Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic “Goodfellas” celebrated its 30th anniversary this month. In honor of the exalted masterpiece, it’s only fitting we dive deep into one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
No, we’re not talking about the Copa oner or the Layla montage, even though both are powerhouse filmmaking sequences deserving of all the attention and accolades they still receive to this day. Instead, we’re focusing on the dinner scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, which one might assume would’ve been largely overlooked given everything else that happens throughout the movie. Yet it still stands out as being remarkably timeless and unforgettable.
Why? Well, for several reasons. There’s the phenomenal (and largely improvised) dialogue featured throughout the scene, a mixture of humor and wit. There’s the dichotomy of the murderous goons (who literally have a person stuffed in their trunk) interacting with Tommy’s sweet-as-molasses Italian mother. And there’s also a whole bunch of nostalgic notions involved, with that kindly old lady wanting to stuff those boys with homecooked food despite the ridiculous hour.
What’s more, many already know that the actress playing Tommy’s mother isn’t just another Hollywood pro, but Martin Scorsese’s actual mother. Catherine Scorsese is in many of her son’s films, as his Marty’s dad, Charles, who plays Vinnie in this particular flick. Knowing all this actually makes the scene feel that much more authentic, especially if you’ve ever watched Marty’s 1974 short documentary “Italianamerican” featuring his parents. Catherine’s performance in “Goodfellas” is essentially indistinguishable from how she was in real life.
“She perceived it as, ‘My son’s making a film. And these are my son’s friends,’” Martin Scorsese said of his mother’s “Goodfellas” performance. “It wasn’t De Niro. It wasn’t Joe Pesci, it wasn’t the level of these incredible actors. It was literally my son’s friends.”
But what about the dog painting? “I like this one. One dog goes one way, and the other goes the other way,” Tommy says about the oddly alluring homemade art. “And this guy’s saying, ‘Whaddya want from me?’ The guy’s got a nice head of white hair. Look how beautiful with the dog.”
The oil painting was quite real, in the sense that it was actually painted by the mother of Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi is the author of the “Goodfellas” source novel and co-writer of the screenplay.
“They improvised everything, the only that was written was, ‘Did you seen my painting?’ Which was from Nick Pileggi’s mother, it was her painting,” Scorsese said of the iconic scene.
The painting itself is based on a real photograph from the November 1978 issue of National Geographic magazine featuring a bearded man and his two dogs in a boat.
Why all the hubbub about this particular painting? Honestly, there’s nothing concrete I can point to in order to say, “This is why it’s so memorable.” In that regard, it’s closer to the similar question of why a certain catchphrase becomes a catchphrase. Some phrases/jingles/pieces of imagery happen to transcend popular culture, while others don’t. Simple as that.