Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.
I remember writing something in depth about Rocky a while back, which you can read here, and thinking about the parallels between that film and The Godfather in how they looked at their subjects in comparison to other film standards. And I had always intended to write more on that, as I didn’t cover it like how I wanted to and the death this week of Henry Hill kind of spurred me on.
Henry Hill, famously played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas based off the true crime novel “Wiseguys” by Nicholas Pileggi, was a mobster of some repute made famous to a certain degree by the novel and film. A soldier in the Lucchese family, he was behind the Boston College point shaving scandal as well as a number of other high profile incidents. Hill had always wanted to be a gangster because it meant being somebody as opposed to just being nobody that does anything substantial with the requisite mortgage, job, wife and 2.3 children.
Being a connected guy, a criminal, is something that appealed to Hill because it meant he was more than just some guy; he was a rock star of sorts. It’s easy to see why the lifestyle appealed to him: Hill grew up poor (and died poor) but lived like a king during his years as a soldier in the Lucchese crime family. There’s an appeal to the lifestyle that’s easy to see; we all want the good life but few of us ever actually get it. Hill wanted it and took what he wanted without regard to the law, like most petty thugs.
That’s the one thing you need to know to understand the motivations of Henry Hill in the film and in real life but the one thing that always fascinated me is that Goodfellas functions as a sort of opposite to the romanticized notion of La Cosa Nostra. The Godfather is a beautiful film, one that inspired Mafia Dons to want to be Marlon Brando and wax philosophical as opposed to the thugs they generally were, but there’s a reason why I never really considered it to be the seminal work about the Mafia in America. The rise and fall of Michael Corleone, while making for remarkable cinema, never captured the mob like how it ought it to be captured.
Henry Hill was in reality the kind of guy Michael Corleone would’ve been … it’s just that no one wants to really admit it. It’s the one thing that’s most amusing when you compare Goodfellas and The Godfather on that level. It’s the difference in the way each character arc is designed.
We can like Michael at first and then less as he becomes the sort of vicious man his father was. Power doesn’t corrupt, but maintenance of it hardens a man’s soul. Being head of a crime family means you can’t deal with things in a peaceful way most of the time and get what you want; his father put a horse’s head in a man’s bed and Michael had no qualms giving the order to kill off his rivals in one fell swoop. His is a tale of a man who’s rise to power took away the thing inside him that causes an audience to like him; it’s why The Godfather is more of a tragedy than anything else. Michael is a war hero who accepts that his father is a bad man but wants nothing to do with it. His brothers, do though, but Michael is to be the one who is out of the business and clean. Life intervenes, though, and he’s set on the path to become the Godfather.
It’s a grand story and even the third film, which was good but not brilliant, completes the story. Michael may have everything but he still dies alone; there’s something poetic in all of it. He’s the mobster that’s romantic in notion; The Godfather is about a man’s rise to power and how he loses himself along the way.
Henry Hill was just a dirt ball who hung out with other dirt balls because they had easy money schemes. There’s no grand operatic character arc for him and no fall for him to take as a person. He wanted to have the nice suit and the pricey car but never wanted to work hard enough to earn it legally. It was easy for him to take and Henry Hill is a bad man who always was bad. He just found people to indulge that aspect of his personality early in life. He was destined to do bad things and found out early that it was his nature to be a bad man.
He’s the mobster you see on the news being arrested and go “yeah, that’s a mobster.” There’s nothing romantic about it and Goodfellas ought to be the film we look at when we think of the mob. But it never is; we want that grand notions of honor and Omertà in the same way we want to think of boxers like Rocky Balboa instead of Jake LaMotta. And historically we look at Godfather as the better film.
The Godfather holds up better as a film on a historical level because of what happened after; as films they’re both masterpieces but Coppola’s film is held in a little better regard because of where everyone went afterwards.
The Godfather was the place where Al Pacino and James Caan started their paths to becoming legendary leading men. Robert Duvall has had a fairly spectacular career, too. Talia Shire is iconic as both Connie Corleone and Adrian Balboa. Marlon Brando’s Godfather changed the way Mafia dons presented themselves. Diane Keaton is spectacular, only surpassing it in Annie Hall. John Cazale may have died before his time but every film he starred in is a classic. Every main role from the 2012 perspective is astonishing; back then most were burgeoning but now it’s “wow.” Francis Ford Coppola counts this amongst the number of great films he made over the years, as well.
Goodfellas essentially boils down to the last truly great performance from Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci’s peak and Ray Liotta’s only truly brilliant performance. It’s more of “last hurrah” than anything else, it seems, as no one from this film really hit a peak higher than this film. Martin Scorsese would count this among the number of great films he made that would be denied an Oscar, something that wouldn’t be rectified until The Departed. Goodfellas fits the historical perspective of just another film that Scorsese got screwed over for instead of its rightful place as the definitive film about the mob.
That’s what not getting an Oscar does.
A Movie A Week – The Challenge
This Week’s DVD – Super Fly
When it comes to blaxpoitation, there are a handful of films that really get remembered among the sheer volume of cinema from that era. One of the biggest is Super Fly, mainly because it has a great soundtrack to it.
It’s a fairly simple story. Priest (Ron O’Neal) wants to get out of the drug-pushing business. But he wants to do it with a big bankroll and as such he conspires with his partner to pull off one last score to net $1 million dollars. But things seem to be conspiring to keep him either dealing cocaine or in prison, or dead, as Priest’s desire to get out of the business conflicts with his apparent high level ability to deal cocaine.
It’s an intriguing film and one of the better films of the genre. Blaxpoitation is an interesting genre to look back on and if anything Super Fly is an interesting look back at an era.
What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – A historical fiction about how the Civil War was fought between an ass-kicking Abe and vampires.
Skip It – I love Timur Bekmambetov’s visual sense and loved his Night Watch series … but watching the trailer for this I noticed something amusing. People were laughing, hard, by the end of this. This has all the makings of “camp classic that wasn’t intended to be a camp classic” I think.
Brave – A Scottish girl shoots arrows at things to keep from being forced to marry wimps in badass Scotland.
See It – It’s Pixar. Pixar doesn’t disappoint; they may not hit a home run all the time but they hit that respectable double without blinking.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – A pre-apocalyptic film where Steve Carell and Keira Knightley spend their last three weeks on Earth with one another trying to find a measure of peace in the world.
See It – Knightley is always intriguing to see when she isn’t in period costuming and Carell always has one film between his big budget comedies that’s small and engaging.
Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .