Maybe you saw this piece where the New York Post’s film critic mansplains (I am not a fan of this expression but this article is the purest example of it of all time) that “women are not capable of understanding GOODFELLAS.” I almost didn’t read it when I saw the headline, because it sounded like typical chauvinist horseshit, which is what it turned out to be.
I ended up clicking on it because GOODFELLAS is one of my favorite movies, and though I have no doubt at all that women are capable of understanding it, I wondered what this dude thought there was to “understand.” GOODFELLAS is a great movie and it does operate on a couple of different levels, but it’s not exactly 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
So I read his piece, and the sexism in its insistence that women can’t understand the movie is every bit as grotesque as I imagined it would be. But there is a rather delicious irony at work here, because it turns out that Mr. Kyle Smith, professional film critic, doesn’t understand GOODFELLAS either.
Women don’t get “GoodFellas.” It’s not really a crime drama, like “The Godfather.” It’s more of a male fantasy picture — “Entourage” with guns instead of swimming pools, the Rat Pack minus tuxedos…Women sense that they are irrelevant to this fantasy, and it bothers them.
The wiseguys never have to work (the three friends never exert themselves except occasionally to do something fun, like steal a tractor-trailer truck), which frees them up to spend the days and nights doing what guys love above all else: sitting around with the gang, busting each other’s balls.
Ball-busting means cheerfully insulting one another, preferably in the presence of lots of drinks and cigars and card games. Women (except silent floozies) cannot be present for ball-busting because women are the sensitivity police: They get offended, protest that someone’s not being fair, refuse to laugh at vicious put-downs. In the male fantasy, all of this is unforgivable — too serious, too boring. Deal another hand, pour another drink.
To a woman, the “GoodFellas” are lowlifes. To guys, they’re hilarious, they’re heroes. They rule the roost.
I guess if you are the kind of shithead that thinks “women cannot be present for ball-busting because women are the sensitivity police,” then maybe GOODFELLAS does look like a fantasy. But even if you do see it that way, it’s still a fundamental misreading of the movie.
The key detail to remember about GOODFELLAS is that it’s narrated by Henry Hill, the main character. Except for a couple of short interjections by his wife, GOODFELLAS is entirely Henry Hill’s story, told — and this is important — in hindsight. In the last few moments of the movie, after two-plus hours of Henry’s voiceover narration framing the events we see on screen, we see Henry in court, testifying against his friends, and for the first time he delivers his narration in person, rising from the witness stand to address the camera, tipping us off that his whole story has been told from the witness stand.
This is why, although Henry admits to being involved in multiple crimes, he minimizes his involvement as much as he can. The way he tells it, he mostly just stands around during the really bad stuff: standing guard at the door while Jimmy and Tommy beat Billy Batts to death; opening the trunk and standing back when it turns out Batts is still alive so his pals can finish him off. He puts himself in the shower when news of the Lufthansa heist comes over the radio, as though he’s not directly involved, even though Jimmy cuts him in on the score moments later. When Jimmy wants to whack Morrie the wigmaker so he doesn’t have to give him his cut of the same score — even Morrie was instrumental in the heist — Henry insists (in narration) that he wants to talk Jimmy out of it, even though he never says a word to dissuade him — he’s just “biding his time.”
Almost every detail of the story, as it pertains to Henry, either paints him as innocent or relatively innocent, pushing all the bad stuff off on others, or as a victim (like how his father beat him and how stoically he took those beatings). When Paulie cuts Henry off toward the end of the movie, in response to Henry’s having directly betrayed him and gone against his specific orders to stay out of the drug business, he still gives him some money, and even then Henry complains, like he’s the victim.
Martin Scorsese did not invent the device of the unreliable narrator, but GOODFELLAS is just about the best use of it I can think of, particularly because this aspect of the movie doesn’t call any attention to itself at all. It’s like RASHOMON, but with only one narrator. (Except Karen, whose narration also plays like witness courtroom testimony when you see it in this light.) You can enjoy the movie just as much even if you never grasp that Henry is completely full of shit, much the way Kyle Smith is completely full of shit. All that bluster about the great women and the easy money and the ballbusting is a massive rationalization to explain all this awful behavior and make himself sympathetic to the jury. On some level it’s a macho fantasy, but it’s the macho fantasy of a liar and a criminal who cheated on his wife and betrayed his best friends — and that’s HIS version of events. If you see that as a lifestyle that you’d emulate if you could, that says a lot more about you than it does about the movie, or how women relate to it. Asshole.