Reel Rumbles #11 – “The Godfather” vs. “GoodFellas”
In This Corner…
One was from a relatively young writer and director just hitting his stride. The other came from a seasoned pro, who had already given us some of the best films of all time. Drawing on a rich history of the real life mafioso’s exploits, these two films brought the stories, the characters, and the culture to life in a way that we had never seen before. The first had dazzling scope and a romanticized edge that almost glorified the ugliness despite its startlingly realistic violence. It captured the essence of some real-life mobsters, while adding a touch of glamour to the family business. The second stripped down that image and showed a raw, intense portrayal of street thug losers, who longed for the big time and would resort to ruthless, savage tactics to get there. In reality, their world was an unapologetically ugly one, but no less captivating. Talk to any film aficionado, and he or she will count both among the all-time greatest. But how do they fare against one another in the Reel Rumbles ring? It’s time to find out. So grab another cannoli, snuggle up to the fishes, and prepare to get whacked, it’s time for The Godfather vs. Goodfellas.
Round One: Story
The Godfather (1972) plays like mob-as-Greek theater. It’s glitz. It’s glamour. It’s opera. It’s the story of a family caught between the old ways and the new. Set against the mob’s move into drugs, it tells the story of aging crime boss Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his sons Santino (James Caan), Michael (Al Pacino), Fredo (John Cazale), adopted Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), and daughter Connie (Talia Shire). The main emphasis is on a man nearing the last stages of his life looking back on what he has created and trying to figure out what his legacy will be. Fredo has always been too soft. Michael shows intelligence that Vito doesn’t want to waste on the dangerous world of the Family. Santino (“Sonny”) is the obvious choice to succeed him, but with a powder keg personality that can be both slow-to-think and quick-to-act, can he survive long enough to inherit the mantle? As for Connie, well, as James Brown sang, this is a man’s world. How can the Don conduct his business and ensure that it’s left in adequate hands when his time is up? It’s a balance that he struggles to achieve. Adding to the conflict, a new player in town seeks the help of the New York crime families in distributing drugs, to which the Don is morally opposed. On the surface, Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) may not seem like much, but as his plan starts to take hold, the Don’s refusal to participate could very well tear his world apart. The Godfather is an authentic portrayal of human emotion even if it doesn’t always capture the true essence of its core subject matter.
In the world of Henry Hill, authenticity is the keyword, and it’s an ugly one. Goodfellas (1990) is an old school gangster film with modernized sensibilities. Henry (Ray Liotta) has always wanted to be a gangster. Growing up in his tough-as-nails Brooklyn neighborhood, he saw where the advantages lay, and the thought of ending up as a third-rate blue collar palooka was hardly appealing. So as a young man he makes friends with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Jimmy is the brains; Tommy, the muscle. They live the way Henry has always wanted to, and bring him into their world of robbery, drugs, and murder. For a while, crime definitely pays, and Henry is leading the life he’s pined for. But there is always a price to pay, and eventually, Henry must either pay it, or betray those closest to him. Either way, there are no easy ways out. Goodfellas shows the mob for what they truly are/were in a manner that is so unflinching we can’t look away. The characters are not representative of grandiose morality plays as is sometimes the case in The Godfather. They rarely show any kind of moral dilemma outside of which bad decision they will make next. Yet where this film really succeeds is in how we are immersed in the culture. We are led to accept their choices and circumstances as unavoidable, and so even though no one in this film is particularly good friend material, we care about their hopes, dreams, and ambitions. We feel like one of the Goodfellas, and, as viewers looking behind this dark curtain, it is a sensation both scary and exciting.
Both stories draw you in and succeed in establishing characters you can care about. But it is the blunt honesty of Goodfellas that puts it over the top. It is a difficult thing to take morally reprehensible characters and make them accessible to an audience, but this film excels because it relies less on ideals and more on reality. As such, it establishes the early lead, 10-8.
Round Two: Script
The Godfather has so many great lines that have seeped into public consciousness that younger audiences may not even know where they originated. “Sleeps with the fishes,” “They massacred my boy,” “…an offer he can’t refuse,” and “Never ask me about my business,” are just a few standouts. But the question when considering the Mario Puzo-Francis Ford Coppola script (based on Puzo’s novel) is whether the imprint can be attributed more to writing or performances. It’s a fine line to walk when evaluating. And while its competition cannot lay claim to a screenplay that is as catchy and quotable, it does provide some pretty memorable moments: the “do I amuse you” tirade, Tommy’s ambitions of “getting made,” and Henry’s almost amusing desire to not end up another bum from the neighborhood. Plus, the Nicholas Pileggi-Martin Scorsese script (based on Pileggi’s novel Wise Guy) has such a pitch-perfect ear for the language and attitudes of its characters that we actually start to feel the dangers and tension lurking in every street corner, room, or meet-up. Both films capture the essence of their literary counterparts, unquestionably because their original authors were so directly involved. As a result, audiences are treated to two of the most organic page-to-screen transitions to ever hit a cinema.
It’s nearly too close to call, but the edge for me must go to The Godfather, 10-9.
Round Three: Performances
If Coppola and Scorsese had no directorial skills whatsoever, the casts they are able to assemble in bringing script-to-screen would be enough to produce passable motion pictures. In The Godfather, Brando turns in some of his finest work, and it’s a good thing. Had the legend not been on his toes for this performance, he could very easily have been eclipsed by a younger supporting team firing on all cylinders. Caan and Duvall have an equal level of charisma they choose to show in different ways. Caan is explosive and frightening, the kind of guy you would definitely want beside you in a fight, while Duvall radiates quiet authority and trustworthiness. But it’s Pacino, who really breaks out. His intelligence and thoughtfulness is tempered with a barbaric side that catches viewers off-guard when he finally gets a chance to show it. Michael is a volatile mixture of his two brothers, one blood and one not. Other performances of note: Diane Keaton when she was still beautiful and dressed like a woman; Sterling Hayden as the menacing Captain McCluskey; and Alex Rocco as the opportunistic Moe Greene.
The cast of Goodfellas, led by its unholy triumvirate of De Niro, Pesci, and Liotta, aren’t so much portraying roles as they are unleashing their most demonic sides in front of a camera. This is not De Niro doing Jimmy Conway or Pesci doing Tommy DeVito or Liotta doing Henry Hill. It is a full-on baptism into another personality all together. These are dangerous men, particularly Pesci, who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 1991 Academy Awards, and rightfully so. It’s an unbeatable performance that will elicit your hatred and, in the end, a little of your sympathy. However, as much as I would like to award Goodfellas the round based on these merits, Coppola’s film is just too well-equipped in every role from top to bottom and earns the 10-9 edge.
Round Four: Direction
Martin Scorsese had already given us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. He could have called it a career long before this outing and been heralded as one of cinema’s greatest captains to ever helm the ship called film. But then he went and gave us Goodfellas, which is, in my opinion, his masterpiece. After one hundred viewings of Taxi Driver and half as many of Raging Bull, I have to say that this is a rare film with absolutely no discernible flaws. Likewise, Francis Ford Coppola shows us an emerging greatness that really doesn’t hit its peak until his sequel The Godfather Part II. He gives us a lot of great scenes: the crucifixion of Sonny; the restaurant shooting; and, of course, the baptism-slaughter at the film’s climax. But with Scorsese, Goodfellas is a film that surrounds you. It completely takes control to the point that, when it is on, you can do nothing else but see what happens next. Every moment, from the grotesque opening to its wry and funny denouement, you feel like you are part of Henry’s world, and it is this ability to immerse that clinches the round for Scorsese’s picture 10-9.
And the Winner Is…
As difficult as it is to pick a winner for this Flickchart pairing, it’s a much easier task than, say, Goodfellas vs. The Godfather Part II. Both are modern classics that bring their own kinds of beauty and groundbreaking violence to the forefront of filmmaking. Both set different benchmarks within the gangster film sub-genre that few films before or since have been able to reach. And both are miracle assemblies of quality writing, performances, and direction. But when it comes down to the family business, there can be only one “made man”:
Goodfellas – UNANIMOUS DECISION