From a young age, I was fascinated with movies. As I grew older, I wanted to learn everything about them. One of my first introductions to the world of post production came when I was around 10 and was helping my father shoot a video for a church youth group. My dad set up the camera in a hallway and filmed a teenage boy walking to a door. He cut, and then we moved inside of an office where he trained the camera on the door. He called action and the boy opened the door and stepped into the room. And that’s when I realized what editing was: those shots would come together, and that’s how he gets into the room.
Up until then, I took movies for granted, assuming they played out they way they did just because, and was delightfully unaware of the process by which separate shots were cut together into a whole. The script is where the movie begins, but editing is where the movie is made. Up until then, the film is a series of shots, and they can be arranged in a linear or nonlinear timeline, and that’s where the story comes together. Like a maturing pallet, my appreciation and understanding of good editing has come with age, and I’m always struck by stellar examples of when editors cut, or don’t cut, to enhance the emotional impact of a film. I could go on and on listing off examples of great editing, such as Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, or Psycho, going into detail about how the cuts shaped the picture, but I want to focus on something that I only recently learned about: Goodfellas did NOT win the Oscar for Best Editing in 1991.
So much has been written about Dances With Wolves upsetting Goodfellas for Best Picture and Best Director, and I agree with all of those points. It’s obvious the Academy has failed to recognize masters of the genre of their time, particularly when it comes to directors. Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick never won Oscars for directing (honorary Oscars don’t count), so there’s obviously something wrong there. But much how classical composers found fame and appreciation long after their deaths, the truly great directors and their films have found their rightful place in cinematic history years or decades after their greatest works first screened for audiences. I get that the Academy doesn’t always honor the “best” work of the year. It’s a voting contest like any political election or high school homecoming court and subject to bias, uninformed voters, and arbitrary factors that take on more meaning that they should. So while I can understand (but certainly don’t condone) how the Academy in 1991 looked at Kevin Costner’s directing debut, a historical epic, a major movie star’s shift behind the camera, and another stellar depiction of the plight of a minority group…with a white protagonist, as the Best Picture over the kinetic, violent, and seductive brilliance of Scorsese’s gangster opus, I cannot for the life of me understand how they overlooked the stellar work of Thelma Schoonmaker and her amazing cut on Goodfellas.
Goodfellas moves with such a rapid fire pace that the first 45 minutes feel like 3 hours, and not in a bad way. You’re sucked into the world of Henry Hill though his eyes. The movie cuts, whip pans, dollies, and freeze frames at the perfect moments. Two parts of Goodfellas‘ stellar editing stand out to me, the beginning of the film where you’re rushed through Henry’s early years but never feel like you’re being hustled along, and the “last day of the wise guy” sequence that follows Henry through his last day as a coked out, paranoid drug dealer trying to get everything together. There’s such a beautiful rhythm to the edits, they carry you in a way that mirrors what is happening onscreen, but without being ostentatious or distracting. This is a movie that is dictated by pacing and tone, all of which are shaped with the editing. The movie isn’t as great without it, and it’s a shame it wasn’t recognized for it’s technical merits. Schoonmaker has edited every one of Scorsese’s films since Raging Bull and is a three time Oscar winner. Up until this point, I had always assumed that one of those was for Goodfellas, but I was wrong. She won for Raging Bull and received a number of nominations since but didn’t win again until 2005 and 2007 for The Aviator and The Departed.
Goodfellas is considered by many to be Scorsese’s greatest film, but in the hands of a lesser skilled editor, it might not be quite the fluid, hypnotic, and powerful story that we have all grown to love over the years, a modern classic in every sense of the word. If you haven’t seen it recently, watch it again, and pay attention to the editing (it won’t detract from the story in any way, it will enhance it). You’ll be watching it and appreciating the work that went in to putting everything together.