. The studio was initially very nervous about the film due to its extreme violence and language. The film reportedly received the worst preview response in the studio’s history. Scorsese said that “the numbers were so low it was funny”. Nevertheless the film was released without alteration to overwhelming critical acclaim.
4. The now legendary steadicam shot that follows Henry and Karen in through the back of the Copacabana was an accident. Scorsese was not allowed to film the entrance, so decided on the long tracking shot instead, which took seven takes.
5. In the first scene with Jimmy Conway where he tucks money into his pockets, Robert De Niro wanted to use real money. The prop master gave De Niro $5,000 of his own money. At the end of each take, no one was allowed to leave the set until all the money was returned.
6. The dinner scene with Tommy’s mother (who is Scorsese’s mother in real life) was almost completely improvised by the actors, including Tommy asking his mother if he could borrow her butcher’s knife and Jimmy’s “hoof” comment.
7. The later life of Henry Hill, after he enters the Witness Protection Program, was also adapted, more humorously, into the Steve Martin comedy My Blue Heaven the same year. Appropriately, that film was written by Nora Ephron, who is Nicholas Pileggi’s wife.
8. The “You think I’m funny?” scene was based on a story that Joe Pesci acted out for Martin Scorsese. While working in a restaurant as a young man, Pesci once told a mobster that he was funny and the mobster became very angry. Scorsese allowed Pesci and Ray Liotta to improvise the scene. He did not tell the other actors in the scene what would happen because he wanted their genuine surprised reactions.
9. According to the real Henry Hill, Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Tommy DeSimone was 90% to 99% accurate, with one notable exception; the real Tommy DeSimone was a massive person.
10. Joe Pesci’s Oscar acceptance speech is the sixth shortest in the Academy’s history. All Pesci said was “It’s my privilege, thank you”, later admitting that he didn’t say very much because he genuinely felt that he didn’t have a chance of winning.
11. Actors and actresses who were offered or auditioned for parts in this film include: William Petersen, Ellen Barkin, Alec Baldwin, and John Malkovich.
12. During filming of the scene in which his character is killed by Joe Pesci, Michael Imperioli broke a glass in his hand and had to be rushed to the emergency room. When doctors saw what appeared to be a gun-shot wound in his chest, they tried to treat it. When Imperioli told them what was really up, he was made to wait for three hours.
13. According to Debi Mazar, when her character trips after meeting Henry it was actually Mazar tripping over the camera dolly track. Martin Scorsese liked it because it looked like she was overwhelmed by Henry and left it in the film.
14. The editing speeds up gradually throughout the film to indicate the rising tension with Henry and the characters. It begins with slower cuts and extended scenes, but when Henry is hooked on cocaine and being followed by the helicopter, scenes are significantly quicker and shorter.
15. One of the little girls who plays Henry and Karen’s daughters (specifically, the one in Karen’s arms who was too shy to give Paulie a kiss when they arrive at his house for dinner) is Lorraine Bracco’s actual daughter with Harvey Keitel, Stella.
16. Paul Sorvino wanted to drop out of the role of Paulie three days before filming began because he felt that he lacked the cold personality to play the character. He called his agent and asked to be released from the film. Sorvino’s agent told him to think about it for one day before making a final decision. That night, Sorvino looked in the mirror and was frightened by the look on his face. He realized that that look was the look he needed to play Paulie.
17. During one of the final scenes, Henry Hill opens his front door and picks up a newspaper. Close inspection reveals that the newspaper is the Youngstown Vindicator. Martin Scorsese included it as an homage to Youngstown, Ohio, which has been called Mobtown USA.