While you might not consider Goodfellas (1990) the greatest Martin Scorsese film, it’s definitely one of his most entertaining. Cable networks figured that out decades ago, and they’ve had the film running almost on repeat ever since. That has to make fans of Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito) happy.
As Tommy, Pesci wisecracked, pontificated, wooed, and murdered too convincingly for comfort. The performance earned him his second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and when the big night came in 1991 Pesci won the award.
While Pesci steals a number of scenes in the film, he hits a particular high in a scene he suggested to Scorsese. It takes place at the crew’s hangout, the Bamboo Lounge, and it starts with Tommy telling a hilarious story. At the end, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) tells his friend he’s “really funny.”
That’s when things get uncomfortable. “What do you mean I’m funny?” Tommy asks Henry. For the next 65 seconds, Tommy keeps asking the question in increasingly menacing ways. Meanwhile, the otherwise active Goodfellas camerawork halts, settling in with two medium shots.
Martin Scorsese’s signature ‘Goodfellas’ shots feature a great deal of movement
Scorsese and Goodfellas director of photography Michael Ballhaus received widespread praise for their work on this picture, and the camerawork is rarely a background feature. In the film’s two signature Steadicam shots (including the one at the Copacabana), the camera swoops with abandon. It’s meant to be noticed.
That also applies to the second signature shot, in which the crew at the Bamboo Lounge gets introduced. But you get lots of camera movement right from the film’s opening scene. Once the crew pulls over to check on the contents of the trunk (it’s the half-dead Billy Batts), the camera creeps, swings, cuts, and zooms. And you frequently get looks from multiple angles.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry (Liotta) says in voiceover in that opening, as the cameras zooms up at him from about chest-level. That continues as we get to know the young Henry, whom the camera chases in the street. And it rarely stops. So the approach on Tommy’s “funny how?” scene stands out later in the picture.
Scorsese used 2 stable cameras to let Joe Pesci work his magic in the famous ‘Goodfellas’ scene
When Pesci worked out his idea for the “You think I’m funny scene?,” it was very much like a comedy performance. A great storyteller sits at a table entertaining his friends with a tale from his adventures. In this case, gangster Tommy tells his crew how he told told a cop, “go f*ck your mother.”
Scorsese and Ballhaus had two cameras set up: one centered on Pesci and the other centered on Liotta. The shot is wide enough to fit three or four others on either side. “Medium shots, no close-up, because the body language of the people around them was as important as their own,” Scorsese told GQ in 2010.
Ballhaus, a master D.P. who made 15 films with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, knew how he wanted to handle it. “You cannot move the camera in a scene like that,” Ballhaus told GQ. “Because it will take attention away from what’s happening.”
With the conditions set, it was time for Pesci to deliver. None of the other actors knew what would happen in the scene, so their reactions are natural, in the moment. They cringe and get nervous the way everyone in the audience does. And the cameras never had to stop rolling and break the mood.