Over the course of the next two weeks, I’m going to be counting down my ten favorite movie scenes. These are not what I consider to be the biggest or most important scenes, because there are far too many of them to count, and you’ve probably read all of those lists anyway. These are simply the scenes that resonate the most with me, and since a lot of these have a major bearing on the plot, there will be spoilers. Let’s get started with…
For the #10 slot, I want to look at a scene that displays powerful and relentless acting in its purest form. For lack of a better term, this is the “Oscar scene.” It can be a conversation between two people like Marlon Brando’s “I could have been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront or Brando’s conversation in the garden with Al Pacino in The Godfather. There’s the dual emotion of sadness and joy Robert Duvall displays in the final scene of The Apostle, and of course Susan Sarandon comforting Sean Penn before his execution in Dead Man Walking, but few scenes in film history have the raw power of Ray Liotta’s breakdown in Goodfellas.
A lot of Goodfellas concerns Henry Hill’s obsession with his image of the mafia, and at the beginning, it’s everything he wanted. This is highlighted by the glistening 50’s and early 60’s pop songs that play in the early stages of the film, like Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” and The Crystals “The He Kissed Me.” There is plenty of gradual disillusionment with the mob, but this scene represents a huge jump. We are now in 1980, and Henry’s classy and exciting view of the mafia has been shattered. Early in his gangster days, Henry stayed out all night partying with friends. Now, he’s getting up a 6:00 A.M and running errands, just like everybody else. Sure, his errands include criminal activities, but these have become banal and meaningless. He’s also gotten heavily into taking and selling drugs, so he’s about ready to fall apart. This is highlighted by many songs that come in and out of the scene, but Harry Nillson’s “Jump Into The Fire” is the most prominent, with its jolting guitar and crazed drums.
Watch Ray Liotta throughout the whole scene. There is not a single second where he is not looking up, fidgeting, or rubbing his face. He doesn’t take one second to breathe. This of course is amplified by Scorsese’s abrupt jump cuts and zoom-ins. We feel like we are in Henry’s position throughout the whole scene—shaken, crazed, and about to crash. Like Henry, our view of the mob as film goers has been shattered, and we have nothing left to glorify. When Henry does finally get arrested at the end of the day, there is almost a sense of relief.
Look at Liotta’s face there. Henry Hill is mad at himself, broken, but also a bit relieved. For the first time all day, he is not moving and can actually breathe. Heck, he was moving so fast that he didn’t realize the cops were surrounding his house until he started to back the car up. I have never seen an actor play paranoia so well and so convincingly. Fans and critics will often point to Joe Pesci’s performance and the “Funny how?” scene in particular, but in my book, Liotta’s acting in this scene can go toe-to-toe with anybody.