Oscar Vault Monday – Goodfellas, 1990 (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Originally when I was going to write about 1990, I was going to write about Ghost because I really love that film and it always fascinates me that it was nominated for Best Picture. Then I watched Goodfellas and discovered that Ray Liotta was NOT nominated for his stellar performance in it and there was just no way I couldn’t write about how wrong that I think that is. I haven’t seen a lot of Scorsese’s films, but I’ve seen a good deal, and this is my favorite of those I’ve seen. I also think it’s his finest film, I say this having not seen Raging Bull and I know that that film is often heralded as his best. Goodfellas was nominated for six Academy Awards, but only won one: Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress Lorraine Bracco, Best Supporting Actor Joe Pesci (won), Best Director and Best Picture. It was up against Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather: Part III and winner Dances With Wolves. I’ve yet to see Awakenings, but of the other four, and despite my undying love for Ghost, I’d definitely say Goodfellas is the best film of the group.
I’ve recently decided that what makes a movie a true classic – old, new or in between – is if you can’t tell what its running time is while you’re watching it. What I mean is, the film could be anywhere from 63 minutes to 146 minutes (Goodfellas’ running time) and you don’t ever find yourself checking your watch. If you get so sucked into the plot and it’s paced so perfectly that it’s over and you go, “Wow, that was two hours?” I think a film is timeless if while you’re watching it you’re a) never really aware that you’re watching a film and b) you aren’t aware of the passage of time while you’re watching said film. That is why I think Goodfellas is a timeless masterpiece. Anything over the standard 100 minutes is considered long these days and Goodfellas never once felt long, it never felt labored. That, my friends, is a perfect collaboration of great actors working with a great script, enhanced by concise editing and exquisite directing. That my friends, is Goodfellas.
I’ve been a fan of Ray Liotta since I saw Corrina, Corrina in theaters 16 years ago. Before I talk about his performance in this film, I’d like to take a moment for us all to appreciate the beauty that is his blue eyes. Just stare at them, coked out or no, and tell me he’s not the owner of some of the finest baby blues to ever hit the silver screen. Okay, so on to his performance as Henry Hill. I think it is his performance that makes this film what it is. Sure it’s filled with a great supporting ensemble, but Liotta is the backbone of this film, he carries it. And yet he received exactly ZERO awards or nominations for this performance. Not from any critic circles, not from the Golden Globes and most decidedly not from the Academy. I don’t understand how a film can be nominated for Best Picture and the main character, the damned backbone of the film, gets no recognition at all. I’d like to think I’m not the only one who’s retroactively pissed off about this, or maybe some of you were pissed off at the time (I was only 4 at the time, so I most definitely did not see this in theaters). Liotta’s performance in this film will forever be on my list of biggest Oscar snubs.
Joe Pesci, on the other hand, got a lot of love for his performance as Tommy DeVito. Not only did he win the Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars, he won several critic circle awards and was nominated at the Golden Globes. I do think his win was much deserved, he is an animal in this film and perhaps one of the most iconic gangsters in cinema history. I just wish all of his recognition hadn’t overshadowed Liotta’s great work.
Lorraine Bracco is probably most well-known these days as Dr. Jennifer Melfi from HBO’s The Sopranos, a role that earned her multiple Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG nominations. However, ten years earlier she earned raves as Liotta’s wife Karen Hill. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, as well as winning the category from several critic circles. I love her in this film. I think her dual narration adds a lot to the film because it really is like you get the same story from several sources, slightly different versions, of course. Again, though, I think she wouldn’t have been half as fabulous without Liotta’s strong performance.
Even Robert DeNiro’s small role got a BAFTA nomination and a win for Best Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle, granted that award was also for his role in Awakenings (he was nominated for an Oscar for that role, too). Don’t get me wrong, he is amazing in this film and it’s one of my favorite of his performances. I hate to beat a dead horse, I just think it’s unfair to recognize all the great supporting performances, while ignoring the lead altogether.
Joining Liotta in the completely ignored, however, is veteran stage actor Paul Sorvino (and father of Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino) as Mob boss Paul Cicero. Essentially, Sorvino plays the straight man in the film. He’s a dead serious businessman, who does not suffer fools. My two favorite scenes with him are when they’re all in prison and he’s finely chopping onions or something for their dinner. He’s so very zen just then and I love it. I also love towards the end of the film when Liotta’s Hill is coked out of his mind and comes to Sorvino’s Cicero for help and even though Cicero loves Hill like a son, he can’t help him because it would be bad for business. The little exchange between the two is probably the most heartfelt scene in the entire film; it’s two really fine actors at their best.
If you’re interested in purchasing Goodfellas on DVD or Blu-ray, you can do so here.
Posted on October 4, 2010, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1990, Goodfellas, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Martin Scorsese, Oscar Vault Monday, Paul Sorvino, Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.
One thing I love about the legacy of this film is the way in which one can easily see that were there no GOODFELLAS, there would be no Sopranos.
This is one of those moments that you’ll read volumes about – years Oscar got it wickedly wrong. As lovely as DANCES WITH WOLVES might have seemed at the time, and as much as Oscar loves to reward actor-directors, time has been the judge on the 1990 race…and found it to have gone horribly wrong.
I just rewatched this film last week, and was stunned by how amazingly well it has held up. While THE DEPARTED is sweet and all, it really is a pity that Scorsese couldn’t win his first Oscar for this masterpiece.
(PS – If you’re interested in some Scorsese discussion, including which films to zero in on, take a listen to one of my early podcast episodes dedicated to SHUTTER ISLAND, and a Martin Scorsese Top Five!)
The Oscar oversight is reminiscent of Rolling Stone Magazine picking Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque as album of the year in 1991 rather than Nirvana’s Nevermind. Rolling Stone actually admitted their mistake, however. Goodfellas is probably the most enrapturing movie I’ve ever seen. Timeless? I didn’t even know I existed during the movie and I definitely wasn’t thinking about the time. It was truly timeless. And I agree: that Liotta was overlooked was an egregious oversight by all the critics. His role was more nuanced than Pesci’s or Deniro’s but was still so poignant and memorable that between my viewings of the film–every couple of months or so–his characterization of Hill is the logo on the memory index card that my cerebral archivalist retrieves when I think about the film. YOU ARE RIGHT ON.
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