Ahead of Goodfellas turning 30 on Saturday, The Ringer looks back on the moments that define the movie in all of its complex, violent, darkly comedic glory.
“I’m an average nobody,” Henry Hill laments at the end of Goodfellas, wearing a robe and slippers as he picks up a newspaper from his doorstep in Nowhere, America. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
An hour and 40 minutes before that, though, Henry gets married. Just like the rest of us schnooks.
Among many things, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a movie about posing: posing as Sicilian; posing as a good Catholic, or a good Jew; posing as a good husband; posing as an innocent bystander; posing as a person with a conscience—and then later, posing as a person without a conscience; posing as someone who hasn’t snorted an absurd amount of cocaine. It’s a movie about faking it until you make it, but how the faking never stops—even after you have made it. We all tailor ourselves to certain standards, curtail our desires to what’s appropriate, cage ourselves with moral codes. Henry wants to be a gangster because it’ll liberate him and allow him to do what he wants. But everyone has to do some things they’d rather not.
The nuptials of Henry Hill and Karen Friedman begin with the breaking of the glass (Karen is Jewish), though the couple has opted to keep things small—the ceremony is held not in a synagogue, but in a house. Only immediate family is present; no one in the gallery looks particularly happy. Karen’s parents are straight-faced in acceptance; Henry’s Irish father looks downright appalled to see Henry wed in a yarmulke and not in a church. Then, with the flash of a camera, the small scale of the scene vanishes.
Suddenly we’re in a banquet hall with a ceiling of nearly wall-to-wall chandeliers. Giant gilded mirrors cover at least three of the ballroom’s facades, candelabras adorn each table. The guest list has grown from 10 to about 200. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s camera pans up from a large wedding cake to Henry and Karen at the center of a long table; Henry’s taken off his yarmulke.
In a voice-over, Karen describes the wedding as a dizzying affair: “By the time I finished meeting everyone, I thought I was drunk.” It’s an immaculately constructed, dreamlike sequence, full of long pans and the din of far-off conversations. But it’s also immaculate in the way it captures Italian American life (and excess) in the ’70s: all of the Peters and Pauls and Maries that Karen meets; the spearpoint collars worn by nearly every man in attendance; Tommy’s mother (played by Scorsese’s mother) in a reverie, pondering why her son doesn’t settle down like Henry has; the almost humorously gaudy interior design, which represents a particularly Italian American impulse to display the once-impoverished group’s rise to the upper echelon. The wedding is a celebration of Italian American spirit, style, and success. Scorsese’s love for his people—his attentiveness to and understanding of them—can be felt through the screen. Yet he also makes sure the spectacle does not proceed without rebuke.
The Hill wedding is abutted by two scenes. In the scene before it, Henry pistol-whips Karen’s neighbor, who assaulted her. It’s violent in a banal sort of way—the sound of Henry’s blows to the man’s face aren’t cartoonish, but rather unsettlingly dull. And as Henry hands Karen the pistol, covered in blood, and asks her to get rid of it, she admits: “It turned me on.” In the scene after the wedding, Karen and her mother are distressed. The newly married Henry hasn’t come home, nor has he called. When he finally does show up, as the sun’s rising, the two women rush to the door to scold him. Without a word, he simply turns around and walks back toward the driveway. As his wife slams the door behind him, he laughs his Henry Hill laugh and gets back into Tommy’s car.
The wedding itself is inextricable from these two scenes—together they make up a triptych that explains Henry and Karen, who they are, who they want to be, and the messy push and pull between those two things. The reason Henry has wanted to be a gangster his whole life is because he got tired waiting in line to buy bread for his mother. Yet while the mafia allows him to circumvent the laws and standards of normal society, it comes with a set of its own rules. He’s not a man who wants to get married, nor who has any interest in fulfilling the duties of a husband—he’s a man who has to get married. Later in the movie, after Henry’s run off to his mistress’s (very pink) apartment, Paulie and Jimmy remind him of the importance of keeping up appearances—though not without the obviously false reassurance that “nobody says that you can’t do what you wanna do.” It’s that very tension that ultimately ruins Henry.
As for Karen, she’s a woman who knows what she’s marrying into, though she thinks she can do so while maintaining a sense of moral distance. The violence turns her on, as does the never-ending procession line of wedding guests with envelopes fat with cash. And she’s self-aware enough to admit that about herself—but that awareness stops at acknowledging where that money comes from. That would mean forcing her two selves to confront each other. Instead she says she feels drunk, and is later somehow surprised that her gangster boyfriend continued to be a gangster after becoming her husband.
The fantasy of the Goodfellas wedding exists to show that everything else around it is undeniably real, and painfully impossible to ignore or navigate. Most of the people the camera so luxuriously pans over end up dead in a pink Cadillac or an ice truck, axed by a man who’s breaking bread with them in that very scene. The bride can dance for only so long. The groom can pretend his two lives are in harmony only up until the point when they irrevocably smash into each other. “Life is but a dream,” the Harptones croon in the song that scores the scene, as Karen twirls around the reception hall. But that’s true for only a moment.