My parents split up when I was a kid, when I was in first grade. My dad’s job had taken us to the northwest suburbs of Illinois, this awful place called Schaumburg, and when my dad left my mom decided to go back to New York City, and she took us kids with her. It was me and my brother and my mom, and we ended up living in a two bedroom in Kew Gardens, Queens. Half the neighborhood was Orthodox Jewish, half the neighborhood was Puerto Rican. I liked it a lot better there.
Back in New York my dad’s parents were really good to us. That was the Italian side of my family, and they were first or second generation Americans. They spoke a little Italian, and their parents - or their mothers, anyway, the only great-grandparents I knew - spoke much more. Grandma and Grandpa were always there for us; whatever other things you could say about them (like the fact that my grandfather was a raging racist with a third grade education), they loved us and they helped my mother out during some truly tough years when she was trying to get back on her feet and raise two little boys on her own.
My mother’s side of the family was Irish. Her sister lived on the same block as us, but we rarely saw her brother, a severe drunk who had blown a piece of his foot off fucking around with an M-80 in a tin can. The rest of her family we saw almost never, but when we did see them I was dazzled because they were so unlike my Italian family; my mother’s cousins lived on Long Island in a big house, and they belonged to a golf club. My Italian family lived in Brooklyn and they thought it was classy to wear too many gold chains and polyester suits.
By the time I was ten or eleven I had this whole thing in my head that Italians - my dad’s people, and I was so mad at my dad for leaving us - were gutter types. I identified as Irish, even though I had dark hair and olive skin and I was the first kid in my class to get facial hair. I wanted to be Irish, to be part of a heritage of poets and green hillsides and Celtic runes and this “Doors of Dublin” poster my mom had on the wall, which was just like 20 pictures of various doors in the city of Dublin. Living in an apartment with a steel door covered in four locks I thought it was breathtaking. We gave our old clothes to kids in Belfast, and my mom gave money to the IRA, who I saw as noble freedom fighters.
The Italians, on the other hand, were base. Greasy and unpleasant, loud and stupid. If the Irish had the noble freedom fighters of the IRA the Italians had the thuggish gunmen of the Mafia. I’d sit around my grandparents’ dinner table with their endless guests - there were guests every night in that house, a procession of aunts and uncles who had no actual blood relation - and listen to these people shout and bellow and say the stupidest things, hands flying everywhere like birds barely bound to their bodies. They would shovel food down their throats, say how full they were, light up cigarettes and then begin phase two, shoveling dessert down their throats and shouting some more. The TV would always be on in the background, blaring to compete with the roar at the table.
My Irish family lived in homes that had hardwood floors and tastefully appointed Mid Century Modern furniture. There might be a quilt draped over a cozy love seat. My grandmother’s house was a tacky nightmare, with a plastic sheet covering the couch and cheap gold plated flourishes on anything gold platable. The ashtrays were over-ornate cut glass. The sauce cooked all day in a pot you could fit three human heads in. There were china cherubs and Victorian ladies whose umbrellas formed the base of a lamp, and there were tassels on things, and in the back yard there was a statue of Mary. Under the statue of Mary were the bones of various dogs. The only connection I saw between my Italian family and the Romans was a predilection for statuary and tombs.
Don’t get me wrong - I loved them. And looking back now, I loved that house on Lincoln Avenue. I loved listening to their stories, some of which centered around the mob (the tale of how my great-grandfather’s competitor in the tailoring business was persuaded to throw himself out of a third story window) and some of which were about the supernatural (don’t kill that fly, it could be Cousin Gina who died on Tuesday, coming to visit with us), but most of which centered around the gossip of the neighborhood. At the time, as a kid still hurting from my parents’ divorce and trying to figure out who I was, it all seemed so crass and low class to me. I didn’t want to be Italian. I wanted to be Irish.
My dislike for Italian things didn’t keep me from pasta, but it kept me from taking Italian in high school (I tried French, failed, and then went for Spanish). It kept me from identifying with the Italian kids I grew up around, big goombahs and greasy wops in my eyes. I had some Italian friends, but they were more white, more culturally passing. It was the 80s in New York, and to me growing up Italian meant growing up guido, and I was too smart and sensitive for that.
Most of all my dislike of Italian things kept me from mob movies. I didn’t see The Godfather films until I was a senior in high school, which considering my status as a huge movie nerd was unbelievable. I could talk your ear off about Kurosawa and Spielberg and horror movies of the 50s and Westerns, but mob movies turned me off. They felt condescending. To me they glorified these people and this side of myself that I didn’t like.
I’ll pause here for an aside of (obvious) self-awareness: I think a lot of it had to do with what I saw inside of myself. Because of the divorce I resented my dad, but I was like a clone of him. I look like him, I walk like him and I even have the same taste in movies and books, despite the fact that he was gone before I got to the really formative taste-making part of my life. Some of that comes from the fact that he left us with records and books, boxes and boxes of them, but I walked a fine line as a kid, not wanting to be too much like him. When my mom was mad she would yell at me and would tell me how much I was like my father and I would get angry and deny it. But it was true; it was like someone had shaved some cells from Joe Faraci and whipped me up in a lab. To me the Irish side represented something more civilized and restrained, but I wasn’t civilized and restrained. I was loud and talked with my hands; I had a quick temper crossed with a generous spirit. I was an Italian, like my father before me.
Anyway, I avoided mob movies until 1990. Goodfellas hit, and I resisted. I loved the movies of Martin Scorsese, but it’s important to remember he had made only one other mob-type film in his whole career up until that point, Mean Streets. And even that was more of a crime movie than a mob movie; it wasn’t about omerta and all that shit. It was like The Outsiders, except the grease in everybody’s hair came naturally.
As much as I was distancing myself from my Italian side, and as much as I disliked mob movies, I went to see Goodfellas. Everybody did. And I was blown away. I was blown away as a movie nerd - it was such next-level mastery that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was so cool, so well made, so thrilling, so funny.
And it was so Italian. But more than that, it was my Italian. Henry Hill, like me, was half-Irish, half-Italian. He was from East New York, the neighborhood where my grandparents had lived. And the people in the movie - the side characters, the weirdos and the hangers on and the background players - they were my family. I was watching people I recognized onscreen; it was like sitting at my grandparents’ dinner table and this procession of guests just happened to be Uncle Tommy and Aunt Janice and Uncle Frankie (I actually had aunts and uncles with those names anyway). The way they talked, the way they zinged each other, the way they dressed was all dizzyingly familiar.
If it had just been the shock of recognition I don’t think Goodfellas would have changed me. There was something else Scorsese was doing with these characters and their world - he understood it and he loved it, but he was also a little distant from it. That scene where Karen hangs out with all the wives and realizes they’re all named Marie and they all have bad skin? I knew that realization. I had been in conversations that had been sidetracked by five minutes of attempts to pin down just which exact Marie we were talking about - is it Joey’s Marie? Or Marie at the bakery? Could it be Marie the one with the nose? Goodfellas recognized the ridiculousness of these people, the ludicrous nature of their bad taste and live wire emotions, and it loved them anyway.
When it came to my family empathy had been hard to come by for me, but Goodfellas made it possible. Scorsese was contextualizing my heritage right there on screen, the very specific heritage of Italian-Americans. Being Italian-American is a weird thing, because you don’t belong to the culture of the old world, but you’re also not quite part of the mainstream culture of the new world (members of my family remembered a time when they weren’t considered white people). I have never seen another movie that nails it like Goodfellas does, the insular nature of this verging on cartoonish culture.
How can it be that fictionalized versions of real criminals made me understand my real life non-criminal (although not for lack of wishing; my grandfather had a novelty “MAFIA” license plate in the window of the car - which he never even learned how to drive) family? It’s what movies do, and while they usually do it in smaller ways, at their best they allow us insights into other human beings. Roger Ebert wrote:
‘Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.’
Movies can get us inside the heads and souls of people in other nations, of vastly different cultures, of profoundly different experiences. But they can also speak to us about ourselves, and that’s what Goodfellas did to me. Usually when films speak to us about ourselves it’s in the abstract - here’s a character going through something similar to what I’m going through - but this was very concrete. It changed me completely.
It’s one of the reasons I understand when people want representation of their culture and gender in film. I had been ‘represented’ before - as a white man everything sort of represents you, because everything is geared to white men - but never had I been so directly represented. Never before had I seen my own people on screen in quite that way. It was revealing. Everybody should have that experience, should be able to look at a movie and recognize directly who they’re looking at because it’s themselves.
I became an Italian after Goodfellas. It wasn’t right away, but it started that night in 1990. Over time I just started identifying as Italian (which everybody else in the world had identified me as anyway. People would be shocked when they saw my beard had red hairs in it) and instead of suppressing the mannerisms and speech patterns that came naturally to me as a guinea from New York I embraced them. I eventually went to Ireland (twice!), and I felt truly at home there, but I know I’m more Italian than Irish. I also eventually saw The Godfather films, and I made peace with my father and today we’re very close. Living in Los Angeles has made me lean into the Italian thing more - there are fewer of us out here, and something I used to take for granted, like buying rainbow cookies (aka seven layer cookies, aka tricolors), takes a little bit of effort. I sometimes drive thirty minutes to an Italian bakery like the one where my grandmother worked, and it makes me happy.
And when I miss that old neighborhood - which is still there, but all the faces have changed and what had been an Italian neighborhood is, last I checked, West Indian - I can watch Goodfellas and I can remember what it was like sitting at that dinner table, clear plastic tablecloth sticking to my elbows, rich sauce in my mouth and the sound of shouting, laughing, arguing Italians in my ears.