It’s been 25 years since Goodfellas premiered, 25 years since we got a great gangster movie that wasn’t the Godfather and 25 years since Ray Liotta was relevant (he’s coasted on this movie for years). And here’s the most iconic quote and soul of the movie.
“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.” These words, spoken by Henry Hill, echoed in my head a whole lot more than the story of Tony Montana in Scarface. Why? Because even though I could never be a drugged-out, Miami gang leader, I could be a goodfella. In reality, we might all be goodfellas.
To be a goodfella meant you were the closest thing to being a gangster without being a gangster but, more importantly, it meant people liked you. Hill, played by Liotta, was definitely a likeable character. He was cool, charismatic, smart (to a certain extent), but he was also flawed in the right kind of ways—crazy enough to think he could make it.
Hill’s very birth decided what he could and could not be. Because he was only half-Sicilian, he could never be made, meaning he could never be a proper gangster. He grows up in a poor, working class home with a father who jumped to violence quicker than any gangster in the film ever did when it came to disciplining his son.
Hill has no power and he can only borrow it from the neighborhood gangsters that take a liking to him. He can only be the muscle or errand boy for real gangsters: he was still a working class man.
When Hill finally starts his own exploits, drug smuggling, it’s looked down upon by his superiors. And his venture leads to his downfall, as well as the fall of the gangsters around him.
So what’s this classic really about? It could be a cliché about how crime never pays. It may play with the notion that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Hill never has the type of power of those around him. Throughout the movie, he is either a puppet of the gangsters, a puppet of his partner, Jimmy Conway; or a puppet of the FBI, who get him to snitch on the mafia.
The point of the film is that Hill represented the American Dream. Yes, Goodfellas may not have been a book we had to read in high school, but it was about the death of the American Dream. It deals with a birth that limited one’s status, an upper-class that never lets you join no matter how hard you try, a binge into consumerism that tricks you into believing you’ve made it and the inevitable fall from grace.
But if Hill represented the American Dream, why didn’t he die at the end? It happens to everyone who represents it. Why was Hill spared? It’s because being a goodfella trumps all other identities. He’s a goodfella which means he’s not a gangster. If you’re not a gangster, then you don’t die at the end of a gangster movie. You just become an average nobody.
I’ve given the term goodfellas multiple definitions but the truest and most lasting definition is that of people who are trying to be something they can never be. To be a goodfella means you’re a dreamer who hasn’t given up. And when you’re no longer a goodfella, then you get to live the rest of your life like a shnook.