Written by Sooz Kempner


Why I ❤️ (and understand) Goodfellas

A New York Post film critic recently stated Goodfellas was a film women could never really understand. You’re a funny guy, says Sooz Kempner.

Goodfellas cast shotAccording to writer Kyle Smith, women aren’t capable of understanding Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s bombastic operatic tale based on the true story of Henry Hill, a mafia footsoldier who ended up in Witness Protection. This is confusing for me because it’s been my favourite movie since I was 15 and it’s so sad to discover that I just don’t get it.

Here are the top 10 things I love about it (even though I don’t understand any of them).

The exemplary use of voiceover

Never extraneous, Hill’s telling of his story is a masterclass. Voiceover is often used lazily. In Goodfellas, the voiceover always reminds us this is Henry’s story – through his eyes. When his wife Karen takes the reins we see a different side to the man. (“How could I kill him? I couldn’t even leave him.”)

The voiceover is also ingeniously used to introduce us to many characters at once in a Steadicam sequence, this time entirely from Henry’s POV. Damn, I just wish I could understand this!

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that Goodfellas only turned out to be brilliant by mistake. Because silly Scorsese let a woman edit it! Thank goodness her tears and hairspray didn’t get all over the celluloid.”

Speaking of character introductions…

Scorsese rarely establishes a character. Henry’s life as a gangster, particularly in the movie’s deliberately chaotic second half, is a rollercoaster and new characters are frequently just dropped in to the narrative. “Who is this babysitter we’re suddenly meeting?” you’ll cry. Go with it, we don’t need to meet her conventionally, Scorsese knows we don’t need to be treated like idiots. Unless we’re feeble-minded women, of course. Where’s the bit where the menfolk talk about their lady-loves? This makes my brain hurt!

Who’s the hero here?

At the end of the film, our protagonist decides to leave the mob, keeping him and his family safe and locking up the murderers he’s associated with for his entire life. Does it make him a hero? A wonderful thing about Goodfellas is that it most definitely doesn’t.

His closing voiceover (“I get to spend the rest of my life like a schmuck”) suggests the bit of his life where he was a criminal who had a table brought to the front of the Copacabana was way better than life as an honest man. Henry, you cowardly shit. I can’t fathom a protagonist who doesn’t rescue his woman atop a snow-white steed; what is going on!?

Goodfellas2That cast

I may not comprehend why they’re good because my lady-periods make my brain go silly but the performances in Goodfellas are stunning across the board.

Ray Liotta, with his perfect 70s cocaine eyes, gives us a Henry who we can relate to. How he wasn’t Oscar nominated is beyond me.

Lorraine Bracco is a force of nature as Karen, arriving in the movie like a budget Golden Age of Hollywood film star, all innocent sexuality and faux glamour, eventually becoming a coke-addled mob cohort. We feel for her and wish she’d make the right decision, just once.

Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his unforgettable turn as Henry’s partner-in-crime, Tommy. The “funny how?” scene has to be one of the funniest and most terrifying moments in cinema.

My favourite performance by far is Robert De Niro’s understated portrayal of Henry’s mentor, Jimmy. The moment where the camera slowly zooms in on De Niro smoking a cigarette while Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love plays, is easy to miss but is the most incredible piece of screen acting of all time. In his face we see Jimmy’s paranoia and the menace is truly unsettling.

Schoonmaker’s finest hour

What a lot of people don’t realise is that Goodfellas only turned out to be brilliant by mistake. Because silly Scorsese let a woman edit it! Yes, that’s right, thank goodness her tears and hairspray didn’t get all over the celluloid. Thelma Schoonmaker is Scorsese’s long-time editor and Goodfellas is probably her finest hour.

“Sure, I’m just a tiny-brained lady with a head full of dreams about future husbands and fairy slippers but I sure do love Goodfellas and one day I truly hope to understand it.”

All films strive for the ‘invisible edit’, where the cuts are such that the audience can’t notice them. Goodfellas achieves it. Its use of freeze-frames has never been bettered. A stand-out moment is the opening scene where Henry, Jimmy and Tommy open the boot and reveal a bloodied man gasping for life. Tommy stabs him to death, which is all shown very matter-of-factly and followed with a fast zoom on Henry, his voiceover stating, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

We see this scene again about halfway through but now Henry feels removed from his killer friends and we see it in a slow-motion through a red filter. It’s frightening and otherworldly. Schoonmaker is so much a part of this film’s genius that it’s hard to believe she’s a woman at all!


Ladies love fashion, so maybe that’s what draws me to Goodfellas. Interestingly, the film is a favourite of modern-day mobsters and the fashions sported by Henry and co, particularly in the 60s section of the film, have influenced how they dress today.

Goodfellas4The soundtrack

Is there a movie with a better soundtrack in the history of cinema? (I mean, obviously The Notebook, right ladies?). An eclectic mix of pop music spanning the 30 years of Henry’s story perfectly scores the action.

When Henry and Karen are on an early date they watch a crooner singing Life Is But A Dream. Not one track was chosen without the intention that it comment directly on what was happening on screen. When Scorsese was shooting the discovery of the bodies of Jimmy’s gang he even had Layla playing on set. When the film ends with Sid Vicious’ version of My Way, the effect is jarring and visceral. Interestingly, as soon as Henry is arrested the near-constant soundtrack disappears until the very end.

The ambition

No-one can accuse Scorsese of lacking ambition. The Copacabana sequence must be seen to be believed. While The Crystals sing Then He Kissed Me, Henry takes Karen to the back entrance, through the kitchen and all the way to just in front of the stage where a table is set for them. It’s all elegantly filmed in one long tracking shot. Henry’s opulent lifestyle is shown to us using a filming technique just as ostentatious. Of course, my lady-eyes only like this bit of the film because of all the pretty, pretty dresses.

Goodfellas3The humour

It’s easy to forget just what a hilarious film Goodfellas is. I mean, obviously it’s not 27 Dresses hilarious… But who could forget Maurie’s wig advert? The humour is largely in the interactions: the kind of natural wit you don’t often see depicted successfully in films and directly juxtaposed with the violence. Spider’s death is so shocking because what has come before it is so amusing.

The legacy

Are we already at number 10? I got so distracted by my dumb-dumb ovaries and my hurty bra that I lost count.

In 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson practically remade Goodfellas as Boogie Nights, following a young man’s… ahem, entry… into porn. It also heavily influenced Tarantino’s ultra-stylish filmmaking and without it, it’s unlikely we’d ever have had The Sopranos. Goodfellas was criminally overlooked when the Oscars came around (losing out to Dances With Wolves) with Kevin Costner beating Martin Scorsese to the Best Director gong. What a pile of steaming bullshit.

Sure, I’m just a tiny-brained lady with a head full of dreams about future husbands and fairy slippers but I sure do love Goodfellas and one day I truly hope to understand it. And now I’m off to paint my nails and cry about boys.

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Written by Sooz Kempner

Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.