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Remembering Ray Liotta, Paul Sorvino and the Legacy of “Goodfellas”

By Luke McGuire

For fans of “Goodfellas,” the last few months have likely been rough. The passing of Ray Liotta in May and Paul Sorvino in July has prompted much reminiscence over their roles in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster drama. Playing the role of Henry Hill, the New York mobster-turned-informant, Ray Liotta iconically embodied the subject of a witty and engrossing but, ultimately, tragic and true story. Hill’s boss, depicted by Paul Sorvino, was Paulie Cicero, a quiet and mellow yet exceedingly intimidating mafioso, recognizable throughout the film by his unnerving glare.

Liotta’s Henry Hill (left) and Sorvino’s Paulie Cicero (right) in Goodfellas. Credit: Scorsese, M. (1990) Goodfellas. Warner Bros.

Upon its release in 1990, the gangster film sub-genre had become increasingly popular. During a time in which films such as Mean Streets, Once Upon a Time in America, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Scarface, and many others were being produced, Goodfellas quickly established itself as one of the best, embedding itself in pop culture forever.

When we think of Goodfellas, there are many fan-favorite moments that come to mind, like Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in the iconic “funny how?” scene, or the long-winded tracking shot of Henry and Karen entering through the back of the Copacabana, or the bar scene in which Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry “whack” Billy Batts. While these are all great moments, the fact is that Goodfellas’ legacy runs much deeper. Although Henry Hill was the focus of the film, the story was that of a lifestyle, not one character, and it was told in a way that few other films have.

The film is energetic and expertly edited, quickly seducing viewers into the mafia life in the same way that Henry Hill was, only to tear it all down halfway through. The journey of Henry Hill represented the rise and fall, the glory and shame, of that lifestyle, in exaggerated yet grounded realism. The camera almost never strays from eye level, reinforcing realism and perspective, though there is almost always enough non-diegetic music playing in the background of the film to totally immerse the viewer in the emotion of the scene. This contrast of realism and elaboration represents what is so entrancing about the movie. The creative camera work is jam-packed with quick cuts and long takes, never giving the viewer a break from the action, but is also driven by Henry Hill’s own narration, which offers a more introspective point of view. Audiences aren’t just observing the gangster’s life; they also understand how the gangster feels about it.

Much of the dialogue and scenes were unscripted, a fact that an uninformed viewer wouldn’t likely be surprised to hear. The dialogue and acting feels genuine, and the relationship between Paulie and Henry represents a driving emotional force throughout the film. The film is exciting, animated, and funny, but, given that it’s based on a true story, still maintains a blunt and authentic point of view. This contrast is difficult to achieve successfully, but Goodfellas does it.

Goodfellas’ portrait of mafia life in the ‘70s represents the pinnacle of gangster movies, and although the genre has had declining popularity, the film has still maintained acclaim and admiration from movie fans around the world. It influenced shows like The Sopranos, which sparked massive change in the television industry. It put dramatic realism on a scale that not many other films could, portraying immorality and crime, all the while maintaining a comedic and stylized tone. All of this makes Goodfellas the score to beat for gangster films, and not likely to be surpassed soon.

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