The three-minute Goodfellas tracking shot that takes us into the Copacabana nightclub and proves Henry Hill’s bigshot bona fides is one of the most beloved continuous shots in cinema, inspiring similar sequences in everything from Boogie Nights to True Detective. But the story of how one early take went awry provides a humbling lesson in the limits of planning.
As producer Irwin Winkler explains in his new book A Life in Movies, director Martin Scorsese wanted the tracking shot to serve at least two functions.
“Marty found a way to have Henry Hill not only impress his date, Karen, but to show the audience why the world of Goodfellas was so attractive and glamorous,” Winkler writes.
You remember the scene: Henry (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) arrive at the Copacabana, skip the line, head down a staircase and hall, and meet a bunch of, well, goodfellas. Henry hands out dollar bills liberally. They pass through the kitchen and into the dining room. A table is deposited in the front, just for Henry and Karen, someone sends over champagne, Henry lies that he works in construction, drum roll, and the camera moves over to famed comedian Henny Youngman, who greets the audience and delivers his catchphrase, “Take my wife, please.”
“It took us all day to set the actors, hide the lights, time entrances and exits, and and have the Steadicam hit the focus marks,” Winkler wrote. As night fell, they began shooting and got six or seven takes that were “off just a bit either mechanically or dramatically.”
Then Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus got a take that was perfect — until the last moment, when Henny Youngman blew his “take my wife” line—a catchphrase he had said in his act thousands of times over 40 years.
After five more takes of the tracking shot, Winkler writes, they captured the shot perfectly, Youngman nailed his line, “and the crew applauded Henny Youngman.”
Check out Winkler’s book, which is full of anecdotes about Goodfellas, The Godfather, and Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman.
Goodfellas and The Irishman are now streaming on Netflix.