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Sorry, Dude: These Women Understand ‘Goodfellas’

Sorry, Dude: These Women Understand 'Goodfellas'

If you’ve interacted with Film Twitter in the last 19 hours or so, you’ve probably been exposed, at least indirectly, to New York Post critic Kyle Smith’s “Women Are Not Capable of Understanding ‘Goodfellas.'” (If you haven’t, go now, and never look back.) Smith’s article, which is a clandestine response to Martin Amis’ contemporary Premiere essay on the film, theorizes that the “Goodfellas‘” mobsters are “exactly what guys want to be: lazy but powerful, deadly but funny, tough, unsentimental and devoted above all to their brothers — a small group of guys who will always have your back. Women sense that they are irrelevant to this fantasy, and it bothers them.” This is the kind of reductive “Men watch movies like this, women watch movies like this” rap that would get you booed offstage at an open-mic night, but it’s had the desired effect: Smith’s article became a trending topic, and the outrage blossomed like flowers in cow dung. (It’s not the first time he’s pulled this trick, either: Here he is carping about the estrogen overload at the Fey/Poehler-hosted Golden Globes.) Smith proudly noted that the article drew an instant “hissy fit” from the Guardian. Credit where due; his sexism is on-brand.

Critically speaking, nothing is lazier than equating understanding differently with not understanding. It’s possible that, statistically speaking, women and men hold somewhat different views on the movie, although the only evidence Smith offers to that effect is an ex-girlfriend who labeled it a “boy movie.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the movie, or, to quote the headlined embedded in the article’s URL, that “ladies” will “never understand why guys like ‘Goodfellas.'” You might ask which ladies, or which guys, but we’re deep in the realm of gender stereotypes here, so why bother?

Rather than mount a counterargument myself, I prefer to let the women who plainly do understand the movie do it for me. (I will only note in passing that, although Smith calls “GoodFellas” “the ultimate male fantasy film,” my fantasies tend to involve women who don’t hate me.) These aren’t all uniformly positive reviews: Smith’s using a devalued version of the word “understand” that translates as “uncritically laud”; I won’t follow suit. But there’s plenty of insight and appreciation in their approaches, and a good deal less look-at-me chest-thumping. Take it away, ladies.

(Note: There’s no way to filter search results for the gender of the author, and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of good writing by women on the subject. Feel free to point out anything I’ve missed and I’ll add it to the below.)

Pauline Kael, the New Yorker

Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” has a lift. It’s like “Raging Bull,” except that it’s not domineering. It’s like “Raging Bull” made in a jolly, festive frame of mind. It’s about guys and guys getting high on being a guy. In the Nicholas Pileggi book, “Wiseguy,” which this movie is based on, the Mafia-led mobsters are moral runts — and that was the joke of how John Huston showed them, from the Don on down, in “Prizzi’s Honor.” But Scorsese, a rap artist keeping up the heat, doesn’t go in for ironic detachment. He loves the Brooklyn gang milieu, because it’s where distortion, hyperbole, and exuberance all commingle. His mobsters are high on having a wad of cash in their pockets. The movies is about being cock of the walk, with banners flying and crowds cheering.

The filmmaking process becomes the subject of the movie. All you want to talk about is the glorious whizzing camera, the freeze-frames and jump cuts. That may be why young film enthusiasts are so turned on by Scorsese’s work: they don’t just respond to his films, they want to be him.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

The
comparison between mobster and president was made more seriously in
“GoodFellas,” Martin Scorsese’s vivid case history of Henry Hill, when
the mobster-turned-federal-witness (played by Ray Liotta) explains, “As
far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, it was
better than being President of the United States. It meant being
somebody in a neighborhood of nobodies.” More effectively than any movie
since “The Godfather,” “GoodFellas” rethinks the gangster in symbolic
terms. Liotta escorts Lorraine Bracco through the underbelly of the
Copacabana, up through the kitchen, and into the dining room, where they
are seated at a front-row table. It’s nothing less than the odyssey of
the American mobster from underworld to ringside seat.

Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

To see an artist working at the peak of his power, everything extraneous stripped away, every element there for a purpose, is an extraordinary exhilaration. Martin Scorsese gave us that pure, hot, unquestioned power last in “Raging Bull” and, in virtuosity alone, “GoodFellas” is “Raging Bull” squared. 

Pileggi’s book provided Scorsese with a great, dense, sociological canvas, and the men’s close collaboration on the screenplay has given the dialogue a rolling repetitive poetry, streetwise, cheerfully obscene, the real article. Scorsese seems to have absorbed all the book’s details and made them visual. When Pileggi describes the cabstand’s gangsters, “so large that when they hauled themselves out of their cars, the vehicles rose by inches,” we see the car wheeze and rise as 280 pounds of camel’s-hair coat steps out onto a Brownsville curb. When new wiseguy wife Karen Hill is introduced to her Mafia sisters at a “hostess party” it’s with a funny-awful collage of teased hair, facial masks, racial slurs and motherly tips about keeping the kids in line with belts and broomsticks.

“GoodFellas” (rated R for extreme violence and profanity), which begins in literal blackness and ends in sunshine and the blackness of Henry Hill’s soul, is like a guided tour through a particular hell, with Scorsese as our faintly smiling guide standing a little aloof from the goings-on. He doesn’t need to moralize, he’d rather let a close-up look at the life do it for him.

Kim Morgan, Sunset Gun

Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” remains one of the director’s most innovative, inspired, oft-imitated and brilliantly crafted movies with one hell of a cast — and Ray Liotta in the performance of his life. Liotta’s Henry Hill is powerful, scary, funny, sad, sexy, ridiculous, understandable and inimitable. Hill’s an interesting guy: He’s not as violent as his cronies (Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci), and he’s even the quiet one (as Pesci’s mother, played by Scorsese’s own mother, points out), but he’s so deeply entrenched in the life and lifestyle that he starts losing control, brilliantly shown in the picture’s third act. Though the picture’s dirty deeds end up quite sad for many in the film (you don’t want to mess with Paulie), it’s Hill’s marriage with Karen, played by a spectacular Lorraine Bracco, that feels just as heated and, finally, heartbreaking — both saved and doomed. They will have to enter the witness protection program. It’s terrible for Hill as he says by the end, “I’m an average nobody … get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” 

Maryann Johanson, Flick Filosopher

This is the best mob movie ever made. And this is why: It seduces you the way that the life seduces its anti-hero, Henry Hill. It draws you in with the glamour and excitement of crime and a power that makes you untouchable, and just when it has you in its grip, it turns around and shows you how illusory it all is. But by then, like Henry, you’re in too deep to get out. “GoodFellas” has been criticized for its sympathetic portrayal of violent criminals, but Hollywood is hardly responsible for the allure of the mafia, and “GoodFellas” ultimately demonstrates, better than any other movie on the subject, how fleeting the charm is.

Whitney McIntosh, Sound on Sight

Of most significance in how “Goodfellas” frames Henry and Karen’s marriage is that her personality butting up against the stifling nature of an Italian marriage in the 1970’s allows for the balance of power in their relationship to be ever-shifting. Karen falls just short of being a full-on time bomb while still managing to keep Henry on his toes. The fact that she bought into the marriage fully, with the knowledge her husband is dangerous and embracing the sexiness of those qualities instead of being hightailing it in the other direction, helps her stay out of the victim category completely. She repeatedly confesses her mixed feelings on the marriage, her love for Henry constantly outweighing the negatives of her situation. When threatening him with a gun because of his marital transgressions the camera places her in a position of power physically but not mentally. Hands shaking and stuttering out threats, she desperately tries to maintain the upper hand but eventually succumbs to his charms. When he is in prison she makes her ability to walk away without another thought and leave him to rot incredibly clear, allowing him to contemplate just how much she contributes to the partnership beyond being a mother to his children and sedate figure on whom his masculine temper can be projected.

Sasha Stone, Awards Daily

Pushing aside this absurd generalization, one that doesn’t reflect reality in any way, he’s just flatout wrong here. Only a certain type of man watches “Goodfellas” and comes away with “these guys are heroes.” This is the same type of guy who breaks his neck watching a Burger King commercial with a big titted model shoving a fat greasy pile of meat and cheese into her tiny mouth. The same type of guy who worships Walter White and Tony Soprano, mistaking the subtle narrative and inserting their own projections. “That’s the kind of guy I want to be.”

In fact, guys like these often misinterpret Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a chest beating anthem of patriotism. And the kind of guys who all too often mistake Scorsese’s form of satire. These are the guys who take “Wolf of Wall Street” literally, who laugh along with Joe Pesci when he’s shooting Spider.

Goodfellas, like “Wolf of Wall Street” IS funny. It’s funny until it isn’t. If you miss this subtle distinction with all of Scorsese’s films you miss everything.

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