To those who label GoodFellas a morality play that leaves us exiting the theater appropriately updated on the evils of the Mafia, I ask this: Knowing how his story ended, do you think Joe Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito would have done things any differently? If he’d had his life to live over, would he have gone into plumbing or roofing before expiring of a heart attack in his Barcalounger? Would he have chosen the life of a square? I think not. Even knowing things would end with a gunshot in the face (oh, sorry! — spoiler alert), I think Tommy would have considered it a fair trade. After all, he started out as a nobody and got to live like a medieval lord, for a while. Tommy got to kill with impunity, laugh and drink and play cards all day, to wallow in riches. It couldn’t last, and didn’t, but for him the glory was worth the price.
GoodFellas, which was released 30 years ago this fall, serves up a more convincing, more potent dose of gang life than any other picture, and awed fascination with its gory glory is why it has always been a black-comic underworld adventure for its mostly male fans. We watch it over and over because it’s fun. Dark fun, sure. It’s the cynical, anarchic flip side of Hillary Clinton’s earnest commencement-day wish for “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” As much of a buzz as young Hillary got from student sit-ins, that’s what Henry Hill gets from entering a packed nightclub through its kitchen like he’s pope of the Copa. GoodFellas is, crucially but not exclusively, a buddy movie. Guys watch it in the same frame of mind we have when watching two beefy men in trunks pummel each other in a ring: We couldn’t do that, but what a supernatural plane of existence it must be.
The movie’s director, Martin Scorsese, has described its last act as a kind of “attack” that he hoped would leave the audience contemplating the wages of sin. As punishment rained down upon each mobster in turn, we were to have gained a sense that the moral points had been set down as firmly as they would have been in a 1940s crime saga, in accordance with General Principle no. 1 of Hollywood’s Production Code: “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.”
Well, Norman Lear thought viewers would laugh at Archie Bunker instead of wishing he’d become president. Art has a way of getting away from its creators. As I wrote a few years ago, “way down deep in the reptile brain,” the three principal mobsters in GoodFellas “are exactly what guys want to be: lazy but powerful, deadly but funny, tough, unsentimental and devoted above all to their brothers — a small group of guys who will always have your back.”
So effective was Scorsese at capturing the rush experienced by Henry Hill, a wide-awake and absolutely unapologetic mobster who regretted only that he got caught, that GoodFellas became the thing it warns against, like one of those 1980s “this is your brain on drugs” public-service announcements that makes drugs look a lot more interesting than the Saved by the Bell episode you’d been watching. Guys don’t watch GoodFellas again and again to be told “don’t be wicked” or to experience a Lars von Trier downer about the sickness of the human soul. Crime does not pay? Crime does pay! It pays exhilaratingly. For a while, anyway. Crime thrills and dazzles and comes with sharp suits and hot women. From the criminal point of view, better to burn brightly and leave a smoking crater behind than never to have caught fire at all.
Women, you may have noticed, aren’t generally as fond of the movie as are men. As part of my continuing mission to write things that are obvious and uncontroversial, I pointed out this gender gap in GoodFellas appreciation in a New York Post column marking the film’s 25th anniversary, and for two minutes found myself the Emmanuel Goldstein of criticism. Every outlet from here to Timbuktu, including CNN, USA Today, the Guardian, and many others, did news stories (not columns) reporting the existence of my piece. My opinions are news? Gosh.
Ninety-seven percent of the outrage in these outlets was focused on something I didn’t actually say and don’t think: “Women Are Not Capable of Understanding GoodFellas.” So declared the headline of the piece. I will risk breaking tabloid omertà by letting you in on a couple of filthy little secrets: Writers don’t generally write their own headlines (I didn’t write that one) and the copy editors who do so at the Post sometimes mischievously plump things up a bit in the interests of sparking rage, shock, and general mayhem, even at the risk of perhaps sometimes being a tad misleading. Our cousins in Fleet Street call this tactic a “wind-up.”
GoodFellas is a guy movie. This shouldn’t be any more controversial than “Notting Hill is a chick flick.” (And I loved Notting Hill.) But it’s a matter of taste, not intelligence; women are perfectly capable of understanding GoodFellas, but I don’t think they laugh and high-five each other while watching it as though attending a football game. As Christopher Hitchens once wrote, in a slightly different context, please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.
Amusingly, a viral tweet this summer unintentionally bolstered my point:
really sucks that every time you start dating a new guy you’re basically signing up to take a “film theory 101” class of his making. you know how many guys named “matt” have given me an hour long lecture on godfellas?
— Dana Donnelly (@danadonly) August 21, 2020
No one could fail to recognize the truth in the observation. The varying taste spectra of men v. women used to be a staple of standup comedy. Today we increasingly affect to believe such differences don’t exist. We live in fear that someone might call us names for contemplating sex differences, even in trivial areas such as movie choices. Well, by “we” I mean — not me, I guess. I’m used to being called names.
Setting out to argue against my framing of the film as male fantasy is Guy Lodge in a Guardian piece titled “GoodFellas at 30: Martin Scorsese’s Damning Study of Masculinity.” In the space of a few lines, Lodge writes that (a) the film is a fantasy, just not a male one (“women, to [Smith’s] surprise, might even share his enthusiasm for such things”); (b) the film is a fantasy, but that’s exactly the problem some people have with it (“Others might mean that description damningly. Smith wrote it as a fan”); (c) we know the film is a male fantasy because of “the poster that has — yes — graced umpteen dorm-room walls”; and yet (d) “the film is no male fantasy.” Just two sentences after making this assertion and then quoting the film’s opening line — “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster” — Lodge says, “there’s your male fantasy right there.” Lodge notes also that Scorsese’s “mobsters are sleek, funny, companionable: they have to commit the odd grisly murder, but their follow-up reward is shooting the s*** around a cosy kitchen table while a sweet Mafia mama serves them homemade spaghetti and meatballs.”
I blush to observe that even the Guardian shows that I was right while attempting to prove otherwise, but as I say, I’m in the business of writing things so obvious even the masters of error at the Grauniad catch on eventually. Lodge holds that Scorsese reverses the message of the first hour and 50 minutes with the ruination of the last half hour. Yes, I have noticed that things come rather a cropper for the boys in the final reel, but that’s part of the mythology: live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. Live like a king and guess what? You die like a king, too. You die like Nicholas II or Louis XVI. The point is you’re still a king, however brief your reign, rather than living and dying a serf. Henry’s punishment is nearly as bad as getting whacked: exile. Those final shots of the movie, in golf-cart-and-lawn-sprinkler America, are his living death. But if he had it to do over again, would he have spent his existence hawking aluminum siding in Schnooktown, dining on egg noodles with ketchup? No. Like Sid Vicious, whose sweet croonings grace the closing credits, he did it his way.