One of the best bits of Goodfellas trivia shared in the Q&A was how that iconic scene became part of the movie. “In rehearsal, Joe was telling a story,” Liotta recalled. “We had two weeks’ rehearsal, which is totally rare in a movie. And Joe was just telling a story about what happened to him in Queens, where some guy said something — and it had to be a connected guy — and the guy said, ‘What, do you think I’m funny?’ And he told the story, and how Marty works, who knows, he’s just a genius guy — and really, the scene starts when the guy comes up and he hits him on the head with the glass. And so Marty decided to put that [story] in front of that. And we improv-ed it, rehearsed it, and we made it up as it happened.”
Improvisation also came into play in the scene where Liotta’s Henry, De Niro’s Jimmy, and Pesci’s Tommy end up having a middle of the night dinner with Tommy’s mother — played by Scorsese’s own mother Catherine. “It would be nice to know, and some of you do know, there were only one or two written lines, about showing the painting,” Scorsese explained in his intro. “The rest was pretty much what it was like, being around my mother and Joe and Bob and Ray, and just her son coming home to say hello to her with his friends.”
Scorsese also recalled the film’s rather bumpy road to the screen: “The previews were one of the worst experiences of my life. They were all in California. I think audiences had to be prepared for what it was.” Such a troubling initial response may well have prompted some self-doubt on Scorsese’s part; Pileggi, who wrote the book Wiseguy that the film was based on and co-wrote the script with Scorsese, remembered, “We were at the opening, at the Ziegfeld, and I was sitting next to him. It was black tie. The movie starts, and I get this elbow. ‘You see that? We shoulda cut that.’ I’m like, ‘You’re in a tuxedo. This is the opening of the movie. We’re at the Ziegfeld. Editing’s over!’”
In the midst of the anniversary love-fest, Liotta noted that, as we tend to forget, the film wasn’t an instant hit when it arrived in theaters that fall of 1990. “When the movie first came out, people saw it, but I don’t think it was some huge box-office weekend. Over time, this is just incredible, 25 years later, people still respond to it, it’s just unbelievable and great.”
Co-star (and Tribeca co-founder) De Niro was a man of few words — as is his style — during Saturday’s panel, but he concurred that the film retains its power not just over viewers, but those involved in its making. “We had a connection. Even though you haven’t seen each other for a while, or very long, you still feel connected when you get back together. As we are tonight.”
Goodfellas’ 25th Anniversary Blu-ray is out May 5. The Tribeca Film Festival wraps up today.