More than 30 years after its release, Goodfellas (1990) stands as one of the top films of the ’90s and, to the American Film Institute and many others, one of the greatest American films ever made. Heck, even a million anonymous reviewers give it almost 9 of 10 stars on the IMDB site.
Goodfellas didn’t suddenly acquire its sterling reputation, either. When it first appeared, critics immediately recognized the brilliance of Martin Scorsese’s movie. “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “Not even The Godfather.”
Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby hailed the performances and the director. “There is flash in some of Mr. Scorsese’s directorial choices, including freeze frames, fast-cutting and the occasional long tracking shot,” Canby wrote. “None of it is superfluous.”
By then, Goodfellas had come a long way from its first screenings in Southern California. When the studio previewed the film for audiences, walkouts were the norm. So were comment cards saying “F*ck you.” And on one occasion, angry audience members were calling out for Scorsese.
Preview audiences around Los Angeles hated ‘Goodfellas’
Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas (2020) hit bookstores on the film’s 30th anniversary. In that volume, Glenn Kenny details the ugly — in one instance, borderline riotous — reaction by audience members at early screenings.
In Redondo Beach and another L.A.-area location, audiences first encountered the film as a sneak preview, without warning as to the content. Many didn’t take kindly to the violence.
“After the first preview, it was pretty funny,” producer Barbara De Fina told Kenny. “You could accurately predict the point when all the women would get up and leave.” Even with Warner Bros.’ confidence in the film, the reaction unnerved studio executives.
De Fina recalled another night on which the projection room had some technical problems and had to pause the screening, enraging the audience further. Crew members and executives, including Scorsese, found the need to hightail it out of there in short order. They hid at a nearby bowling alley.
A ‘Goodfellas’ producer recalled an audience member yelling ‘Get Scorsese!’ at 1 screening
Irwin Winkler, the legendary producer who also worked on Goodfellas, had the same recollection as De Fina about hiding in a bowling alley while tech issues got sorted out at an early screening. And in Made Men, Winkler said it got worse in some ways when they returned.
“When we walked back into the theater and the movie was in sync, and the film started again, some guy or some guys started yelling, ‘Get Scorsese!’” Winkler recalled. “How could you have a preview when people wanted to kill the director?”
Fortunately for everyone (and the world of cinema), the mob didn’t get its hands on Scorsese. Neither did studio executives, who summoned the director and producers to Warner Bros. to demand changes to Goodfellas. Though Scorsese did some trimming, he kept the film mostly the same. It just needed the right audiences.
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