A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 28, 2016

GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Considering that it's Oscar night, I suppose I need to observe that 25 years ago tonight, the best picture and best director Oscars went to Dances With Wolves and Kevin Costner. For many this is yet another example of a gaffe by the Academy. I actually remember enjoying Dances With Wolves a great deal, though it has been years since I saw it. I liked Costner's and Mary McDonnell's performances in the movie, appreciated the attempt to see things from the point of view of Native Americans, and found the buffalo stampede thrilling. But I haven't seen it again for many years, and don't really have much interest in doing so: There are other equally enjoyable movies to watch instead. There are people who say that the real test of a movie is whether you want to see it again and again, because each time you do, you either see it differently or get a sense of why you liked it the first time. In the latter case, there's a great pleasure in hearing the dialogue in a movie like Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) fall into its accustomed place each time you revisit it. But GoodFellas seems to me to fill both categories: You anticipate the "What do you mean, I'm funny?" exchange between Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), while at the same time you see something new each time in the way scenes are staged by Scorsese, shot by Michael Ballhaus, or edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. I will have to say that the Academy's choice this time doesn't seem so egregious to me as does, say, its choice of Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980) over Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) does. GoodFellas is just a little too clever and showy for its own good: Consider the dazzling tracking shot as Henry and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) enter the Copacabana via the cellars and kitchens, or the fast-paced editing in the climactic scene when the paranoid Henry is dashing around town, keeping an eye on the helicopter above. On a repeat viewing, both scenes maybe draw a little more attention to film technique than is good for narrative coherence. But these are quibbles. GoodFellas won exactly one Oscar, for Joe Pesci's hair-trigger performance. Lorraine Bracco lost to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (Jerry Zucker), the adapted screenplay award went to Michael Blake for Dances With Wolves instead of to Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese, and Schoonmaker lost the editing Oscar to Neil Travis for Dances. And Ray Liotta's exceptional performance went completely unnominated. But then, who knows what movie we'll be talking about 25 years from now as having unfairly lost to tonight's winner?