Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster film, Goodfellas released 31 years ago on September 19. The movie not only proved to be a gripping look into the harsh life of gangster Henry Hill but also became one of the best gangster movies of all time.
The movie starring Ray Liotta as Henry Hill also had Robert di Nero as Jimmy Conway, Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito. Amid all the gangsters, played by men in the film, there was Lorraine Bracco, who played the role of Karen Hill — the only female in the lead cast.
Bracco played the role of Henry Hill’s wife in ‘Goodfellas’
Karen Hill was a Jewish girl who fell in love with a gangster. Bracco took the role, after being considered against candidates like Madonna. She also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Female) for her part. Despite these accolades which came later, Bracco found the role draining. She told The New York Times that playing the role of the lone woman in a brutal and violent world of male gangsters was emotionally challenging for her.
She believed she had to work hard on her performance to avoid getting her scenes edited from the movie.
“If I didn’t make my work important, it would probably end up on the cutting room floor,” Bracco said.
Bracco felt immense burden as the only woman in a group of men in the movie. She was sure had her performance not been extraordinary, it would not get the same importance as her male counterparts.
“Marty said to me, ‘I know you think I only make men’s movies, but I really love this character, Karen.’” Bracco said. “But I think if push came to shove, if the performance wasn’t there, he would have geared the film more to Ray and the boys, so I felt a little bit of extra pressure on me.”
Bracco found Karen and Henry’s relationship unhealthy
In the movie, Bracco’s Karen is initially concerned about Henry’s illegal activities. But she gives in when she falls in love with him and his out-and-about lifestyle.
Karen marries Henry despite her parents’ approval. The movie looks at Karen and Henry’s turbulent relationship as she unwittingly becomes associated with Henry’s criminal activities. During their first date, Henry seems extremely rude and then he stands her up for what is supposed to be their second date.
In a particular scene in the movie, Karen also torments Henry’s mistress with her words. In another, she holds a gun in her trembling hands pointed toward Henry as she threatens him over his infidelity.
Yet she chooses to help him break and evade the law. Bracco noted that Scorsese and Liotta believed Henry’s affection for Karen to be genuine. While Bracco agreed, she had a different opinion of their relationship.
“I see no difference between an abused wife and Karen Hill,” Bracco said. “There’s nothing, nothing, nothing romantic about this. I said to Marty[Scorsese] and Ray[Liotta] a hundred times, ‘I want to leave him.’ And on those days we’d do improvisations: ‘I’m leaving you, Henry,’ I’d say, and he’d[Liotta] say, ‘You can’t honey. You have nowhere to go.’”
The real Karen divorced Henry in 1990
Apart from Karen’s soft spot for Henry, her character was not portrayed as timid and helpless. She was always torn between staying with Henry and going out by herself, and she always chose the former. But their relationship was a larger critique of the power dynamics of marriages in gangster families.
Eventually, though, Karen did decide to leave Henry. While Henry agreed to become an informant for the FBI and went into witness protection, he still got arrested for cocaine trafficking in 1987. Karen, even after divorcing Henry, retained an alias to protect her identity.
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