Tomris Laffly’s article in Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood blog— excerpted below — sets the stage. She writes: “Martin Scorsese’s seminal gangster film GOODFELLAS –which is widely deemed his finest directorial achievement –celebrated its 25th anniversary Saturday on the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival, as the movie’s star and festival co-founder Robert De Niro joined the cast on stage.
“When narrator Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) declared ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be gangster’ at the start of the unveiling of a gorgeous re-mastered 4K print of GOODFELLAS, the packed Beacon Theater erupted in enthusiastic applause. Many others followed throughout the screening as the huge crowd nostalgically revisited the film and its most famous moments. Predictably, the ‘Funny how’ scene between Hill and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) nabbed the most rapturous laughter and clapping.
“The screening was also an affirmation of Scorsese’s authentic and energetic depiction of amoral and despicable behavior. The debate that erupted at the opening of Scorsese’s non-didactic yet cautionary and often laugh-out-loud funny take on gangsters was not dissimilar from the reaction to last year’s instantly controversial WOLF OF WALL STREET, as naysayers accused the filmmaker of glorifying excessive behavior. GOODFELLAS famously scored one the worst test screening results in Warner Bros. history, but went on to earn critical acclaim and six Oscar nominations (with one win for Joe Pesci). Now it’s a classic.”
Laffly is referring to the first audience preview screening held in Orange County in 1990. Producer Irwin Winkler remembers the events in a Playboy interview, which describes a far different reaction to the opening of the film than the enthusiastic applause at Tribeca screening:
“Once the GOODFELLAS sneak preview got rolling, things went haywire, right from the hero’s first line of narration: ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’
“’People started running out of that theater like the place was on fire,’ recalls Winkler. ‘We had 38 walkouts alone after the scene where Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy DeVito, knifes the body of Billy Batts in the trunk of a car. And that was just the beginning of the movie. The screening didn’t go badly. It was disastrous.‘
“So disastrous that, as the movie’s dark humor and merry mayhem of stabbings, shootings and cocaine-fueled freak-outs piled up, 32 more people fled the theater. After the preview, which De Fina called ‘scary,’ studio execs read a barrage of audience reaction cards typified by one from a dissatisfied customer who’d scrawled ‘F*ck you’ all over his. ‘It upset a lot of people,’ says Scorsese. ‘People weren’t prepared for the mixture of humor and violence, the lifestyle, the attitude.’” Read the full interview with Winkler here, in Stephen Rebello’s article, which is subtitled “The Making of the Mafia’s Ultimate Home Movie.”
The NY Daily News reports Scorsese’s recollection of the reception of the film: “It’s hard to believe in hindsight, but GOODFELLAS wasn’t well received by everyone upon its release. ‘There was this owner of a restaurant that I used to eat at that said we’re not allowed in there anymore,’ said Scorsese, hinting that the place was an Italian establishment. ‘Because apparently we denigrated a certain ethnic group.’ ”
Laffly continues her Indiewire coverage from Tribeca: “The biggest treat of the night was the reunion panel after the screening, moderated by Jon Stewart, with Scorsese’s co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi as well as actors De Niro, Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. Stewart’s questions could have been sharper and more fine-tuned, yet the Q&A session did yield choice and little-known behind-the-scenes stories.
Here are eight highlights:
1. No-shows Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese greeted the audience in style.
Currently shooting his new film THE SILENCE in Taipei with Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, Scorsese saluted the crowd before the screening with a pre-taped video message… Scorsese revealed that the music in GOODFELLAS –from Tony Bennett to Darlene Love– represented the way his own life was musically scored. One of the best times they all had on set was during the breakfast scene with his mother (Catherine Scorsese, playing Tommy’s Mother): ‘There were only one or two lines that were written out. The rest was what it was like to be around my mom, Joe, Bob, and Ray. But we didn’t tell her about the body (in the trunk).’
Pesci’s pre-screening message was more concise. ‘Joe Pesci couldn’t be here, but he sent this email,’ said Robert De Niro, reading: ‘F*ck, f*ck, f*ckity, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck.’
‘I’ll translate,’ he went on. ‘Dear Bob, I am sorry I can’t be there. Love to all. Best, Joe.’
The Tribeca Film Festival co-founder’s sentiment was seconded by actor Paul Sorvino. ‘We sometimes run into each other. What happens is, you see each other 10 or 15 years later, and it is as if the time has not passed. Because we got to know each other so well at an emotional or spiritual level; and it never goes away.’
3. Running into Scorsese at the Venice Film Festival helped Ray Liotta to land the leading role.
4. Nora Ephron helped to connect Martin Scorsese with her husband Nicholas Pileggi.
The author of the bestselling book WISEGUY (from which GOODFELLAS is adapted) said that Scorsese kept calling him, wanting to connect. ‘I was getting these pink slips that said: ‘Call Martin Scorsese.’ But I thought it was my friend David Denby (playing a trick), so I didn’t respond.’ Scorsese couldn’t figure it out, and finally called Pileggi’s wife Nora Ephron. ‘I got home that night and she said: ‘Are you crazy? Martin Scorsese is trying to reach you and you won’t call him back.’
8. Nick Pileggi on Martin Scorsese, perfectionist.
As tight-lipped De Niro was unwilling to tackle the question of what Scorsese would want to change in the film today if he could, Stewart turned the mic to Pileggi. Recalling the night of the film’s New York City premiere, he noted that Marty had many more editing ideas in mind: ‘We were at the Ziegfeld, I was sitting next to him, and he said –pointing to an elbow- ‘We should have cut that.’ ‘Marty, I said, we’re at the Ziegfeld, it’s the opening of the movie, and the editing is over.’
Entertainment Weekly adds this wonderful factoid:
“Even the ketchup technique is authentic.
Before filming the scene with the meal at Tommy’s mother’s, Scorsese had Pileggi reach out to Hill to find out which method for getting ketchup out of the bottle Jimmy ‘The Gent’ used. That’s why De Niro rolls the bottle in his hands, as we see in the finished film.”