The three-minute Goodfellas tracking shot that takes us into the Copacabana nightclub and proves Henry Hill’s gangster credentials is one of the most beloved continuous shots in cinema, inspiring similar sequences in everything from Boogie Nights to True Detective to — perhaps — The Irishman.
With Goodfellas returning to Netflix to kick off 2021, we thought this was as good a time as any to talk about how that famous shot provides a humbling lesson in the limits of planning.
As producer Irwin Winkler explained in his 2019 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 hallway, and meet a bunch of, well, goodfellas. Henry hands out dollar bills left and right. He and Karen pass through the kitchen and into the dining room. A table is deposited in the front, just for the new couple, someone sends over champagne, Henry lies to Karen 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.”
Guess which part of the process presented the most surprising problem?
“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 finally captured the shot perfectly, Youngman nailed his line, “and the crew applauded Henny Youngman.”
In case you think the long tracking glamorizes the gangster life style a little too much, Scorsese’s latest, 2019’s The Irishman, features a long tracking shot that feels almost like a rebuttal. In the new film, a long tracking shot leads us to Robert De Niro’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheehan — who is living in a nursing home, left behind by almost everyone. All his friends are dead, his surviving relatives don’t want to talk to him, and no one’s telling jokes or sending over champagne.
Scorsese acknowledged the similarities between the two tracking shots in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross — without saying if The Irishman tracking shot is a commentary or response to the Goodfellas tracking shot.
“I get it. I knew that when I determined that, that it would be compared to the long take of the Copacabana in Goodfellas,” he said, adding that “it didn’t matter because, ultimately, you know, it’s been 20 years, and so I’ve spent a lot of time in these places—in hospitals and emergency rooms and kind of assisted living places. And I see the people. I’ve been involved with some things that—you know, people having difficult times in their lives, and also just people ending—at the end of their lives.”
We urge you to check out Winkler’s book, which is full of anecdotes about Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Irishman.
Goodfellas and The Irishman are now streaming on Netflix.