It’s in the title of the film. It’s in this quote:
“We were goodfellas, wiseguys.”
The main characters in this film were not good. But if ever there was a cult classic cinema that made doing bad things look good, it’s Goodfellas. In it, director Martin Scorcese elevates our sympathy for the villain or anti-hero. Through the lens of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, we’re invited to idolize them. To put them up on pedestals and make special exceptions because they’re simply that endearing as characters. But does that mean we trust what we’re being told? What happens when everyone, especially the narrator, seems to be a captivating wiseguy?
How does the flawed narrative of an OG (Original Gangster) storyteller-in-denial change our perspective and why does it work so well?
Our Narrator is Seriously Flawed
From the beginning, we’re brought face to face with Henry Hill’s idolization of the American mobster. He starts the movie off with that timeless phrase, “From as far back as I could remember, I wanted to be a gangster.” Then he leads us down a charismatic rabbit hole, chronicling the charmed life of the Italian-American gangster. Or so it seems.
He doesn’t just comment on the trappings of it all – he revels in it and wants us to as well. His silver-tongued style of narration convinces more than just the viewer, but the people in his life that he’s the one on the right path and everyone else is a chump. Over and over throughout the film, we’re presented with the dangers and pitfalls of gangster life, but shrug them off while under the spell cast by Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill.
Scorcese’s use of Henry Hill to articulate the narrative actively brings the viewer more fully into his world. He introduces us to the other characters and shares this inner world with us in a way that makes the audience want to be a part of it as well. His perspective ferries us through the details of his life and presents the story so articulately that by the end of the opening scenes, we’re absorbed. Without this narrative to guide us through his world, he’d seem like just another bad guy. Instead, they’re not bad at all. They’re Goodfellas. In fact, we’re brought so deep into Henry’s world that when he breaks the fourth wall at the culmination of the film to explain why he is narrating in the first place, the surprise of this break amplifies the reveal of his betrayal.
The Charming and Deceptive Mobster Narrator
Throughout the entirety of the film, Henry lies not only to the audience but himself as well.
He portrays his world as the be-all and end-all; because for him, it is. His entire sense of revolving around the gangster archetype. Henry lets us know that the life of a mobster means “being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies.” He gushes over the first time some kids brought his mother’s groceries up the street and paints his formative years more like summer camp than an internship in organized crime. Even while incarcerated, he only speaks about his mob family and persuades the audience that it’s more of a holiday or right of passage rather than punishment for a crime.
A Narrator in Denial
Liotta paints a prison life that is much better than the one other inmates have. He elaborates more on the company he kept and the food he ate than prison itself. The only drawbacks he brings to the audience’s attention are not having Jimmy around and too many onions in his pasta sauce. He doesn’t tell us about the family he left behind, only the one he’s with. If something is wrong, he doesn’t tell us. Why would he? He’s convincing himself how fantastic it all is. Henry Hill isn’t just an unreliable narrator, he’s one in denial. His role isn’t to tell us the truth – it’s to convince us of the truth he’s convinced himself. He is so successful, in fact, that even his wife is seduced by it.
Husband and Wife Narrator Tag Team
“I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.”
Although fleeting, another narrator joins in the storytelling – Henry’s wife, Karen. She adds an extra level of commentary on just how persuasive our main narrator is. Her seduction into Henry’s life demonstrates how easy it was to fall prey to the allure of his gangster lifestyle. Right from the beginning, she knows that something is off with Henry, and even voices it, but still doesn’t care.
Over the course of the film, we see how Karen gradually becomes more and more like Henry until, towards the end, the two are bitterly indistinguishable. What began as a flirtatious dalliance with the privilege and renown of mob life quickly spins out of control. Karen’s spiral mimics the narrative progression of the film, and its reality of it.
The Master of Voiceover
With everything that goes on in Goodfellas, it’s no wonder that Scorcese has been called the master of the voiceover. He uses it not only as a vehicle to bring us closer to his characters but establishes a more intimate relationship between viewer and subject that stands that’s lasted more than 30 years. It’s our love for these characters that allows us to even consider them as decent people, despite the terrible things they do. He wants the audience to root for his bad guys, just like Jimmy and uses Liotta’s beguiling narrative as a fine-tipped brush to illustrate the big-screen adaptation of Wiseguy into the Oscar-winning masterpiece that people still quote to this day.
Kim Handysides is an award-winning voice artist, coach and thought leader in her industry. Her narrations have been heard on Discovery, Netflix, and the major networks, in iMax, the White House and the Smithsonian.