Goodfellas and Glamorous Bad Guys

Depictions of gangsters and modern day morality tales

Posted Jan 27, 2012

Well, having been over 20 years late to this Goodfellas thing (yes, I just saw it for the first time a week ago), it gave me the opportunity to think about filling in that black screen with the real-life story of Henry Hill as it continues after the parts portrayed in Goodfellas end.

(Yes, I realize this is all out of order, and that there is no excuse for not having seen Goodfellas before. I'm just trying to put the best possible spin on it!)

Seeing Goodfellas for the first time got me as excited as other (major) fans must have been on their first viewing. I mean, I had just experienced a masterpiece. I had the response I typically do in one's presence: "How did they DO that?"

It's overwhelming. So I began to find answers where I could. I watched The Making of Goodfellas and learned the degree to which the actors relied on a first person account of actual "wiseguy" Henry Hill. I read the original "as told to" book titled Wiseguys. After this I got to listen to Henry Hill himself, as captured in video for various interviews. And I've just ended my week-of-thinking-about-little-but-that-movie by reading the very affecting book done by Henry Hill's children, On the Run: A Mafia Childhood.

How charming a gangster?

It's been quite a process. I'm no less in awe of the skill involved in filmmaking. (How do they do that?) But I'm far less in thrall over Henry Hill, who, as played by Ray Liotta actually had me considering the reasons I had for not being a gangster. I read that some early criticism of the film worried that it glamorized mob life. Well, duh. Or at least, that was my experience (and I say this as a decidedly un-mollish nerd type).

When mobster-types are put on screen, of course we get the glamorous version. One look at the actual photographs of the real-life mobsters being portrayed is the stark, one-time-only reminder you need of how preternaturally good looking actors are. Yet let me suggest that even aside from the matter of professional charisma, and despite the incredible violence that is portrayed, we still get given a sanitized, audience-friendly, version of the life of crime and the criminal.

Here was my proof when it came to The Sopranos: do you really believe Tony wouldn't have beaten his wife?

When I've asked this, after a few moments of thought, I think I've always been told "no." Yet viewers really believed he loved his wife and kids, despite it all. Most of the ones I've talked to even believed Tony's own words, that he was "doing everything for them." (Yeah, right.) I'm no expert on what audiences will tolerate, but I doubt we'd have much interest in Tony if he were portrayed as vicious to his wife as he was to his friends.

Is there are as much fictionalization in Goodfellas, which hews so closely to Henry Hill's own words, the story is certain being his own? I wasn't so sure.

I only realized the answer was "yes," when I read what Henry Hill's children tell us. I felt very naïve after. The real Henry Hill, as should be no surprise, beat and threatened to kill his own children (not in a blustery or verbal way either, but once with an upraised ax, and on a 17th birthday chasing, beating, and then attempting to run over his child with a car).

Again, I'm no expert in audiences, but I imagine portraying Henry Hill as the dad he really was would ruin some of the fun of watching such a well-constructed piece of art.

The idea that there are psychic consequences of terrible behavior, that a person who loses control in one domain will lose it in all others, is as old as Plato. I argue that Tony is a wonderful representation of Platonic moral psychology in the book Philosophy and the Sopranos and sum up how philosophical I found the series a bit here.

"The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese"

Anyway, all of this is just to direct any other hard core fans of Goodfellas to this very nice philosophical treatment I found. It is on the ethics of the character Henry Hill and by Dean Kowalksi. It is titled "Goodfellas, Gyges, and the Good Life," and is part of the book The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese. You can read the chapter here (it begins on p.31 of the book). The author does just what I tried to do with The Sopranos—apply Platonic moral psychology to explain the "unhappiness" that comes from the gangsters' behaviors.

It strikes me that David Chase's Sopranos was clearly a morality tale in the most old fashioned of senses. Tony suffered and could never be happy thanks to what he did. It was a reminder of why we ought not to do things we have to then turn around and deny. (This would be at the cost of having, just like Tony, a fractured personality that, Plato says, is  in a "civil war" with itself. Plato has us imagine that, if we fail to reconcile our motivations to one another, parts of ourselves "bite each other, fight and try to eat each other" (Republic, 589a).

Does Goodfellas reference this same story? This same account of moral psychology? Kowalksi makes a strong case.* But I don't think so. The major difference: other than getting caught, Henry Hill had no regrets.

Gosh, Henry Hill still has no regrets.

The way his children put it is just chilling: their dad just never seemed to care about consequences, not ones that were coming to him, and certainly not ones that were sure to affect his children. Maybe there is a morality tale in here somewhere, just not a Platonic one. Maybe instead a reminder that there are some people for whom psychic consequences are not any type of realistic deterrent. Plato wasn't ready, in other words, for Goodfellas.

*Be sure, however, to see how Kowalski addresses this issue at the end of his article. He is going to suggest that even if agents don't feel unhappy, they are still in the tortured kind of state Plato describes above. I can see reasons to think this way, of course. It may just be right. But, at this point, I'm taking Henry Hill's word/s for it.

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