Being a “good fella” in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas

Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas is perhaps the greatest gangster picture ever made. It is nearly unrivaled in its texture, its details, and its expansiveness. And, given that it so thoroughly encapsulates its gangster life-style and so methodically relates the lives of its gangster characters, it comes as no surprise then that, as part of such a system, it also covers territory always present (explicitly or implicitly) in the gangster crime film: masculinity. These gangsters are, first and foremost, men, and as such they have quite distinct ideas of proper masculine behavior, attitudes, and inclinations. There is a mob-based code of conduct that could just as easily be seen as representative of a more broad set of male-based codes. Men are at the crux of the gangster film, and they are (as the title of the film suggests) of major prominence and importance in Goodfellas.

Honor, honesty, resilience, and assertiveness are crucial aspects of this male-dominated gangster society and this film. Amongst these men, the notion of masculinity takes shape in the ways in which the main characters watch out for each other and cover for one another. It’s telling that after Henry gets busted for selling cigarettes, the crowd of waiting men call out that he has “broke his cherry.” Here his entering into manhood is a result not of some first sexual escapade, but of getting arrested and keeping his mouth shut, telling the authorities nothing, and not ratting on his friends. Within this male-ruled world, such issues hold sway over the more commonly held others. “Jail [or, at least the threat of it in this case] becomes a ritual of manhood,” notes Fred Gardaphe.” (107)

To the gangsters in Goodfellas, part of their masculinity also manifests itself in the form of their possessions and their appearance—“If the clothes make the man,” writes Gardaphe, “than Scorsese realizes gangster manhood through the costuming of his characters.” (106). The most respectable of the men in the film are those with money, who own the finer things in life, and who can afford to get away with their criminal lifestyle by paying off whoever needs it. As much as the men in this film hold their status by such material items as rings and shoes, part of their sense of masculine ownership also extends to the power (thus ownership) they have over individuals. Be it the way Jimmy (notably nicknamed “the gent”) keeps police and others at bay by slipping cash here and there, or the way he bullies and roughs up/persuades Morrie, the men here declare their dominance through convincing, though certainly cruel, ways, and this is a major part of their masculine set of mind, this view of “men using violence to assert their authority.” (Gardaphe, 106).

The family too takes a considerable role in the life of these gangster men. After brutally beating (presumably, they think, killing), and prior to burying Billy Batts, the group of Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy are nonetheless respectful, gracious, and humorous with Tommy’s (Scorsese’s) mother. The wedding between Henry and Karen is also a highlight of familiar relations (blood-relatives or otherwise) and a telling moment of the film; and later Paul and Jimmy go to great pains to make sure that, even despite Henry’s infidelities, their marriage remains intact. Maintaining a family, even with a girlfriend on the side and with the occasional domestic violence, is still a key ingredient of the male gangster proper. This quite unique form of marriage counseling on behalf of Paul is representative of a common element of Goodfellas, which Gardape point to as scenes where an “older man shows a younger man what men are expected to do.” (108) But, it’s all about maintaining this front of decency, of male roles in the family structure; once that is compromised, so it seems, then so too is the said male’s role in the gangster family.

Along these lines, we get the notion in Goodfellas of desperate father-figure searches, most obviously and prominently between Henry and Paul and Jimmy. Scorsese has said that “[the real] Jimmy was a professore type, in charge of the young kids,” (Thompson, 158) and [the real] “Henry Hill’s kids looked on Jimmy [Burke] as an uncle,” (Kelly, 275). This concept is what leads Gardaphe to cite critic Pellegrino D’Acierno in sayings that Scorsese’s films “comprise ‘a cinema of the sons.’” (101) The younger characters in Goodfellas are as much trying to preserve (for the most part) proper relations with their male superiors as they are trying to make something of themselves independently. This father/son dynamic is why the dishonesty Henry expresses towards Paul is so devastating. It is perhaps telling that, seeping across the real/fictional film line that Scorsese’s own father plays a pivotal figure in the film and Joe Pesci has acknowledged some real-life inspiration in his embodiment of the explosive Tommy: “I can draw on my temper because it’s terrible. My father had a terrible one.” (Kelly, 270)

Additionally, the respect garnered by these gangster characters, simply by others knowing who and what they are, also goes towards Goodfella’s general take on masculinity. One could look perhaps at the film’s most famous sequence (my favorite) where Henry takes Karen to, or more precisely though, the Copacabana nightclub. By his connections, by his abilities to maneuver the corridors of the night club, bypassing the lines and the “regular people,” Henry does a good deal to appeal to Karen. He is, to her, quite a guy. This is what a man should do. It’s amusing then, after the two have seated, that Henry tells Karen he is “in construction,” a stereotypically manly profession, one that does not, however, usually account for such rights and influence as Henry clearly has.

By being able to take what they want, when they want, how they want, the men in Goodfellas through their criminal acts, present themselves as outlaw heroes where such outlaw behavior is a prerequisite for the life they choose to lead. If not through violent means, how else are they to attain this sort of independence and influence? “Violence is a form of expression,” says Scorsese, “it’s how people live.” (Brunette, 140) The fact that they lead a life of crime is also a crucial element in their masculine framework insofar as it is emblematic of their nonconformity, to rules, to boundaries, and to acceptable modes of behavioral protocol. This is representative of the “‘tough guy’ masculinities” Gardaphe looks at in his section on “Rough Boys: The Gangsters of Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino.” Like Scorsese earlier Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and Mean Streets (1973) some of the “rough boys” in Goodfellas have not yet become, as Gardaphe calls then, “wise men.” (101) They are younger hoods struggling to find their footing in this surprisingly complicated world of codes and conduct, with overtly masculine sensibilities.

Of course, given that many of these characters, most frighteningly Tommy, go to extensive lengths to declare their masculine superiority, “to challenge each other’s masculinity,” and make widely known their notably male supremacy, its little wonder that anxiety and violence pervades many scenes of the film. (Gardaphe, 107) The characters, again especially Tommy, are also out to prove something. This is part of Scorsese’s penchant a “culture of masculinity as a struggle to negotiate one’s place in a society that expects its men to be strong and tough enough to handle life on the streets.” (Gardaphe, 104). Violent and aggressive behaviors are synonymous with the views of these hoods with respect to being a man, and what that entails.

Scorsese certainly doesn’t endorse such concepts of manhood, yet in many ways he doesn’t look too expressively critical either, but given his affinity for such characters and his real life associations with such individuals, there can be little doubt that he is at least commenting on their behavior, on this way of life. Keeping more or less objective, Scorsese argues by the characters’ own destruction that this is not an ideal way to live. The glamour and power that go along with such masculine notions and views, and the subsequent violent and criminal actions that frequently follow, do not last. Not necessarily criticizing their deeds, Scorsese does present occurrences where the film makes it quite clear that this hedonistic, macho lifestyle is dangerous. It could be in the form of the always-insecure Tommy, desperate to continually reassert his strength and power (his masculinity), resulting in considerable bloodshed and even a breach of the masculine code laid out early on in the film; or, this over-the-top excessiveness of ownership and control resulting in materialism taking precedent over masculinity.

Martin Scorsese is arguably the greatest filmmaker working today. His films, illustrating a variety of themes, featuring an array of characters, are open to multiple readings. But amongst most of his work, certainly those pictures most well-known, ideas of masculinity and its relationship with crime and violence figure prominently. Known for his realism in portraying these issues, Scorsese from his first foray into the gangster and aggressively assertive male world, with the 1964 short It's Not Just You, Murray!, up through his latest offering on such subjects, The Departed (2006), has delved almost effortlessly into the often complex psyche of male thought and action. The frequent gangster milieu for Scorsese serves as an ultimate mythological, psychological, and sociological arena for the playing out of masculine dilemmas, often with violent and/or criminal elements. Just as filmmakers like John Ford and Sam Peckinpah have primarily set their male-centered filmic studies within the genre walls of the western, so too has Scorsese successfully found the surroundings of the gangster film to be his stage for masculine action, drama, and thought.

Works Cited
Brunette, Peter. Ed. Martin Scorsese: Interviews. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Gardaphe, Fred. From Wiseguys to Wise Men: The Gangster and Italian American Masculinities. New York: Routledge, 2006. Reprinted in and cited from “Crime and Violence in American Film.” Baker, Aaron. Ed. Arizona State University Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009.
Kelly, Mary Pat. Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1996.
Thompson, David. Ed. Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber, 199

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