Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece has turned 30, and while America has always had a soft spot for rule-breakers, we’ve clearly taken things too far.
Martin Scorsese’s movie Goodfellas, which turned thirty in 2020, begins with Henry Hill, the protagonist, letting us know exactly what he’s about: “As far back as I can remember,” he tells us, “I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Hill explains that he comes from a “neighborhood of nobodies,” but as far as he’s concerned a “wise guy” is what it means to be a somebody. Wise guys drive fancy cars, wear snazzy clothes, and get the best restaurant tables. Wise guys play by their own rules, do what they want, and answer to almost no one. Young Henry Hill doesn’t think twice about joining them.
But what about the film’s audience? Are we put off by the fact that Henry and his pals are clearly psychopaths? Or do we dive right in with them?
With plenty of classics to choose from, Goodfellas is one of Scorsese’s best. Every scene bursts with energy, precision, and wit. Like almost all of Scorsese’s movies, it was nimbly edited by the great Thelma Schoonmaker. The performances by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci are iconic and the script, co-written with crime writer Nick Pileggi, is endlessly quotable.
Who hasn’t heard someone recite the famous “You think I’m funny?” scene? The moment brilliantly encapsulates these wise guys’ surface joviality with their barely hidden cruelty and toxic male insecurity. It probably helped win Pesci an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Then there is the intricate montage of a coked-out Henry dashing through one of the longest days in movie history accompanied by perfectly timed musical cues, ranging from Muddy Waters to Harry Nilsson, which doubtlessly inspired many subsequent films that underscored onscreen mayhem with bubbly pop music.
As an inarguably great filmmaker, Scorsese knew what he was doing. Goodfellas is intended to show what life is like for your average hoodlum—and, having grown up in New York in a Sicilian-American family, he understood the terrain at street level. But he was never really one of the neighborhood toughs. Artistic and thoughtful, Scorsese considered becoming a priest until he realized that he got more out of the movies than the church. A world-class cinephile, Scorsese quotes from the early silent classic, The Great Train Robbery (1903), with Tommy firing a pistol at the audience in one of Goodfellas’ closing shots, implicitly connecting the film to a tradition of trigger-happy cinema and subtly suggesting what it’s like to be on the business end of the ferocity that we consume from a safe distance.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen Goodfellas. For years it seemed like the movie was playing on TBS every day. When I was in college, there were Goodfellas posters all over dorms and off-campus apartment walls. People still quote it constantly. There are plenty of parodies. More recently, there have been lots of GIFS and memes that use stills or even whole scenes from the film. Rappers reference it all the time. David Chase used it as an essential text for building the world of The Sopranos. In his 2020 book, Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, critic Glenn Kenny has written an engaging, comprehensive, clear-eyed assessment of the film’s creation and legacy.
An artist isn’t always responsible for an audience’s reading of his or her work. There’s always more in Scorsese’s films than appears on the surface, and this makes them endlessly rewatchable; but whether or not audiences are willing to ponder Scorsese’s moral explorations is not really his problem. Their impulsive misreading might reflect their own assumptions, explicit or implicit, about how the world really works.
Goodfellas is a-coming-of-age story that follows the opposite moral trajectory of most of these stories. We follow Henry Hill from his days parking Cadillacs even though he can barely see over the dashboards, to late-night card games that abruptly turn violent, to stealing everything that isn’t nailed down, to his luxurious stint in prison and, eventually, his downfall.
The downfall isn’t as complete as it probably should be. By the time Henry has run out his string, he has accrued just enough power to weasel out of paying the price that ordinary unprotected folks do when they’re caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Henry’s particular karmic comeuppance, such as it is, is that he’s bored stiff by regular life. He grumbles that he can’t even get decent food; he feels like an “average nobody,” a “schnook.”
Which leads us, unavoidably, to Donald Trump and Trumpism.
Goodfellas displays the part of the American psyche that secretly and sometimes not-so-secretly admires those who flout convention and get away with it: the outlaws, the rebels, the pirates, the gangsters. America doesn’t have the centuries of ingrained tradition, custom, and hierarchy innate in our many parent countries.
With so much up for grabs, plenty of Americans, who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, learn early on that you have to (re)create yourself if you want to make it in the New World. Putting your hands on some financial and social capital is an effective way to start. “Get rich or die trying” has always been one of the country’s unofficial mottos. Ask Alexander Hamilton, Jay Gatsby, the Kennedys, 50 Cent.
There are plenty of examples throughout American culture, both real and fictional, of people who break the rules, get away with it, and are lionized for it. If the price of that self-creation is picking some poor sucker’s pocket or cutting some shady backroom deal, that’s life in the big time, kid. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Think of the way Henry and his crew treat the guys who help them pull off a major heist. Henry jovially explains that instead of sharing the spoils, they’d “rather whack ’em.” Once these people have outlived their capacity to get Henry’s crew more cash, they’re disposable. More for them means less for Henry. It wasn’t so different from the mentality of the pump-and-dump schemes of 1980s Wall Street or the credit default swaps that bankrupted millions and almost completely sank the economy: Get yours. Who cares if other people are ruined in the process?
Cue the famous montage of brutalized corpses revealed alongside the hit tune “Layla.” The contrast between sound and image reminds us that his type of casual cruelty has been his crew’s modus operandi from the start. And it should be a startling reminder that the people we’ve hung out with over the course of the film wouldn’t think twice about doing it to us, if it were happening in real life.
Maybe audiences have welcomed these hoodlums to their screens because they’ve gotten used to seeing the criminals’ violence and greed as business as usual in America. Karen Hill, Henry’s feisty wife, explains her rationalization to us: “After a while, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crimes. It was more like Henry was enterprising and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses waiting for handouts. Our husbands weren’t brain surgeons. They were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.”
Variations on this monologue have run through Trump supporters’ collective unconscious in the past few years. It’s probably what Chris Christie had in mind when he referred to Trump’s impeachable phone call with the president of Ukraine as a “New York conversation.”
It should be obvious by now that Trump, despite his bluster, isn’t half the macho man he constantly pretends to be. He probably wouldn’t last an hour at dinner with Henry, Tommy, and the gang. Just watch the way he stutters, blusters, and pouts. Also, we shouldn’t forget the fact that Trump’s collar is, of course, anything but blue: he was born into the kind of opulence that these wise guys only dream about, though he does share their tacky taste in home furnishings.
But a crucial thing that Trump and his cronies have always understood about American life is that, for many people, breaking the rules isn’t a cause for alarm. It’s evidence of strength. For some Americans, lawbreaking is evidence of a gutsiness that should be excused, admired, even emulated. Why play by the rules and risk losing when you can just take what you want? Karen Hill’s description of people “sitting on their asses waiting for handouts” sounds like the way Trumpism stereotypes immigrants—a stereotype that sometimes appeals to other immigrants, especially when they are looking for a way to redefine themselves.
Lately, plenty of pundits have anguished over why, given all the chaos and the ugliness of the last four years, more than seventy million people pulled the lever for Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Maybe the answer lies in a refrain I’ve heard for decades: “The cruelty is the point.” Trump, a born showman who certainly talks like he’s seen too many mob movies, is giving his audiences what they crave.
Maybe a large part of Trumpism is rooted in vicarious identification. In Goodfellas, De Niro’s character is introduced as the kind of man who “roots for the bad guys in the movies.” If Trump’s supporters stick with Trumpism no matter what Trump actually does, they can continue projecting themselves onto his outsized image of power, success, and attitude. It must be quite a rush for them to maintain the fantasy that they’re beating the rigged game, with Trump showing all those snobs and wimps who’s really boss. I saw the Trump campaign’s national press secretary on Fox News literally describe Trump as “the most masculine person to ever hold the White House.” Winning—Henry Hill might call it “being a somebody”—is what Trump’s whole brand is all about.
Yet this vicious cycle isn’t entirely dependent on Trump himself. He may have learned it growing up in immense privilege and being coached by the likes of Roy Cohn, but he’s not even all that good at being a crook. Someone else could easily step into that brash, performatively outrageous role and probably do it better, which is to say more slickly and convincingly.
Given what we saw in the last election, millions of people will probably cheer the next person to follow in Trump’s footsteps. On some level, they will knowingly be rooting for the bad guy on the screen. After all, this is America, where nobody wants to live the rest of his life like a schnook.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Baffler, Guardian, The Millions, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.
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