Stirring the Pot: Glenn Kenny on His New Goodfellas Book

Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas" (WB)

As far back as he could remember, Glenn Kenny knew enough about “Goodfellas” to fill a book. He finally got his chance with Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas: a densely researched, compulsively readable volume about Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic, which turns 30 this year. The book combines archival tidbits; new interviews with producers, actors and crew; details on the shooting locations, costumes, and performances, and extensive comparisons between the film’s characters and the real-life gangsters that they were modeled on. It also pays careful attention to the dozens of songs chosen for the film’s soundtrack, giving Kenny a chance to showcase his chops as a pop music historian and critic. We spent a couple of hours on the phone with Kenny, talking about the contents of the book and the process of researching and writing it. An edited transcript follows.

MZS: Writing a book about anything is a major time commitment. How did you decide “Goodfellas” was worth it?

GK: As it turns out, I didn’t have that much time. When the book contracts were signed, I basically had a year to come up with a manuscript, which is a fair amount, but not a huge amount. It finally happened in March of 2019, with a deadline of March 2020 to hand in the manuscript so we could get it out for the 30th anniversary of the release, which is always a nice marketing hook. 

Because I’d pitched a version of this book before, without success, I had already conducted some research—and obviously, as a lover of the film, I had a lot of other stuff in my back pocket already. My friend Farran Smith Nehme and I—Farran is a critic and blogs as the Self-Styled Siren, and she also wrote a great novel, Missing Reels—had lunch together at a time when you could still have lunch with people in person. We would have lunch about once a month with Jay Cocks, who’s a critic and screenwriter and one of Martin Scorsese’s best friends. He wrote or co-wrote the scripts for “The Age of Innocence,” “Gangs of New York,” “Silence,” with Scorsese. And then I had told him I had made this deal to write this book, and he said, “You sure there’s a whole book in the making of 'Goodfellas'"? 

And I thought, “Ooh, that’s not a great sign. I sure hope so, because I signed the contract and we’re on our way!” 

What turned out to be true is that there had already been this very, very long and well-done oral history in GQ 10 years before, which I obviously have to acknowledge and draw on to a certain extent, but that I didn’t want to draw on too much. I did find out a number of things beyond that that haven’t been reported, particularly about the dissolution of Scorsese’s fourth marriage and how that bled into his professional life at the time, and that is not something that anyone’s ever really talked about. I sense it’ll probably get talked about more because I know that Barbara DeFina—the credited executive producer on the film, who considers herself a “non-executive producer,” and thinks that she should have been given the [regular] producer credit along with Irwin Winkler—will probably be telling her story in a more expansive way. That’s one aspect of it that wasn’t really covered.  

And I also found out some things about Robert De Niro’s approach to the character of Jimmy Conway that have not been talked about a whole lot, and about the nature of the De Niro-Scorsese collaboration, things like that. 

The first major motion picture that I remember seeing and thinking, “this was unquestionably influenced by ‘Goodfellas’” was “Malcolm X,” from two years later, which of course is adapted from a first-person, autobiographical book. But the way it’s told is very “Goodfellas,” with every scene and sequence envisioned for maximum oomph. There are even freeze-frames where Malcolm will tell you in voice-over what he was thinking at that moment, or give you some additional piece of information that’s not in the scene. Of course, we know that Spike Lee and Scorsese are not only good friends but have a mutual admiration society going, so that was not a huge shock. 

But then later, I kept seeing more and more and more movies that wanted to be “Goodfellas”—everything from “Blow” and “I, Tonya” to “The Ruthless” and of course “Boogie Nights,” which is a compendium of techniques from various movies Paul Thomas Anderson likes, but Scorsese’s in particular. The raiding continues up into the near-present, with stuff like “War Dogs.” What is it about the aesthetic of “Goodfellas” that makes so many filmmakers think they can apply it to so many different kinds of stories?

Well, I mean, first of all, a lot of it is the aesthetic Scorsese already had, but it’s a little more high-octane, so to speak, in “Goodfellas.” And that derives from the pacing that he found so influential in tabloid TV, and the Robert Stack series “The Untouchables.”

But I think the key lies in something Scorsese said, and that I quoted early on in the book, when he was talking about having read an interview with Jim Jarmusch, who at the time had just made “Down by Law” and “Stranger Than Paradise,” and he was still working in that mode of having these very fixed, static shots, with almost no camera movement and no shot-reverse-shot or any of that kind of thing. Jarmusch said in the interview, “I’m not interested in making people see the way I see.” Scorsese saying, “Well no, my aesthetic is exactly the opposite. I want people to see like I see. I want people to see the camera as kind of my own head, and I’m walking, looking to the left, looking to the right, panning, zooming, going into slow motion.”

Can you give me an example of that?

The shots of Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" when he’s by the pool and he sees Vicki for the first time, and there’s the shot of her kicking her feet into the water, and it’s in slow motion. That’s when we experience Jake’s obsessive vision of Vicki starting to form, and that’s Scorsese’s approach. It’s a subjective point of view, and it reflects him. 

But also I think his work teaches a lot of directors to be subjective, in that Scorsese way. And that’s where the influence comes from. If you have the technical skill to pull it off, the Scorsese approach to subjectivity creates a dynamism that’s very hard to resist. There are influential directors who are more objective, to be sure. 

Yeah, in the sense of being “detached.” Not as directly immersed in a character’s energy.

To a certain extent, Fincher and Soderbergh are like that. But they still have a way of making you look the way they would like you to look. It’s just a little more camouflaged. But with Scorsese, it’s almost all subjective.

I think it happens in the editing more with Fincher and Soderbergh, and not so much in the camerawork.

Sure, sure. That’s absolutely true. 

With Scorsese, the interesting thing to me is that Henry Hill really isn’t the Scorsese surrogate in “Goodfellas.” Well, to a certain extent, maybe at the beginning when he’s looking out the window at the gangsters and wanting to be like them. But once he’s in the group, he’s only a surrogate if you take being a mobster as a kind of metaphor for filmmaking, you know? 

That’s interesting. So Scorsese is literally saying, “I want to be a gangster, like that guy”? It's more of a metaphorical kind of affinity.

Well, there’s some talk in the book of Scorsese’s ambition at the time of making "Goodfellas," of wanting to be a player. I didn’t want to spell it out, but it somewhat dovetails to the desire of guys like Henry and Jimmy to become “made men,” you know? But that’s a little remote. When you get into the really personal stuff, it gets interesting. There's a point where Karen seems like more like a Scorsese surrogate than Henry, because of Karen’s jealousy when Henry begins his affair with Janice. That’s when you get this kind of “Raging Bull” effect happening with Karen, these quick cuts that reflect the frantic state of mind that the situation puts her in. Henry doesn’t get bothered by that sort of thing, so in that sense he’s a much more cool customer than Karen is, at least until the end when cocaine really starts to undo him. Then you get more of a Scorsese analog through Henry, because it’s very clear that what he’s doing in those scenes is a reflection of the what Scorsese suffered in the late 1970s when his own drug abuse was reaching a climax. 

Let’s talk about Scorsese’s affinity for stories about characters who are either outsiders who find their way into an insular society, or are members of an insular society who become outsiders because they break the rules or flout the norms or go behind somebody’s back to satisfy their appetites. Not just in the mob films, either!

No, it extends to Newland Archer in "Age of Innocence" as well.

Right. And Jesus! 

[Laughs]

I reviewed “The Aviator” when it came out, and one of the things I talked about was how there’s this thread in Scorsese’s career about people wanting to belong to clubs that wouldn’t have somebody like them as a member, paraphrasing the Groucho Marx line. It seems like “Goodfellas” may be the most direct examination of that in all of the movies.

Yeah, yeah. As in “Casino,” with Ace Rothstein being a Jewish guy among Italian mobsters, Henry and Jimmy in “Goodfellas” can’t be fully members of this clan because they’re not 100% Sicilian. Henry is both in awe of this idea and also kind of dismissive of it, depending on the mood or the tenor of the narration or what’s happening. In fact, in the scene where Tommy is supposed to be made and gets whacked instead, it starts off with this very reverent, outside-looking-in feeling, and then once the switch is pulled and Tommy is killed instead of made, then Henry just waves it away by saying “It was real greaseball shit.” 

Right. That’s a good springboard to talk about the relationship between the film and the narration. As many times as I’ve seen this movie, I’ve never quite nailed down that relationship. Is it accurate to call the narration unreliable? What do you think is the difference, if any, between the way Henry describes things and what we are actually seeing?

I think there’s not that much of it.

I think about particularly the scene where Spider gets killed, and his narration is very dry and matter-of-fact in describing what happened, but in the close-up of Ray Liotta’s face, he’s appalled and shocked. And there are other moments like that, where the extreme emotional or physical violence on the screen is at odds with Henry’s “Eh, no big deal!” narration.

In a way, I think his “it was no big deal” narration is probably closer to the real Henry Hill than what the disjointed presentation in the film does. I think those shots of Liotta you mention are based on choices that Scorsese and Liotta made in the moment. Those are the ones that I think reflect most clearly the idea of Henry, in the visual sense, at least, of being an audience surrogate for the movie. I think it’s very clear in the very beginning when there’s that close-up of him looking in utter befuddlement at Tommy and Jimmy after they’ve annihilated Billy Batts in that car trunk, and you hear that voice-over line, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” and you’re like, “Really?” [Laughs] So there is that kind of abrasion. 

But it’s never as outlandish as the difference between narration and on-screen action that’s presented in something like “The Informant!” for instance. The narration in “Goodfellas” speaks of Henry’s own ego. It speaks of how Henry wants to be seen. The narration is a lot of what Henry wants to be seen by the audience, and the visuals are how Scorsese sees what’s going on, and Liotta’s interpretation of Henry seeing what’s going on. 

So those create nice little bits of … it’s not quite a reversal, I would say, but it’s a sandpaper kind of effect. This is not a movie that has a huge amount of profound and subterranean subtext, such as what Robin Wood described of “Raging Bull” in his “subtext of homosexual panic,” or you know, when you get into the “kill the father” scenes in “The King of Comedy.” In “Goodfellas,” it’s altogether more straightforward than those two pictures. But the film is still a complicated text, in its minutiae.

Let’s talk about the film’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. You didn’t get to have a long sit-down with her, right?

No. it’s one of those things that could not happen, and I guess it could not happen for the best reason. When I started working on the book, Schoonmaker and Scorsese had, at the time, gone very deep into their caves to start editing “The Irishman,” so they weren’t coming out. If Scorsese did any interviews or press things, they were relative to stuff he had already contractually agreed to do, like talking with Joanna Hogg [in promoting] “The Souvenir,” which he had been an executive producer on. But despite the fact that his office had, in October of 2018, extended his intention to cooperate with me on the book, after I did a sample chapter interviewing Nick Pileggi, Scorsese’s availability wasn’t there anymore, though I did manage to get an interview with him the following year. Thelma’s availability wasn’t there that fall, either, so I knew I had to bide my time and wait. 

Then August of 2019 came along, and I was asked to moderate a Q&A at a screening of the “Woodstock” documentary, on which Thelma would be a panelist, and for a time, it looked like Scorsese would be a panelist, too. He wasn’t able to make it. But I did get Thelma and one of the producers of the film, and we had a great Q&A, people enjoyed themselves, she had some great stories about Scorsese and herself being stuck under the stage at Woodstock for three days wondering if they’d live, let alone make a movie about it. Then there was the story of how Scorsese had no idea what they were in store for, packing a nice jacket and some good cufflinks because he thought that while he was in upstate New York he might take in a nice rustic dinner. That didn’t happen, either! 

And then I spoke to her. I said, “I’m writing a book about “Goodfellas,” I’d love to talk to you,” and the first thing she said was, “My husband’s the reason that movie got made.” 

Michael Powell. Schoonmaker’s late husband, of the Powell-Pressburger team of directors, the maker of “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus” and other classics—and a friend and mentor of Scorsese’s.

Exactly. I knew of Powell’s support for that film. And in a subsequent interview with Scorsese, the last thing I did for the book, an interview I conducted on March 9th, right before the pandemic caused the shutdown of the city, Scorsese says that, having done all the prep work and imagining the film in his head after doing the script with Pileggi, and then going off and doing “The Last Temptation of Christ,” he felt in his own mind that he had made the film already, and that he wasn’t interested in shooting it. 

It was a letter from Michael Powell [praising the screenplay] and Powell’s constant, in-person encouragement which convinced Scorsese that he needed to go forward with it. 

Is there anything that, reading the book, you wish you’d put in but didn’t? 

I’ll tell you, there’s something I intended to put in but I didn’t, because it fell through the cracks of my notes, which is the fact that, in the Bamboo Lounge meeting-the-gang sequence—the Steadicam shot with “Hey, how you doin’?” “Yeah, I took care of that thing for you,” all of that—the scene is a much more elaborate version of, or homage to, to the shot in Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” where you meet the guys in the outdoor restaurant! It’s not a Steadicam shot, obviously, because it’s the 1950s. It’s a lateral dolly to the left, and the guys are all sitting at tables. But they’re saying hello to the camera! 

And I was like, “Oh, this is perfect. This is his tribute, his elaboration on it.” It’s one of those cinephile things that is absolutely irrefutable. It’s not like a secret homage, it’s right there in your face. And somehow I didn’t put it in the goddamned book! So now someone else can! 

____________________________________

You can order a copy of "Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas" here. The virtual book launch featuring a live conversation between Kenny, "Goodfellas" star Welker White and RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert hosted by WORD Brooklyn will take place at 6:30pm CT tonight, September 15th (register here).

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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