Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas (1990) - Supporting Actress Sundays

With one important exception, and despite the fact that he (along with Woody Allen and William Wyler) routinely provides some of the best platforms of Supporting Actressness, StinkyLulu's never been much of a Martin Scorcese fan. 'Specially not the bloody crime stuff. Most of the time with Scorsese, I get all confused about why I should care. That said, Goodfellas is perhaps the only mainstream Scorsese film that StinkyLulu's ever almost loved. And a good part of the credit for that distinction goes to Lu's favorite "guide" to caring when caught in the swirling genius of Scorsese...

approximately 34 minutes and 6 seconds
41 scenes

roughly 24% of film's total running time

Lorraine Bracco plays Karen, the "nice Jewish girl" who marries into a whole new way of life when she meets and falls in love with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in the defining performance of his career), an Italian-Irish kid who "always wanted to be a gangster."

From the outset, when Bracco's Karen defies Henry's casual disrespect, it's clear that Karen's a woman unafraid of making herself heard. Karen's passion stokes Henry's own and, before long, the two marry and begin a new life together.

That "new life" -- of course -- is totally enmeshed in organized crime, Henry's first true love.

Scorsese's film is essentially a tragic love story, depicting the lifelong romance between one guy and his beloved mob. Bracco's Karen is Henry's girl, a role parallel to Joe Pesci's trophy-snagging supporting turn as Henry's best pal, Tommy. Karen and Tommy are Henry's most treasured relationships, but he remains defined by his connection to -- and connections within -- "the family." As a result, Bracco's main task in the first section of the film is to convey the experience of (and curious status afforded by) being a wiseguy's wife.

Bracco uses these "Welcome to 'The Family'!" sequences well (video), crafting for Karen an appealing sense of distance -- in it, but not of it -- that maintains the character's presence as a comparatively sane haven amidst all the criminal craziness. When, as example, Karen offers the feds coffee as they execute a search warrant on her home, Bracco's performance establishes a foundation for the rest of the film: Henry's life is her life too, but it's not who she is.

This foundation becomes useful as the film unfolds. As Henry gets deeper and deeper into sketchier work, Bracco's Karen manifests the film's escalating anxiety by raging, sometimes hysterically, on the subject of Henry's casual infidelity. (Note, too, how Pesci's character arc also parallels Henry's descent: Karen's getting crazier and crazier on Janice, Tommy's popping people left and right, and Henry's just digging himself deeper...)

As Bracco's Karen becomes increasingly unhinged, it's a reliable indicator of just how bad things are for Henry.

What amazes me about Bracco's performance is how much she inspires me to like Karen. Even when I saw the film in theatres upon its first release, I was rooting for Karen (not Henry, and certainly not Tommy). Despite the fact that Karen's formidable will and sense of personal integrity always end up crumbling to Henry's demands, Bracco's somehow remains simulteously ball-bustingly strong and palpably vulnerable at the same time. It's one of Bracco's distinctive gifts -- to play those two registers so well -- but, here, it both suits and elevates the role. Bracco's accomplishment is that she allows me to see Karen's choices for what they are and inspire me to like her anyway.

Bracco's most breathtaking scene (aside from her reaction shots during the brilliant "hostess party" sequence) is the scene where the tough as nails, world weary Karen loses her last shred of innocence. As she walks away from one of her most treasured allies, Bracco's Karen realizes he's setting her up (video). The flickers of fear, disbelief, and fury that pass across Bracco's face as she walks down the crumbling sidewalk in a leather dress and 3-inch heels? It's great, instinctive actressing -- strong, smart and absolutely right in the character.

Bracco's performance is rock solid and quiveringly human, opening both empathy and clarity -- helping, in quiet but extraordinary ways, StinkyLulu to care about what happens in Scorsese-land.


Alfred Soto said...

By itself it's a wonderful supporting performance, worthy of the nomination, but gains heft when analyzed beside her crucial work in "The Sopranos." The perfs complement each other: Dr. Melfi's hard-won and ultimately facile professional distance is the state of grace to which a bourgeois mind like Karen Hill's aspires.

JS said...

I'm with you on her instinct but when she starts talking, she loses me (a trend with most of her performances I've noticed).

(All these movies break the 2 hour mark and the ladies had to make us interested to continue on with their opening scene. She seems to be the most absent.)

Oh and since we're on supporting perfs...

Paris J'taime blog-athon. JOIN:


jbnyc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jbnyc said...

Lulu, Thanks again for a great review.

My Favorite line in film:
After Henry savagely pistol whips the neighborhood college boy (who had tried to go too far with her in a backseat), he hands Karen the bloody pistol and tells her to hide it. To which she responds in voiceover: "I know there are women, like my best friends, who would've gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn't; I gotta admit the truth.
It turned me on."

And you're right, the scene of her reacting at the "beauty" party (OMG, how perfect was the casting of those harsh, ugly women? -except Ileana Douglas) and the other one when she realizes that DeNiro might have her sent through a meat slicer is chilling. BTW-the YouTube link you give to that one is the beauty party scene you previously linked. You need to change it to the later scene.

Bracco's Karen was always my favorite part of this film (fav costume: the Pucci silk jersey dress in scene with Ray when she pulls the gun on him)...I also love Debi Mazur as Ray's coked-up mistress. Definitely Ray Liotta's best performance, I fear he'll never reach that height again. Pesci is perfect in a freightening role as the sociopathic, unhinged Tommy. Although, I'm afraid a belated Razzie has to go to Mama Catherine Scorcese as Tommy's mom - her cue card reading or whatever she's preoccupied with off scene is annoying/funny.

Second favorite part of this film: the music editing. I can't think of another filmmaker who makes as good use of music as Scorcese. I can never hear the end of "Layla" without thinking of the montage where the kid finds the gangster couple dead in the Caddillac under a bridge. Fantastic. Unlike you, though, I happen to like Scorcese's films, and I think this one's his best.

PS - When are you gonna post your Burstyn review for The Last Picture Show?

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks, jbnyc.

I corrected the video links and the Ellen review is up here. (I guess I do need to update the archive page, eh?)