A Good Fella? Henry Hill and cinema’s blurring of fact and fiction
Ray Liotta hasn’t died.
That’s worth remembering in the light of today’s announcement that ex-gangster Henry Hill has died, the day after his 69th birthday. Liotta, of course, played Hill in his career-defining performance at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas, and it’s more or less impossible to separate the actor’s charismatic performance from his real-life source.
Especially as Hill himself hoped to blur the boundaries in later life, opening Mob-themed restaurants, launching a spaghetti sauce brand and becoming being inducted into the gangster hall of fame, as if Goodfellas was a theme park and not a study of the amoral, cold-hearted selfishness of the real-life Hill and his cohorts as they rode a wave of murder, robbery, extortion, drug addiction throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Therein lies the problem. When Scorsese made Goodfellas, he wasn’t interested in a morality lesson – or even, really, a character study. The film is the perfection of something that had bubbled away in his career since Mean Streets but which here came to the fore. Goodfellas was the first real flowering of the director’s anthropological interest in the rituals of social groups, something he’s pursued to some degree ever since. Check out the films Scorsese made in the decade after Goodfellas: The Age Of Innocence, Casino, Kundun and Gangs Of New York, all obsessed with tribal codes and customs.
But to achieve this, Scorsese went undercover, telling the story from within. The director is as intent on seducing us as Robert De Niro’s character Jimmy Conway (based on real-life gangster Jimmy Burke) is on seducing Henry Hill, or Hill on seducing his wife Karen. The Mob, as seen by the Mob, means sex, and drugs, and rock and roll. These characters are too busy making money (and pasta) to suffer the spiritual anguish and self-doubt of Scorsese’s great on-screen surrogates from Travis Bickle to Jesus Christ. When Hill’s lifestyle unravels, does he feel remorse? No, he just feel sorry about having to become a schmuck like the rest of us. Boo-hoo.
I’ve always been ambivalent about Goodfellas for this reason; its virtosity (on a technical level, it might be the best film ever made) obscures audience objectivity. The dispassionate tone makes it a challenging, grown-up piece of cinema, and a landmark in Hollywood – but don’t forget, the style and iconography are perfect for adolescents everywhere. Goodfellas is both an influence on the best of modern American film and TV, and the (ahem) godfather of every bad crime thriller made since.
Does this matter? All gangster films have that same cool: a vicarious rebel manifesto. Is Goodfellas any different from a fellow blingography like Scarface? I’d argue, yes, because, while Tony Montana was fictional, Hill was still alive on Goodfellas’ release, and able to capitalize on the reflected glamour. His life after Goodfellas seesawed between falling back into bad habits (he was kicked out of the Witness Protection programme that he’s forced to join at the end of the film) and making a buck out of his newfound fame.
So while Scorsese doesn’t flinch from the stabbings and shootings, and never pretends these guys are angels, it’s worth noting that Liotta’s Hill doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t become a better person – and there is no real sign that the real Hill did either. In a film, especially a Hollywood one, that lack of redemption is a profound statement to make. In real life, it’s just… real life, and that makes the hero worship surrounding Hill a little uncomfortable to witness.
Henry Hill made Goodfellas – and Goodfellas made him. Without that turning point, Hill would be a minor figure in Mob history. Instead, the news of his death is all over Twitter. Whenever someone dies who was made famous by a movie, their obituaries are magnified – headline news, rather than a footnote. Somehow, we feel we know them, and out come the RIPs almost as a reflex.
Yet consider this. Most Hollywood protagonists are inspirational figures. Hill wasn’t. Aspirational, maybe, to some. But no hero. We’re not really mourning Hill or celebrating anything he did, but reacting to Ray Liotta’s on-screen version of him. Henry Hill has died – but the guy we know, the “good fella,” will live on forever.