Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas by Glenn Kenny
Hanover Square Press
Review by Lee Sobel
5 out of 5 stars
This year is the 30th anniversary of Martin Scorsese's brilliant gangster movie GoodFellas and what better way to celebrate it than doing a deep dive into the making of the movie with author Glen Kenny, who previously wrote a book about Robert De Niro and who has left no stone unturned in delivering the fantastic book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas about all things GoodFellas. If you're a fan of the movie, as I am, then this book is a "must have." In my humble (yeah sure I'm humble haha)opinion, the movie is a tour de force for director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus who shot many Scorsese movies before and after GoodFellas, and of course the incredible cast.
There are lots and lots of things about the movie that maybe you have heard before and maybe you haven't. Here's a few:
The first previews for the movie were terrible. Test screening audiences (who were not necessarily the correct audience for the movie), were so incensed
at seeing the film that some people wanted to kill director Martin Scorsese. When the movie opened it received mostly positive reviews. A reviewer in Variety said the movie was "simultaneously fascinating and repellent," whereas Vincent Canby in The New York Times called it "breathless and brilliant."
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie, known as the "How am I funny?" scene was not in the script. Joe Pesci came up with the routine during rehearsals and the lines were transcribed into script form so that when the scene was shot the dialogue would have maximum impact. Unlike other scenes in the movie, this one was shot with two cameras so it would cut better instead of having to do different takes for different camera setups. Pesci was apparently not that interested in the movie except in terms of what he could bring to it and clearly he brought a lot since he pretty much stole the movie ("What do you want? A leg or a wing?"). Apparently Warner Brothers studio head Terry Semel was angered upon coming onto the set and seeing a scene had been added that the studio had not approved and he punished the production by not letting them shoot the Tampa zoo scene in Tampa (it was shot in Queens with a fake sign and palm trees added to indicate it was in Tampa).
The famous scene where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the Copacabana night club in one continuous shot was actually not originally planned to be as long as it was in the final movie. The cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who had previously shot many films for German new wave director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, saw the possibility of adding the camera going through the dimly lit hallway in through the kitchen and doing a 360 degree turn. Set to the The Ronettes ”And Then He Kissed Me,” the shot begins with Ray Liotta giving his car keys to a valet in a reverse homage to the shot in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) which ends in a close-up of a key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand.
Some of the actors in the movie had connections to real life crime. Tony Darrow, born Anthony Borghese, played Sonny who owns the bamboo lounge restaurant that Paulie ends up taking over to protect Sonny from Joe Pesci‘s crazy Tommy DeVito (and then the place gets torched). Borghese, anassociate of the Gambino crime family, was indicted in 2009 at the age of 70 for extortion.
There are numerous interesting things about the cast. For one thing, Scorsese wanted Ray Liotta to play Henry Hill but producer Irwin Winkler was not so sure, given that Liotta had not done that many movies in his career at that time, save for the memorably menacing role he played in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild in 1986. One night when Winkler was out to dinner, Liotta approached him in the restaurant and after speaking for ten minutes, Winkler was convinced to cast him in the movie. Winkler's own wife plays the wife of ill-fated Morrie the wig maker in the movie (you might also remember her in Scorsese's The King of Comedy as the office receptionist who keeps mispronouncing Rupert Pupkin's name). By the way, Chuck Low who played Morrie was apparently the owner of the building Robert De Niro lived in. Another guy who got his acting start in GoodFellas was a former deli owner names Johnny Williams, whose character was given the name of his real-life nickname at the time, "Johnny Roastbeef." He's the guy who pisses off De Niro by buying his wife a pink Cadillac after a big score and he had been told not to bring any attention by spending money. Williams has been appearing in movies non-stop thanks to his appearance in GoodFellas, including the terrific movie Green Book (2018) in which he played "Fat Paulie."
GoodFellas has many actors in it who later went on to The Sopranos, including Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Michael Imperioli (Spider), Tony Sirico (Tony Stacks), Vincent Pastore (who is seen so briefly that his character didn't have a name) and others. Frank Vincent, who plays Billy Batts in the movie (the guy who tells Joe Pesci to go get his shine box) and who also appeared in The Sopranos, first worked with Joe Pesci in a 1978 movie called The Death Collector, which was the first time De Niro ever saw Joe Pesci and who he is still making movies with when Pesci comes out of retirement, such as 2019's The Irishmen.
I don't want to spoil any of the other surprises in this terrific book. I really enjoy these books that dive so deeply into movies like this. I hope Glenn Kenny writes more of them.