Forget the Gangsters, Lorraine Bracco Is the True Star of GoodFellas
by Robert Silva
The woman’s side of the story is an essential part of the crime classic.
It’s a standard role in Hollywood: The Wife. The chronic nagger who thwarts our determined hero from achieving his big dreams. By the end, she usually begs for forgiveness. In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Lorraine Bracco’s stunning performance as a mob wife upends that norm. She’s anything but incidental to the drama, yet her role is still one of the most neglected elements of the widely hailed masterpiece.
True, Goodfellas follows the unrepentant, rise-and-fall of gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), but when he meets his eventual wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos) at the 28-minute mark, the movie is never quite the same. We get an outsider’s perspective on the mob life — and the film’s second narrator. We start to see the world through her eyes.
Take the iconic Copacabana nightclub sequence. The endless tracking shot set to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” is a stunning piece of choreography. But more than fodder for film nerds, its purpose is to put the audience in Karen’s shoes: swept off her feet, floating in a dream that’s soon to turn into a nightmare. (It concludes, tellingly, with a comic making tired wife-jokes.)
So much of Goodfellas, in fact, is focused on her immersion into the Mafia lifestyle. It starts with Henry placing a bloody revolver in her hand to hide, after pistol-whipping her abusive neighbor. As the film progresses, Karen hides many more things for her husband: drugs, weapons, but perhaps most destructively, her own emotions.
It’s a role only Lorraine Bracco could have played. The actress, who got her start modeling in Italy, before being cast in a spate of supporting parts in the 1980s and whose marriage to Harvey Keitel brought her into the Scorsese fold, embodies Karen Hill with an authenticity that feels artless. There doesn’t seem to be a line between the character and the performer. (The real-life Karen Hill refused to be involved in the production, so one imagines the role is largely Bracco’s creation.) It’s not always clear how much Bracco is doing until one realizes she’s playing something very particular: a woman who’s acting. A woman pretending her life is normal, and beneath her tough exterior fears it never will be.
The cracks start to show when Karen meets her fellow mafia wives: “They had bad skin and wore too much makeup. I mean, they didn’t look very good. They looked beat up.” She sees the underside of Henry’s glamorous life. She also sees her future.
Indeed, Bracco’s character arc is perhaps the most profound of any actor in Goodfellas. She goes from a nice suburban Jewish girl to a burned-out drug dealer, loading diaper bags with cocaine. It’s a performance that embraces the range of human emotions, and a complex one by Bracco who is at once playful, vulnerable, tender, numb and angry.
Still, Bracco had her doubts about her character’s place in the final film.
“If I didn't make my work important, it would probably end up on the cutting room floor,'' Lorraine Bracco remarked when Goodfellas was released. (On set, she also went beyond the page, working with Ray Liotta on improvisations to fill out the scripted character.)
Perhaps she was prescient. Karen Hill does seem to remain on the cutting room floor when it comes to popular memory of the film. With its explosions of violence and tough talk, Goodfellas is often considered the ultimate guy’s movie. That reputation only tells half the truth. Bracco’s portrait of Karen is the counterweight to a stylish, seductive crime drama — it shows what’s beneath the surface, and who gets hurt. She might be remembered as the nagging wife, but she’s also the conscience of the gangster classic, and its chief casualty as the high life crashes and burns in the third act.
Joe Pesci asking, “Do I amuse you?” is an essential moment in the film, but so is the scene where Karen wakes her husband with a revolver pointed to his head. “But still I couldn’t hurt him,” she says in voiceover with convincing sincerity. “How could I hurt him? I couldn’t even bring myself to leave him.” She gets slapped and thrown to the floor. Then Henry points the gun at her head and threatens to kill her. Scorsese frames it in a wide shot to show Karen’s helplessness, and Henry’s physical dominance. “I’m SORRY!” she bawls.
It’s not so amusing to watch, but it says everything about their relationship.