Forget “Marvel vs. DC”- there is a discussion that has been going on for years that is much more intriguing to movie fans:
The Godfather (1972) by Francis Ford Coppola vs. Goodfellas (1990) by Martin Scorsese.
Due to the 25th anniversary of the latter, four Supernaughts- writers decided to heat the old debate up again and we pitted these two classics of the gangster genre against each other! Which movie will win?
Some notes in the beginning:
- Nobody saw the contributions of the other writers beforehand, myself included. Parallels in the argumentation are unintended and coincidental.
- It’s only a fun match: not to be taken too seriously.
“Can’t we all just get along?” I know it’s a worn out cliche – a punchline, even. But that’s the first thing that I think, whenever the two movies are pitted against each other. You see – I like to think that they have both pretty much earned their place in the selected club of “Classic Films”.
True, they have some similarities; both are adapted from books (Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy), both are dealing with organized crime, both tell a story of one man rising in the ranks, and both were directed by men that had something to prove. Yes, Francis Ford Coppola had won an Oscar for the screenplay of Patton, but his directing career was NOT going so hot: his two previous films as director – The Rain People and Finian’s Rainbow – were both massive flops. And Scorsese was just coming off the massive public backlash of The Last Temptation of Christ. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
The Godfather is a work of fiction, Goodfellas is based on a true story. The Godfather is a family chronicle at heart, the Mafia- thing is pretty much just a backdrop. And the man in the spotlight is Michael Corleone – the “good son”, who slowly accepts his fate as the only true future head of the family. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill is really an outsider who is just observing the dealings of the organized crime. As neither he nor Jimmy Conway are Italian Americans, they can never really BE part of the “family”. Only Tommy can – and look how well that works out for him!
And then there’s the completely opposite styles in which these films are made. Whereas Coppola made The Godfather in a very restrained, almost classical Old Hollywood- style of static shots, long takes, operatic melodrama that’s occasionally shocked by sudden bursts of violence – with Goodfellas, Scorsese went almost rogue. The film is like a rollercoaster- ride of music, fast-paced editing (slow-motion, jump-cuts, continuity occasionally all but disregarded), zipping camera-shots, performances of heightened energy and pent-up violence and a kick-ass soundtrack.
And that’s as good as an analogy I can come up with, actually: The Godfather is classical music, Goodfellas is Rock’ n’ Roll. And as anyone who loves ALL music like me (well, almost all), there’s a time when you wanna listen to classical and a time to listen Rock’ n’ Roll. But you love both just as much. Same applies to these two films.
There’s no reason to draw this out, I think Goodfellas is a far superior film to The Godfather. Okay, maybe not superior, but a better film. On the surface, and given my bias for movies from the 70’s you would think The Godfather would come out on top.
After all, The Godfather has an all-star (though relatively unknown then) cast, a score people still remember, based on a bestselling novel, and some of pop culture’s most enduring icons (well, okay one icon, Brando’s Godfather). It has everything I love about 70’s cinema, but it has one fatal flaw.
The Godfather is one of the most boring movies about the Mafia ever made. That goes for the sequel, and I won’t even talk about the abortion that was Godfather III. They’re overlong, with a lot of stilted direction, and some dialogue that would be too cheesy for comics of the time. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure why it gets all the adoration it does, as it’s really average. I can think of several other movies that are far more interesting, and better made.
That includes Goodfellas. If The Godfather was a Quaalude, then Goodfellas would be crystal meth. Goodfellas picks you up by the collar, shakes you like a baby and never lets go. The Godfather is your 90-year-old grandfather telling you the same story you’ve heard over and over and over again. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad, at least not the first time. However, as the movie(s) drag on, you lose interest in the characters.
Goodfellas has such an iconic opening, with an incredible array of characters that you get hooked from the get go. Certainly the Godfather has its own classic scenes, the wedding, the horses head, etc., but they’re so far in between one another, you could have a power nap and not miss anything. For me, with Goodfellas, there’s simply not one wasted scene. In spite of its running length of almost three hours, Goodfellas certainly feels like it’s half that time.
And while The Godfather has the classic line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” Goodfellas has, “How am I funny?” I also think Joe Pesce’s character would kick the shit out of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone. The dialogue in Goodfellas is smarter, funnier, grittier, and sounds more realistic to my ears while the Godfather’s is more formal and theatrical. Much of that can be laid at the feet of Mario Puzo who wrote the novel. The book is a bestseller because of the story, not because it was well written. Puzo has never been a good writer, but at times he has been a good storyteller.
And then there’re the directors: Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. I think it’s safe to say that Coppola has been far more hit and miss with his work than Scorsese. Outside of The Godfather, and possibly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, naming classic Coppola- movies is a bit of a head- scratcher. With Scorsese, it’s a matter of which of his movies you want to mention, as he’s had very few bad movies. Even his misfires are still interesting to watch where with Coppola, his misfires are nearly unbearable.
At the end of the day, both movies deserve their place in the mobster genre as the pinnacle of achievement, but Goodfellas is simply a movie that is hard to beat in any genre.
Is there a point in comparing those two movies? Two undisputable classics of the gangster movie genre that can very much stand on their own? Anyway, if I had to decide, I’d rank Goodfellas over Godfather any day. Don’t get me wrong, I do like The Godfather (especially the sequel), but only “like”, not “love”. Goodfellas made a much bigger impact on me and with each revisiting, the margin between those two is steadily increasing.
There is the old adage that The Godfather is opera and Goodfellas is Rock n’ Roll, and it’s a pretty astute assessment I guess, but occasionally, Coppola’s opera is more of the soapy kind. Yeah, the Mafia as it is portrayed in Godfather is pretty much a romanticized projection by writer Mario Puzo, while the blue collar gangster organization in Goodfellas is based on the authentic accounts of a former member, Henry Hill. Now there is nothing wrong with some romanticizing and Goodfellas is, with Scorsese’s larger-than-life approach and considering the braggard nature of Hill, who was probably not a 100% reliable narrator, surely not a completely accurate depiction of reality. But The Godfather has a few melodramatic and pompous bits, especially when it comes to the “code of honour” of the Cosa Nostra, that are a bit hard to digest for me when I watch it now, not least because they are made-up bullshit. When gangsters talk in Goodfellas, the words may still be shaped into pointed dialogue, bit sound far more believable and the dime novel- feeling that pervades the verbal exchanges in The Godfather at times. Another thing that puts Goodfellas ahead of The Godfather is its relentless pacing, which results in a greater rewatchability. I know, these are not necessarily fair, objective arguments, but it is what it is.
Is it daring to claim that Goodfellas’ impact on cinema is at least as big as The Godfather’s?
Let’s take a closer look. Without a doubt, The Godfather resurrected the gangster epic and elevated it onto a new artistic level. It was also one of the movies that strengthened the rise of the director-driven “New Hollywood” era with its hitherto unmatched success- for a few years, it was the most successful movie ever made. Marlon Brando’s comeback might be one of the greatest comebacks ever. There are lots of classic scenes, like Brando’s death scene and of course, the triple montage at the end. Not to speak of the sensational structure of The Godfather II.
But Goodfellas can easily live up to that. Scorsese’s film pretty much defined the look of 90s movies, with its marvellous cinematography, the energetic editing and the pitch-perfect production design. The way Goodfellas depicts the fashion and look of the different decades shall be studied forever, another area where it is again confidently walking the fine line between stylization and plausibility. The careful costume choices for each character for example are almost an examination of bygone fashion eras, while still upholding a sense of believability: We can still believe that those characters actually wore those clothes and it does not turn into a ridiculous, condescending retro fashion show like the derivative American Hustle.
How would the films of Tarantino or Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson look if Goodfellas would not exist? Vastly different, I guess. Even Scorsese’s friend De Palma, himself responsible for a verified classic of the gangster movie genre, was definitively influenced by the film when he made the underrated Carlito’s Way. Furthermore, you can find traces of the impact of Goodfellas in the works of Guy Ritchie, Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle, David O. Russell etc., etc.
One of the most influential and most copied parts of Goodfellas might be in the last third, when the lead character’s drug fueled frenzy that will lead to his downfall is ingeniously depicted in a restless, seemingly endless montage that has you sitting on the edge of your seat. How often did movies try to replicate that scene? Boogie Nights did it, apart from all the other elements it copied, like applying the same storytelling rhythm for the lead character’s journey. Darren Aronofsky’s movies regularly start igniting this “maelstrom montage” (as I call it) at some point, sometimes already halfway in, mostly for glossing over that they are hollow and trite with some directorial shenanigans (sorry, could not resist). And there is the big difference, the visuals of Goodfellas were slick, stylish and modern, but they never screamed “superficial MTV imagery” like some of its lesser imitators.
Coming to the directors: I always felt that Goodfellas was a very personal work by Scorsese, while the Godfather movies don’t reflect the same passion Coppola put into his two best films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now!. Sure, there is some fine movie artistry on display, but they are a little more manufactured, impersonal and stiffer than the aforementioned two, as if they were more of a demonstration of flawless craftsmanship than an actual labour of heart. Even his lesser regarded (and underrated, if you ask me) films Dracula and Rumble Fish strike me as more heartfelt.
My final resume: The Godfather I+II are great entries into the genre that should be seen by anyone who is interested in movies. Some parts are timeless, other parts did not age that well, but they are verified classics that deserve their status in film history. Goodfellas on the other hand is a movie that will always feel fresh, inspiring and exciting every time I watch it – and I am sure I am not the only one who feels that way.
You can jump into the fire, but you’ll never be free…
Although The Godfather is the “Godfather” of epic gangster (re: Mafia) cinema, I have to give it up for Goodfellas which was not only a brilliant coming of age tale, but was also actually based on true events.
Aside from that what really stood out besides Joe Pesci’s amazing performance is how Marty (Scorsese) implemented various songs within high impact scenes. One of which stood out was when Tommy (Played by Pesci) retaliated against made man Billy Bats for humiliating him previously. Bats got stomped and pistol whipped while “Down by the Ocean” was playing in the background. Then of course there’s that infamous scene whereas several bodies of those who participated in the Lufthansa Airport heist were discovered accompanied by the instrumental version of Eric Clapton’s “Layla”. It was a haunting scene, yet poetic thanks to Clapton’s piece which also served as the ending credits of the film.
Goodfellas was not only some Mobster Film, but in certain ways, a dark comedy. I couldn’t help but laugh after Spider was killed and Jimmy (played by Robert De Niro) berated Tommy for it. Another thing that really stood out about Goodfellas is during the 3rd and final act when Henry Hill (played so brilliantly by Ray Liotta) testified against his former Mob associates Jimmy and Paulie, out of nowhere there was Hill in a charismatic fashion breaking the forth wall. “Everything was for the taking…”
Goddamn if that wasn’t the cherry on top of this sundae!
Now you know why stalks has chosen Goodfellas over The Godfather.
And knowing is half the battle!
The Godfather: 1, Goodfellas: 4
What do you think of the result? How would you have voted? Let us know in the comments!