MOTW: "Goodfellas": Five Facts about the Classic Movie

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Henry Hill has begun his career as a gangster, with is friends Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito. These three set their sights on being head honchos of the Mob, but as it starts to become a reality, will they lose everything?
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
April 9th, 2013

MOTW: "Goodfellas": Five Facts about the Classic Movie

The 1990 mob classic "Goodfellas" still stands as one of the best crime films of all time, although ardent fans of the Martin Scorsese film may argue that it is one of the best films outside of the crime genre as well. No matter which side film fans stand on in this debate, chances are that they have seen and liked "Goodfellas," which is why these five facts about the film are so interesting.

1. The Famous "Funny How?" Exchange Wasn't in the Script

In one of the most-quoted scenes in a very quotable film, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is having dinner and drinks with Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Tommy says something funny, which causes Henry and everyone else at their table to have a good laugh. Henry, enjoying the moment, tells Tommy that he is funny, which causes the scene's lighthearted feel to change drastically. Suddenly, the temperamental Tommy is questioning what Henry meant by saying that he is funny. He famously says, "I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?" He seems to take the offhanded comment as a grave insult rather than as the compliment that was intended. After some very tense moments where another patron tries unsuccessfully to intervene, Tommy reveals that he was just busting Henry's chops and that it was all a joke.

The scene was not in the original script. Pesci had a similar experience once when he was working in a restaurant frequented by real-life mobsters. He recalled the experience to director Scorsese, who told him and Liotta to improvise.

2. The Working Title Was "Wiseguy"

Scorsese wrote the film with Nicholas Pileggi, a writer who specialized in mob novels. It was based on Pileggi's novel Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, which was first published in 1986. When Scorsese decided to adapt the bestseller into a full-length movie, he and Pileggi began writing the script with the title "Wiseguy." A critically acclaimed series by the same name existed on television at the time, so producers were afraid this would cause confusion with moviegoers. The film and the television show were both about crime families but had very different focuses. Nevertheless, it was decided that the film's name would have to change before it was released so as to prevent any risk of confusion. It was then renamed to "Goodfellas" and released in 1990.

3. Filming Was Postponed by Jesus Christ, Sort Of

Scorsese wanted to make the film soon after the novel it was based on was released, so he went ahead with writing and development as if he was about to start filming. He had also been developing a film about the life and death of Jesus Christ around the same time. Very suddenly, that film got such a huge infusion of budget money that Scorsese had to postpone development on "Goodfellas" in order to start working on the other film. After casting the lead, Willem Dafoe, he began production on the film that would become the controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ." After finishing the postproduction on that film, he once again began preproduction on "Goodfellas," commencing filming in 1989.

4. The Film Tested Very Poorly

Movie studios will often show a film to a test audience weeks or months before it is released to gauge reactions. Often, if a test audience hates an ending or character, the studio will reshoot scenes to eliminate whatever the viewers found problematic. When the filmmakers began test screening "Goodfellas," many viewers were put off by the high level of violence in the film. Scorsese himself admitted that he didn't want to tone down any of the blood and occasionally shocking violence, because he wanted a real-life depiction of life in the Mafia. He admitted that some of the violence was "cold, unfeeling, and horrible." The amount of killing in the film caused forty people to get up and leave the screening in the first ten minutes alone. Fortunately, the test audiences were not indicative of the rest of the country, which embraced the movie and made it a hit.

5. It Is a Part of the National Film Registry

The Library of Congress will periodically select certain films as being culturally significant enough to be added to the National Film Registry. In 2000, just ten years after its release, "Goodfellas" was added to the registry. That's a big honor for a film that tested so poorly and that many thought was going to be a critical and financial failure. It was neither, and it is now preserved with other classics as a part of the National Film Registry.