I know exactly where I was on the afternoon of September 21, 1990. I went to my law school classes and raced to a matinee showing of director Martin Scorsese’s brand-new gangster epic, Goodfellas. I had read Eleanor Ringel’s glowing review of the film in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over lunch and knew that my head wouldn’t hit my pillow until I had seen this game-changing film.
As I left my showing, I backed out of my parking space and hit another car leaving the theater. The driver had just been in my screening of Goodfellas. Evidently, we were both so awe-struck that our minds had yet to return to the real world. We were still seeing the incredible tracking shots through the Bamboo Lounge and the Copacabana and hearing the majestic coda to Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” underscoring the montage of dead bodies left in the wake of a gangland massacre. We were two movie lovers who abruptly came back down to Earth when our bumpers collided.
Nearly thirty years later, I can recount that day in such detail because for me seeing Goodfellas for the first time was the cinematic equivalent of the moon landing. You remember when you saw it, where you saw it
and who you saw it with. (I was alone because my wife was not a fan of graphic onscreen violence.) I saw the film a second time before classes resumed on Monday.
For those not familiar with the film, it’s the (mostly) true story of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta in the film), a kid from the streets of Queens, who spent his teenage years being an errand boy for the Mob. Henry worked his way up the criminal food chain and found himself involved in everything from routine theft to major heists to drug-running which ultimately proved to be his undoing. Hill lived the final years of his life in federal witness protection after betraying almost everyone he knew to save himself from prison.
This week Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas by film critic Glenn Kenny (New York Times, Rolling Stone, RogerEbert.com) hits local bookstores. It’s a meticulously researched and masterfully written book about the making of Scorsese’s gangster epic from the acquisition of the rights to Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, to the abysmal test screenings of the film, to its Oscar nominations and beyond. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, and Glenn Kenny leaves no artistic stone unturned when he analyzes the contributions made by dozens of people behind, and in front of, the camera.
Made Men is much more than a collection of anecdotes and trivia about the creation of a landmark film. Those types of books can be fun for film fans, but they ultimately carry little weight as legitimate film criticism. Made Men unfolds as an elaborate tapestry, weaving together the details of every facet of the film’s production. No aspect of filmmaking is ignored.
We learn about the rigorous adaptation of the non-fiction source material into a viable screenplay, the overlapping concerns of funding and casting, the way the complex cinematography came together under the supervision of director of photography Michael Ballhaus, the key moments of improvisation by cast members that lent even greater authenticity to the film, the use of music to underline the themes of the narrative and the editing process.
We live in an era of “fake news” and anonymous sources. Real journalism is on life support these days. So the film lover and journalist in me reveled in all of the first-hand accounts Glenn Kenny obtains directly from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Michael Imperioli, Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker and even Scorsese’s former spouses who were involved in the production. Only the infamously reclusive Joe Pesci refused to give a modern-day interview for the book.
I think the primary difference between the casual film fan and a die-hard cinephile boils down to one question: How did they do that? Film freaks become obsessed with the answer to that question. We watch and re-watch films. We hunt down new home video editions of personal favorites, hoping there’s a commentary track by the filmmaker or cast members who can shed light on all our questions. Made Men is like the ultimate commentary track for Goodfellas featuring the all-star creative team who made the film.
For lovers of film in general or fans of Martin Scorsese specifically or cinematic disciples of Good Fellas, Glenn Kenny has given us a gift. You need to read Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas. When you find out “how they did that,” you’ll be even more impressed by one of the best films of the last thirty years.
Made Men is available now through all major book retailers.