October 1, 2010


In the current GQ Magazine, in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Martin Scorsese's classic 1990 mobster flick Goodfellas, they published an extensive oral history of the making of the movie which revealed many things I didn't know about the movie, and almost all of them are bad.    This movie came along at a time in Scorsese's career when he was in desperately in need of a hit.  The eighties, by and large, weren't very good to Scorsese.  His 1980 film Raging Bull is now considered by many to be the top film of the decade, but it earned much of its praise in retrospect and the movie didn't perform particularly well at the box office.  He followed that up with a dark examination of celebrity and celebrity worship called The King of Comedy which also didn't set the box office on fire then made the little-seen After Hours in 1985.  In '86, he made the strange choice of directing a sequel to The Hustler with The Color of Money.   In '88 he made The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that touched off protests and controversy from the religious right and not only under-performed at the box office, but actually drew picketers.   As the decade was coming to a close, Scorsese, more then any other time in his career, needed a hit.

He got it.  Goodfellas was a return to form for Scorsese and was a massive critical and box-office success. Any discussion about the greatest films of Scorsese's esteemed career would have to include Goodfellas, but it easily could have gone the other way.   It's hard to imagine, but at that time, Scorsese, coming off a string of middling films, didn't have the clout he has today, and as such, the casting of the movie wasn't entirely in his control and he dealt with studio interference in this regard.   A large part of the success of the film, beyond his brilliant direction, was due to the excellent cast: Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, but none of them were originally in place.  The original discussions about who would play the lead character, Henry Hill, didn't include Liotta who had a supporting turn in the Jonathan Demme flick Something Wild (which Scorsese loved) but precious little else on his resume.   The part instead was ticketed for Tom Cruise, who Marty had worked with a few years earlier on The Color of Money.   Cruise is a great actor, but he would be horribly miscast in the role of career mobster Henry Hill.  Scorsese stuck with his guns and eventually studio relented and offered the part to Liotta.  Robert De Niro, who had collaborated with Scorsese several times in the seventies and eighties was originally not offered the part of Jimmy Conway.  Initially the studio approached John Malkovich who turned the part down.  "It sort of came at a bad time in my life, when I wasn't feeling well and didn't want to think about working.  It's hard to explain why end up in Eragon (his 2006 bomb in which he played an evil King and former dragon rider) and not Goodfellas.  But De Niro is fantastic."   Malkovich is a skilled actor who's delivered some great performances and infuses his characters with a lot of interesting layers, but I can't imagine him playing an Irish gangster in a Martin Scorsese flick.  One of the things Scorsese stresses over and over again in the article is his unwavering quest to make the movie "authentic" and while Malkovich isn't Irish; he might have disqualified De Niro from contention for the part because he couldn't envision De Niro playing the non-Italian in the story. 

The other lead, Joe Pesci, wasn't interested in doing the movie at all.  He told Scorsese he was gonna pass, but after talking with Marty about some of the stories of things he had seen while working in a restaurant frequented by local wise guys; and Scorsese's subsequent enthusiasm regarding incroporating those stories into the screenplay (included among these, the infamous "How am I funny?" ball breaking sequence which unfolded, in Pesci's real life, when he told a wise guy he thought he was funny and the guy took mock offense at the remark) Pesci agreed to sign on.  I simply can't imagine this movie without the outstanding contributions of Joe Pesci.   As brilliant as Martin Scorsese is as a filmmaker and as incredibly fascinating as the source material is; I don't believe this movie would have been nearly as good had any other actor taken that role.  Pesci would ultimately win the Academy Award for Best Supporting actor for his work, and he's provided us with some of the most quotable, fantastic scenes in movie history.  The "Go Get Your Shinebox" scene with Billy Batts, for example, is an absolute classic, and Pesci's unhinged, raging performance is the lifeblood of this scene and this movie.  He embodies the insanity of the lifestyle and it's intoxicating allure all wrapped up in one tiny, lethal package.  He is danger.   This movie, without him, isn't the same beast at all.  But, amazingly, there was one other casting tidbit in the GQ piece that, had it happened, could have sunk this movie even if Scorsese had his real male leads in place.  The Lorraine Bracco role of Henry Hill's wife Karen almost went to a different Italian actress, and this would have been much more catastrophic then Sophia Coppolla in The Godfather Part III... In consideration for the role was the antithesis of acting: Madonna.

Goodfellas Executive Producer Barbara De Fina, who worked with Scorsese on The Color of Money, Michael Jackson's 'Bad' video and The Last Temptation of Christ reveals that the Madonna talk progressed beyond just idle speculation.  "I remember that we went to see her in the play 'Speed-the-Plow.'   Marty said hello to her afterward.  Can you imagine?   Tom Cruise and Madonna?  But Marty can get a performance out  of almost anyone."   Yes, Barbara.  Almost anyone.  I would wager a fair amount that Madonna, who has built a resume of shockingly mediocre performances in lousy movies and somehow has managed to capture the opposite of charisma and ooze that out in every scene she's ever done would prove to be the exception to that rule.  By all accounts, what they would have seen that night was a very underwhelming performance (The New York Daily News headlined their review "No, She Can't Act") I suspect Scorsese watching her perform live was something he told the studio he would do before he officially shit-canned any chance of her being in the movie. She instead made Dick Tracy - a film she was awful in - and shacked up with Warren Beatty instead of appearing in a modern American classic. Madonna in the cast of Goodfellas would have been an absolute game-changer.   It's not just an issue of how bad she would have been - and by now, we've seen more than enough evidence that she would be truly lousy in this film regardless of what magic pixie dust Martin Scorsese sprinkled on her - but there's also the issue of the film losing the outstanding performance of Lorraine Bracco, who ultimately landed the role of Karen.  This would be a terrible, terrible trade.   The GQ article really  illustrates that  this modern classic might very well have been the film that all but ended the career of America's greatest film director.

The article is in the current October issue of GQ, which is on newstands now.

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