The recent passing of Ray Liotta stirred a lot of fond memories of the actor and the many memorable films he was part of. With a greatest hits list of performances too long to mention, if I am to pick out just one performance and scene, I’m always reminded of the ‘Funny How’ scene in Goodfellas (1990) when I think of Ray Liotta. Rest in peace, wiseguy.
The movie Goodfellas based on the non-fiction crime book entitled Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi was released in 1990. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and adapted for the screen by Scorsese and Pileggi. Based on a true story, the film follows wanna-be wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his life in the Mafia and how it all eventually goes wrong. It co-stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci who both give extraordinary performance as mob partners Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito. In short, I cannot imagine Goodfellas, arguably the greatest gangster film of all time, without DeNiro or Pesci, in which the latter turned in a performance so great that he would go onto win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Most movie enthusiasts will agree that Pesci and his performance in Goodfellas is worthy of watching over and over again. That said, Pesci is incidentally the instigator of one of the greatest scenes in cinema, which takes place at a restaurant, with Liotta as Henry and a cohort of like-minded gangsters listening to one of Tommy’s (Pesci) stories. But before I briefly outline the ‘Funny How?’ scene, it’s noteworthy to mention that this scene was based on an incident that happened to Pesci when he was a young man working as waiter at a restaurant where he told a mobster that he was funny. The mobster as you can probably imagine didn’t response well to the compliment. Fortunately Pesci lived to tell the tale to Scorsese who absolutely loved it and decided it would make for a great scene in the film.
And so back to the scene in question. All goes well at first as everyone seems relaxed and laughing at Tommy’s story. Eventually as Tommy winds down the story and the laughter recedes, Henry tells Tommy that he is a funny guy. Tommy is instantly irritated by the remark and questions Henry about it. A sense of unease settles on Henry’s face as he tries to explain himself to Tommy. But Tommy isn’t satisfied as he continues to push the point. “I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?” Henry begins to feel intimidated, wondering seriously where the conversation had taken a wrong turn. By now the tension in the room is so intense that it seems that Tommy, who has a quick-temper as a mob enforcer, is on the verge of exploding. After what seems like an eternity of silence Henry tries to defuse the situation by playing Tommy’s buff by replying, “Get the fuck outta here, Tommy.” Tommy bursts into laughter revealing it was all a joke but one that had Henry uncomfortably squirming in his chair. Moments later, Tommy is at it again, taking out his anger for real this time on the restaurant’s manager. Henry by now can’t help himself calling Tommy a funny guy and once more for good measure, “You really are a funny guy”.
Its fair to say this scene is a lot deeper than just being a funny scene. It helped audiences further understand who Tommy and Henry were and their relationship with each other. From an acting standpoint, both Pesci and Liotta play this structured but heavily improvised scene to perfection. The rest of the cast had no idea how the scene would play out. They were kept in the dark by Scorsese hoping that like the audience they would genuinely be taken aback by its chaos and comedy.