Quick, what film won the Academy Award for best picture in 1990? GoodFellas, you say? Well, it should have won, but the correct answer is Dances With Wolves. Now that more than a decade has passed, it's easy to see what a travesty that was. Dances With Wolves is barely remembered as the last decent Kevin Costner movie, but you can see signs of GoodFellas' influence all over the place.
When I saw GoodFellas in the theater, I knew it was an instant classic. Director Martin Scorsese's filmmaking choices made it a unique, almost electric experience. The freeze frames, the rapid-fire editing, the voice-overs and the soundtrack are all elements that have been widely copied ever since. (In one of this new two-disc set's features, young directors admit to just that.)
But the best thing about it is the story, adapted to the screen by Scorsese and Nicolas Pileggi, the author of the book it was based upon. It tells of Henry Hill's life and times in the Mafia. Casting the unknown Ray Liotta in the part was a big risk, but he is dead-on. The other two fellas were pretty good, too. Robert De Niro strikes that balance between your best friend and your worst nightmare, depending on what day it is. He does his heaviest work with only his eyes. And Joe Pesci (who won the Oscar for supporting actor) seems absolutely insane.
GoodFellas sparked the revival of the mafia as a subject of television and movies. Films like Analyze This (with Robert De Niro) and shows like The Sopranos (with Lorraine Bracco, who plays Henry Hill's wife in GoodFellas) are a direct result of Scorsese's film. Just as the cowboy was the Everyman of 1950s popular cinema, the gangster has filled that role in recent years. But unlike these imitations, in Scorsese's world, a gangster's life always ends badly. You can only hope the feds get to you before your "buddies" do, and Henry Hill's final hours of freedom are an unforgettably wild ride.
On this new DVD set, one of the best features is the commentary track with the real Henry Hill. When Martin Scorsese calls for you to lay down an audio track, apparently you go -- even if you're in the federal Witness Protection Program.