Revisiting Goodfellas with Anthony Bourdain


Last night, the IFC Center in New York City hosted the first screening in the new season of The Modern School of Film‘s “Film: Masters” series, showing Martin Scorsese’s 1991 gangster classic Goodfellas followed by a conversation with chef, author, world traveler and TV personality Anthony Bourdain.

It’s been some time since I’ve seen Goodfellas from beginning to end, probably ten years or more, but I did see it when it first played in theaters and probably four or five times since then, but as a fan of Bourdain’s Travel Channel shows “No Reservations” and “The Layover” and his various books, it seemed like it could be a fun night.

Modern School of Film Robert Milazzo introduced the screening and showed a poignant portion of an interview he did with long-time Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who talked about how her former husband Michael Powell helped Scorsese to get Goodfellas made only to pass away before it was done.

It’s probably no surprise that Goodfellas still stands up after so many years and multiple viewings, and a couple things I noted seeing it for the first time on the screen in over a decade:

* Anyone who has seen Goodfellas will generally note one of four things: the mastery of Scorsese’s filmmaking, the performance by Joe Pesci (who won an Oscar for it), Ray Liotta’s great performance as Henry Hill or the music. One person who really shined on this viewing was Lorraine Bracco, who rarely if ever gets mentioned when people talk about Goodfellas. Sure, she was one of only two actors who received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Henry Hill’s beleaguered wife Karen, but she’s really quite amazing in every scene in the movie. It’s actually amazing to see how dynamic she is in the role considering the more subdued character she played on HBO’s “The Sopranos.”

* For that matter, Ray Liotta is so good in the movie and while he’s had plenty of great movies and performances since then, this really was a breakout for him and there’s stuff he’s doing that really requires multiple viewings to appreciate.

* Although De Niro has top billing, he barely appears in the first hour of the movie and he barely says anything when he does appear, so it’s surprising that the movie is often cited as one of his best or favorites.

* That said, De Niro seems to go through the widest range of ages over the course of the movie. In the film’s opening, he looks so young that you almost forget De Niro was ever that young once, but by the end of the movie he looks much older and closer to the way we’ve become familiar with seeing him in recent years.

* By comparison, it’s hard to believe Liotta is 21 years old in his first scenes meeting his future wife Karen and Bracco doesn’t seem to age at all even though they clearly have kids who age quite dramatically over the course of the film.

* One of the characters I was really drawn to on this viewing was Frank Sivero’s Frankie Carbone, who looks so much like a Eugene Levy character with his crazy pompadour wig. The humor he brings in his interactions with Pesci constantly riding him really made me laugh.

* I also loved Martin Scorsese’s mother and her scenes with Joe Pesci, which really resonated more now that my own mother is older.

* This next one is a bit of a SPOILER if you haven’t seen the movie, but I never really understood why Pesci’s Tommy was “made” by his family immediately before he was killed. Couldn’t they have killed anytime in the years following the incident that put a target on him?

As well as the film stood up, the real draw for the sold out crowd was the presence of Bourdain who sat at the back of the theater and watched the entire movie for what he claimed to be his 25th time. He sat down with Milazzo for an hour-long conversation following the movie, talking about his love for the film medium from an early age, being taken to see “Dr. Strangelove” by his father at the age of eight.

The first part of their dialogue was specifically about Scorsese’s film with Bourdain explaining why he chose Goodfellas for the series. “I would like to suggest that there is no finer American film,” he told the audience. “It’s a uniquely American film that could be made nowhere else. I don’t think anybody could find fault with any of the performances. Every role is pitch perfect. Technically, it’s a very expressive with heavily stylized camera movements. The whole change of tone from the good times to the frenetic cocaine times is really disturbing.”

As might be expected much of Milazzo’s questioning centered around how food and cooking is displayed in the film particularly the memorable scene of Paul Sorvino’s Paulie slicing garlic with a razor blade while they’re in prison. Bourdain stated that scene was fairly accurate because no chef and few true Italians would ever use a metal garlic press while making pasta. “The cooking is as it should be and as you’d expect of the characters. It’s definitely what these guys know, how to make a nice ragu. Food is constantly used in films to humanize people and I think it grounds it. I mean, look, I come out of this film hungry every time. It’s a subtle way of making likable some very unlikable monstrous characters. You like Paulie a little bit because you see that he’s taking the time to be gentle with his garlic.”

Bourdain admitted that the first restaurant job he worked right after culinary school, which he got from a “friend in the union,” was in a place that the mob would call a “rug joint” with lots of guys who could well have been connected. His passing relationship as a civilian employee in establishments like that one did give him some insights on how the restaurant industry is depicted in the film.

Unlike Scorsese himself, Bourdain never had much interest in being part of that crowd because the kids he knew from school in that crowd didn’t seem very cool to him because they dressed badly with bad hair and they had lousy taste in music, so it never really interested him despite his love for early Scorsese films.

Bourdain elaborated on this more in regards to the characters in the film. “I think one of the things that’s really interesting about this film is how every time you start to like Henry and when we find ourselves rooting for what is essentially a murderous psychopath, they’ll throw in some totally extraneous casual racism that they could have easily done without. They really cost the filmmaker and character sympathy but that would be his attitude. He would be a racist and that’s one of the things I admire is that it’s uncompromising as far as manipulating your affections. You’re constantly reminded that these are really disgusting people that you’re liking and enjoying spending time with.”

Surprisingly, Bourdain has never met Scorsese and he didn’t feel like he’d want to because he figured he’d be too nervous to even talk to him, even if Scorsese ever offered him a role in one of his movies. “To suck in a Scorsese film would be so awful,” he said. “I’d never get over it when he comes to me later and says, ‘You know, I really appreciate you coming in but we decided to go in another direction.'” Bourdain’s also never met De Niro, although he recounted a time in the ’70s when De Niro, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel all came in to have brunch together at a restaurant where he worked.

Bourdain cited three other films as his favorites in terms of depicting food and cooking, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, Stanley Tucci’s Big Night and Pixar’s Ratatouille, and talked about how his interest and love for film has come into play on his “self-indulgent travel show,” being particularly proud of the black and white segment of “No Reservations” they filmed in Rome. “We spend a lot of our time talking particularly about shots, camera movements, sound effects, stuff that we can rip off from films we love that we can use or appropriate in a cheaper version. We’re always looking to find out how we can find an excuse to do that.”

After answering a few more questions from the audience, he also mentioned that he spent ten days in the Congo “reenacting my Joseph Conrad ‘Apocalypse Now’ fantasies’ for an upcoming show which he called “the most terrifying ten days and greatest adventure of his life.” He said that should be airing on the Travel Channel sometime in May or June.

Upcoming screenings in the “Film: Masters” series includes Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love paired with a conversation with Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson (already sold out unfortunately), and an even odder pairing of Woody Allen’s Bananas and a conversation with Albert Hammond Jr. from The Strokes. You can learn more about the series on the Modern School of Film site. (And thanks to Sylvia for bringing this event to our attention.)

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