Conventional market wisdom suggests that getting to an idea first can be just as important as doing it best, if not more so. This is not always the case in Hollywood, where public favor writes the account of history, vaunting some films as eternal classics while remanding their forebears to the dustbin of memory. So what if only one short month separated the release of My Blue Heaven from its slightly younger twin, Goodfellas, perhaps the most universally adored and constantly rewatched American film ever made? Posterity made its choice, leaving the version imagining mob enforcer Henry Hill as a nonstop schtick machine to be largely forgotten as Martin Scorsese’s grittier take on the material was welcomed into the pantheon. But before Ray Liotta made his bones as a member of the Lucchese crime family, there was a magnificently flat-topped Steve Martin.
Today marks 30 years since My Blue Heaven, the first of two diametrically opposed films dramatizing Hill’s life and times, began this odd multiplex 30. In 1985, the book Wiseguy provided an engrossing peek into the world of La Cosa Nostra courtesy of a gangster turned stoolpigeon, laying out an intricate culture of honor codes and power struggles. Writer Nicholas Pileggi wasn’t the only one who had grilled the real-life Hill over a series of revelatory interviews in the early ‘80s, however; his wife, the esteemed writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, was in the room conducting research of her own. Goodfellas got the rights to the book and the name that came with it, while Ephron took the insights gained during this time and went in a more lighthearted direction with the re-monikered creation Vinnie Antonelli. Scorsese’s film began in Hill’s boyhood and deposited him in the purgatorial suburbs of witness protection, while Ephron’s took it from there to explore his second chance on the straight and narrow as “Todd Wilkinson.”
Place these dual impressions of a man side by side, and a few characteristics jump out as evident bullet points from those early meetings. They both took note of his garish shiny suits, his braying guffaw of a laugh and his policy of slipping every serviceperson crossing his path a crisp twenty. Each film duly includes a scene acknowledging that for people with nicknames like Frankie the Fish or Jimmy Two-Times, there’s no greater nightmare than losing access to high-quality marinara and fresh bread. While Scorsese concluded on a note of existential tedium, as the high-living alpha male must resign himself to middle-class schlubbery, Ephron and director Herbert Ross take that as square one and attempt to break through it.
My Blue Heaven starts in one tried-and-true comedy mold and morphs into another, as a fish-out-of-water concept turns into an odd-couple concept. As Vinnie, Steve Martin coaxes the natural humor out from the contrast of a toothpick-chomping mafioso making a go of things in a polite, sleepy Californian town. Though it may seem that funnyman Martin would be playing against type as a tough guy with a mile-long rap sheet — Arnold Schwarzenegger had initially signed on for the role, only to bail when Kindergarten Cop beckoned — he proved an adroit fit. Both portrayals of Hill peg him for a déclassé boor, and Martin’s trademark comic persona of preening obnoxiousness synced up nicely with the demands of the performance. He dresses down a grocery-store clerk for their pitiful greens selection in one memorable moment, punching each syllable of “A-RU-GUH-LUH” like they owe him money. Like so many of Martin’s more deliberately grating bits, it delighted many yet annoyed some.
Dissatisfied with their humble new lifestyle, Vinnie’s wife leaves him in the first act, just around the same time that his nebbishy FBI handler Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis) gets cucked by his own spouse. Suddenly thrust into singledom, the men strike up an unlikely bosom-buddy friendship that loosens the terminally uptight Barney as he keeps Vinnie alive long enough to testify against his former crew. (They bond over a night out doing the merengue at a club — a passage of transcendence, to be sure.) Joan Cusack’s thankless, humorless local D.A. rounds out the main cast as the romantic interest, none too pleased about the mook committing constant petty crimes in her district or the fed that insists on letting him slide. By the film’s end, she and Barney will have warmed up to one another, one in a handful of plot outcomes that feels prescribed by Hollywood’s laws of nature.
While Ephron specialized in elevating canned premises with crackling true-to-life dialogue, this one never aspired to rise above the broadness of its quest to partially redeem Vinnie. His character arc sees him slightly improving himself while holding on to his integral sleazebaggery, sprinkling some Italian seasoning on the “crook with a heart of gold” trope a few months after Pretty Woman applied it to an unusually kindly sex worker. For reasons barely more substantive than the word “reasons,” he commits himself to sprucing up his reluctant home of Fryburg with a new baseball diamond, its completion a sign that he’s still got some good rattling around in his soul. While nowhere near Capra levels of corn, the final act delivers a pair of moments designed to cast him in a sympathetic light: the three-cheers opening of the baseball field, and Vinnie’s court testimony expressing how lonely and isolating the lot of a protected witness can be. He’s a goon, but the man’s still flesh and blood. He misses his family like anyone else would.
The primary project of My Blue Heaven is to soften and humanize the coarse character of Vinnie, to reveal a kernel of relatability in this brusque caricature. In this respect, it forms a mirror image with Goodfellas, with Hill’s arrival in Nowheresville as the reflection point. Pileggi and Scorsese’s coauthored screenplay first dazzles the audience with the seductive appeal of lawlessness, and gradually peels back that glossy surface to reveal the deep moral rot festering underneath. Ephron’s script begins with our preconceived notions about the cruelty of organized crime types, and works back from there in search of something universal and warm. It’s a testament to the adrenaline-rush cinematic pleasures of Goodfellas that the conflicted, pessimistic, three-hour telling of this story would so roundly outsell the feel-good, crowd-pleasing alternative.
Karl Marx said that historical figures appear first as tragedy, and then as farce. Marx was not in show business. Henry Hill’s depictions reverse that order, and in doing so, they clarify the merits specific to these two schools of mass entertainment. This diptych of films, produced and premiered within a sneeze of each other, don’t just posit drama and comedy as equal and opposite forces. They’re complementary ways of seeing the world, a balance between the sobering difficulty of reality and the pleasing breeziness of artifice. We remember Goodfellas today as a work of pop cinema with an unsparing conscience, a battle between the lure of sin and the imperative of decency. My Blue Heaven allows itself lower stakes, and what’s more, allows us the glorious sight of Steve Martin doing his best Jimmy Cagney to growl “You dirty rat!” Just as Hollywood had room for both films on the calendar, we have room for both modes of art in our viewing diet. Man cannot survive on bread alone. He needs the occasional merengue dance break.
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