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.
By the mid-1970s, about 20 years after retiring from a career in banking, John Weaving had become something of a legend on the River Shannon in Ireland. He lived as a bachelor with his two dogs, Brocky and Twiggy, on a 60-foot houseboat named The Peter Farrell. Protecting the Shannon became a passion of his—he fought for proper clearances for barges and against low bridges, and was considered the river’s handyman. When National Geographic began working on what would ultimately become a 28-page spread about the Shannon in its November 1978 issue, it was inevitable photographer Adam Woolfitt would find Weaving. “He was a very free spirit, quite independent,” Woolfitt said in November 2013. “He was definitely cut out for nomadic life. He was very pragmatic and very down to earth. He was really a part of the river.”
After Weaving’s death in 1987, a bronze bust of him was installed in the Shannon Harbour. Chances are you’ve never seen it. But if you’re here, you know Weaving’s face: his long beard and white hair tousled by a breeze, his weary but warm eyes sitting just beneath his dark, bushy brows. There’s a chance you can also recall a particular outfit he once wore—a green blazer and black turtleneck—and you most certainly remember Brocky and Twiggy, and how they sometimes liked to face in opposite directions. That’s because Weaving was immortalized in a manner that’s gained far more acclaim than the bust or the National Geographic feature—he and his river dogs are the real-life inspiration for Tommy’s mother’s painting in Goodfellas, which makes him the real-life inspiration for one of the most famous paintings in all of cinema.
National Geographic Nov.'78-When a photo goes on to other fame; inspiration for the painting in "Goodfellas". Photo of John Weaving and pals pic.twitter.com/WTaVYkr6RQ— Truman Capoeti (@TCapoeti) June 4, 2017
If you’re here, you’ll also remember the scene in which the painting appears, perhaps the most darkly comedic—and oddly tender—moment in Goodfellas, which turns 30 years old this Saturday. But a brief refresher: Tommy DeVito (played by Joe Pesci in his loudest and most brilliant role) has just walked into his mother’s house in Queens with his cohorts Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro playing an Irishman long before he played the Irishman) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta, the viewer’s eyes and ears for this detour to Astoria). The trio has also brought along Billy Batts, though he stays outside—more specifically, in the trunk of a sedan, slowly bleeding out as punishment for telling Tommy to get his shinebox. It’s 3 a.m. and the men need to grab a shovel to dispose of Batts. But there’s one small holdup: Their arrival has awakened Tommy’s mom, who misses her son. She offers them food. They protest. One jump cut later they’re seated at her dinner table, surrounded by pasta, bread, wine, and eggs and potatoes for Jimmy to slather with ketchup. (He’s Irish, you see.) We don’t see how she persuaded them, but anyone who’s spent time around an Italian American home knows the truth: It’s impossible to leave one without a full stomach.
Much like Weaving, Tommy’s mother is very real, at least to the film’s director. Beginning with his 1964 short, It’s Not Just You, Murray!, Martin Scorsese had taken to casting his mother, Catherine, in his movies. But as Mrs. DeVito, Catherine embodies more than just Scorsese’s mom—she is a stand-in for all the matriarchs he grew up around in 1940s and ’50s New York. That’s clear on a superficial level, as it relates to the food. But Scorsese also deploys Catherine to humanize Tommy, a pint-sized powder keg whose ego is his worst enemy. More than anyone else in the film, Pesci’s character represents many of the neighborhood kids Scorsese knew, the ones who shunned a lunch-pail life and saw criminality as the path to success. “That doesn’t mean that the mothers didn’t love the sons the same way,” he said in a 2010 interview. “She doesn’t care what her son does.” And Scorsese directed the scene to play up Mrs. DeVito’s cluelessness about her son’s life: “I didn’t tell my mother there’s a body in the trunk, I just said, ‘Your son is home.’”
Catherine and the boys play it perfectly. From the back-and-forth about Tommy settling down (he does so every night, Mom) to the joke she tells of the man being cucked (“In Italian, it sounds much nicer”), there’s a warmness that comes across at the dining room table. Even the most morbidly humorous parts—like Tommy asking to borrow a carving knife to, he says, cut a deer’s paw from the grill of the car parked outside—feel very real. There’s a simple reason for that, too: Practically every line of dialogue, from Tommy’s “I love you, mom!” to Jimmy’s asides to Henry’s timid reactions, was improvised. Only three lines were written for the scene: One didn’t make the cut, another was Tommy’s “Shh! You’ll wake her up,” and the other is among the film’s most memorable.
Toward the end of the late-night feast, Mrs. DeVito switches subjects from her son’s love life and Henry’s quietness. “Did Tommy ever tell you about my painting?” she asks. And then, as if she had been waiting months for this exact moment, she pulls it out from beneath the table. And there’s John Weaving, Brocky, and Twiggy on a boat in all of their oil-painted glory. Like much of the scene, the painting is very real, in a sense: It was done by the mother of Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book Goodfellas was based on and who cowrote the film’s screenplay with Scorsese. And truthfully, it’s very well done—Mrs. Pileggi captured the stoic gentleness of Weaving that comes across in Woolfitt’s original National Geographic photo, as well as the majesty of the dogs and the serene beauty of the Shannon’s marsh. But serious art demands serious art criticism, and that’s exactly what comes next:
TOMMY: I like this one. One dog goes one way, and the other dog goes the other way.
MRS. DEVITO: One’s going east, and the other is going west. So what?
TOMMY: And this guy’s saying, “Whaddaya want from me?” The guy’s got a nice head of white hair. Beautiful. The dog, it looks the same.
Brilliant. No subtext, or maybe it’s all subtext. Or maybe the subtext is the man dying in the trunk. (As Jimmy says, “Looks like somebody we know,” shortly before the table descends into a sea of cackles and the camera pans to the trunk of the car.) Part of the joke here is the characters’ primitive means of discussing the painting. But with their improvised dialogue, Pesci, De Niro, and Mrs. Scorsese create a piece of art worthy of all the praise, dissection, and discussion it’s received. (Its influence also looms large: David Chase has cited it as one of the greatest inspirations on The Sopranos, saying that he learned a lot from the brutal but hilarious nature of the scene.)
If there’s a tragedy here beyond the ultimate fate of Billy Batts (that knife came in handy) it’s that Catherine never got to read the third line written for the scene, or if she did, that it didn’t make the cut. “They want me to do a portrait next,” the screenplay reads. “I’m gonna do the Mona Lisa.” I’m not here to argue that the scene doesn’t end perfectly, but I can vividly picture Catherine delivering the line proudly and the laughs it would bring. In a way, however, the painting of Weaving is her Mona Lisa: Is he smiling or not? (And more importantly, is Brocky giving side-eye?) Like with Da Vinci’s most famous work, the answer depends on the eye of the beholder. Of course, the Italians have a much nicer way of putting this, too: They use the word sfumato, which means blurry and left to one’s imagination. When discussing a film as violent, funny, and morally ambiguous as Goodfellas, it feels appropriate to invoke it. And more so than the backstory of the man on the river or the work of Scorsese’s or Pileggi’s mothers, that approach to storytelling is what makes the movie still feel very real, even three decades on.
An earlier version of this piece misstated where the River Shannon is.