How Similar Is ‘Goodfellas’ to Real-Life Jimmy Conway’s Story?

The Big Picture

  • Goodfellas is not just one of the greatest crime films of all time, but one of the best films ever made period.
  • The majority of the plot points in Goodfellas are 100% real, but some events were slightly sped up or omitted for effect.
  • Robert De Niro’s performance as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas is authentic and chilling, and Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction elevates the portrayal.

Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas is a film that needs no introduction. The definitive mob movie, Goodfellas is not just one of the greatest crime films of all time, but one of the best films ever made period. Full of fantastic performances, the standout of the lot may be Robert De Niro‘s spine-tingling turn as mobster Jimmy Conway. In the long, fruitful history between De Niro and Scorsese, this may be their best collaboration. De Niro turns from charismatic to stone-cold killer at the drop of a hat, and the chemistry between him, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco is undeniable. He plays Conway as a coiled snake, and the audience is always unsure if or when he is about to strike. The famed diner sequence, as well as the scene between him and Bracco discussing Henry’s case display this greatly. However, how close is De Niro to his real-life equivalent, James Burke?

After all, Goodfellas is based on the story of real-life mobster Henry Hill, played by Liotta in the film. Scorsese, De Niro, and screenwriter/author Nicholas Pileggi approached translating Burke to screen in a very interesting way, one full of care and consideration, but certainly some artistic license as well. Let’s see how exactly they arrived at the Jimmy Conway we all know and love.

How Much of Jimmy Conway’s ‘Goodfellas’ Story Happened in Real Life?

Image via Warner Bros.

For Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s part, a lot of Jimmy Conway was taken wholesale from James Burke’s real life, largely because the film was an adaptation of Pileggi’s nonfiction book Wiseguy. The book details the life of Henry Hill. The following events were all portrayed in the book. Burke was obviously a gangster in the Italian mafia, one of Irish origin, therefore incapable of being a « made man ». He was a mentor to Hill, and Tommy DeSimone, who became the basis for Joe Pesci’s character. All three men murdered made man Billy Batts and stopped at Tommy’s mother’s house to get shovels and lime to bury him, and he was still alive in the trunk of the car when they opened it up. Burke also orchestrated the Lufthansa heist and committed a series of murders afterward to keep his co-conspirators quiet.

The majority of Goodfellas’ plot points are 100% real, but perhaps slightly sped up for effect. For example, Batts was murdered a week after the « shoe shine » incident in the film, not the same night. The only things the film gets « wrong » is due to omission, rather than making something up completely. For example, Burke was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for his involvement in a point-shaving scandal at Boston College, due to Hill’s testimony at the trial, which we see dramatized in the film. We never see that crime happen in the movie though. The point-shaving operation is only mentioned in passing by Morrie before his murder. Ultimately, Burke’s life served as the basis for Scorsese and Pileggi to expand on, and tell a story through, not to tell point by point. Artistic license was certainly taken, but nothing to the extreme.

Robert De Niro Made His ‘Goodfellas’ Performance as Authentic as Possible

Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway in a courtroom in Goodfellas
Image via Warner Bros.

Robert De Niro’s contribution to portraying James Burke on screen is phenomenal. In terms of authenticity, he took as many steps as possible to copy Burke to a T. For example, in the famed dinner scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, many people have noted that De Niro puts ketchup on what is seemingly Italian food (a sin) and that he also applies the ketchup in a manner that nobody really does. In his preparation for the role, he went as far as asking the real-life Henry Hill, did he like ketchup, and if so, how did he put it on food? Did he hit the bottle, did he use a knife, how did he do it? The rolling motion we see in the film was exactly how Burke did it in real life.

Beyond just ketchup, De Niro brings a sense of malice and cold-heartedness that makes your skin crawl. He doesn’t even need to speak to get this across to the audience. The push-in on De Niro as he’s smoking a cigarette set to « Sunshine of Your Love » by Cream is just killer. The audience knows exactly what is going to happen, and De Niro doesn’t say a word. There have been a lot of gangsters on screen, and many great actors have chosen to go for brash and bravado to portray them. Even in this film, Liotta and Pesci both use their charisma a lot to make their performances great. De Niro is almost Alain Delon-esque in this role, cool and calm to a frightening degree. This isn’t to say he’s not funny in the movie, but he is playing Jimmy Conway very carefully, and that brings across the wonderful sense of dread that carries throughout the film.

RELATED: Robert De Niro’s Comedies Are Stronger Because He Isn’t Funny

‘Goodfellas’ Is Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese at Their Best

Tommy DeVito, Henry Hill, and James Conway huddled and talking to each other in Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Goodfellas.
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Robert De Niro’s excellent performance and Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction fuse to create perhaps the best collaboration the two have ever done, which is really saying something when you look at just how many great movies they have made together. The aforementioned diner sequence at the end of the film is the perfect example of how De Niro portrays James Burke in the film, and how Scorsese elevates the portrayal through his direction.

Firstly, the scene is shot beautifully by Michael Ballhaus, the famed cinematographer who worked extensively with both Scorsese and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The Zolly, or Zoom Dolly shot is used to perfection. Essentially, Ballhaus moves the camera on a dolly while also zooming with a zoom lens, creating an effect where the foreground stays static while the background changes size, creating a feeling of unease. This was first innovated in Vertigo, and was also used to great effect in Jaws. Scorsese uses it to create this creeping feeling of death, Henry has already been arrested, and he’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop. He knows that Jimmy is a killer and that their friendship no longer stands in the way of that. De Niro plays it very calmly, but you can see in his eyes what he’s going to do to Henry. This is the moment Henry knows he has to turn on him, and it is the moment the film hinges on. Both De Niro and Liotta absolutely nail it, the scene is crafted with the utmost sense of care by Scorsese, and it is edited to perfection by Thelma Schoonmaker, one of cinema’s most influential editors ever. This scene shows you everything you need to know about how Burke’s story was translated on screen.

How you take someone’s true story and create a film out of it is crucial when telling a story like Goodfellas. Neither Scorsese nor De Niro were slouches in the field, and this film shows them at their best. There were certainly certain licenses taken with James Burke’s story. The film exaggerates, heightens, and omits many passages of his life. Yet, the film paints a picture quite an accurate picture of his real life. You really feel like you know these characters. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if Jimmy Conway and James Burke are identical, because the film isn’t about creating a facsimile of his life, it’s about expanding on it to say something larger.

Goodfellas is a timeless film, one that was acclaimed when it came out, is still acclaimed today, and will be watched, studied, and loved by countless fans years after we’re all gone. It is the greatest achievement in a career full of excellence for Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, and we will still be talking about how they transformed this real-life story into a timeless film for years to come.

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