Goodfellas Study Guide

Goodfellas is perhaps one of the best-known and most-loved mafia films of all time. Released in 1990 and directed by Martin Scorsese, the film is based on Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy, about the real life of Henry Hill, and it takes many of its cues from actual events in Hill's life. In speaking with a writer and breaking the Mob's code of silence, Hill put himself in considerable danger, so Pileggi changed some of the main players' names slightly as a protection mechanism, but their identities remained easy to guess. Although Martin Scorsese had vowed not to make any more gangster movies, he was so taken with Henry Hill's story that he called Pileggi out of the blue and told him that he had been waiting for the book his entire life. Scorsese and Pileggi collaborated on the screenplay, Scorsese choosing the scenes from the book that he wanted to include. The film received Oscar nominations for screenwriting, although the actors improvised much of the dialogue. The final tally for the number of f-bombs dropped in the film was 321, which made the film the most profanity-peppered in history (it has since slipped to 12th place for that honor).

Scorcese had a strong vision for the project and storyboarded the entire shoot before production began. The style of the film—its use of narration, abrupt editing, and freeze frames—was modeled after the 1962 Truffaut film Jules and Jim. In interviews, Scorsese said he was interested in taking a punk approach to production, shooting it in precisely the way he wanted to, even if it defied convention. The quick cuts between scenes are a central part of the film and its vivid, suspenseful storytelling, and Scorsese was committed to making the film in a way that would shock the audience, while propelling the momentum forward. In addition to short scenes, crisp edits, and the playful use of voiceover and narration, Scorsese filled the soundtrack with recognizable songs of the era, marrying popular music with plot in ingenious ways. As Rolling Stone put it, "Nobody can top Martin Scorcese at using music to tell a story." In addition to the stirring performances, impressive editing, and entertaining script, the film boasts one of the most memorable soundtracks in film history.

The film was met with widespread acclaim upon its release. Critic Roger Ebert wrote of the film, "No finer film has ever been made about organized crime—not even The Godfather." It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, and Joe Pesci won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the hot-headed Tommy. Because of the violence depicted, the film received the worst preview response in the studio's history, but went on to become a box office hit and a critical sensation. Many filmmakers cite Goodfellas as a defining gangster movie, making way for iconic works like the television series The Sopranos and films like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.