Ray Liotta, Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, 1990
When I was a kid, I was watching a television talk show on which the recently paroled Depresion-era criminal Alvin Karpis, or maybe just someone who was associated with him, was a guest. And this guest was asked to describe his confederate Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde and Bonnie and Clyde fame, and this fellow said—and I seem to remember this part exactly—he said, "Well I'll tell you one thing for sure, he weren't no Clyde Beatty." He meant Warren Beatty, of course, but the confusion with the (by-now-not-quite-so) famous circus dude was kind of touching. In any event, the point was and remains well-taken.
When Beatty made Bonnie and Clyde, the real Clyde Barrow was long dead, and hence could not reappear in some medium or other to break the spell cast by the movie and Beatty's work in it. This was not the case with Henry Hill, the source of Nick Pileggi's non-fiction book Wiseguys and its subsequent film adaptation, Martin Scorsese's 1990 GoodFellas.
GoodFellas is frequently cited as a harrowing deglamourization of the gangster life/lifestyle, although it certainly owns up to the perks that criminality can ofttimes furnish; still in all, it shoots down various romantic notions concerning honor among thieves and depicts with great conviction a milieu that's not just entirely morally bankrupt but essentially tawdry, vulgar, squalid, and all that.
Still. In their essay "The Power And The Gory," Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson take Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver to task, among other ways, thusly: "The intense [Robert] DeNiro is sold as a misfit psychotic and, at the same time, a charismatic star who centers every shot and is given a prismatic detailing." They hold Scorsese specifically responsible for this. But is the fault (if it is in fact a "fault" in the first place) Scorsese's, or is it narrative fictional cinema's itself?
The question could not help but come up in one's mind every time Henry Hill himself deigned to come out of protective custody hiding and appear on some news-based or reality-type television show or other. He seemed a recognizable type, of sorts; a real mook, if you will. Bit of an attention whore as well, which I imagine was part of the pathology that helped get him into the life, and trouble, in the first place. One thing he definitively was not was Ray Liotta.
As protean as Liotta's performance in the film is, as eager and unhesitating as he is as a performer to plumb the sweaty, powdered-nose depths of his character's eventual depravity, as much of his actorly vanity as he is able to shed, he still remains...a performer, and a performer with an innate sense of charisma. Which is, ultimately, necessary in some way to audience engagement in even the most brutally honest but nevertheless conventionally conceived/structured narrative fictional film. If Henry Hill, who died Tuesday at the age of 69, had himself been able to summon the ability to be nothing but himself and harnessed that ability into performance as himself, and then took the role of himself in GoodFellas—I know I'm dealing in a lot of rank implausibilities here, but bear with me, and also that's the whole point—the movie would have been a stone drag to sit through. Because, from all available appearance, Henry Hill really WAS a schnook, albeit one who hit and shot people a fair amount more than schnooks such as you and I.