Cinema is a place of great fortune, where the greatest films are often lightning in a bottle created through the fortunate merger of the perfect minds. Such can lead to strange results as directors and actors are mixed and matched, leading either to cinematic glory or forgettable shlock. For director Martin Scorsese, it is often the case that actors are knocking at his illustrious door begging for a part, having been responsible for some of cinema’s finest ensemble casts.
One of Scorsese’s most celebrated ensembles is the 1990 gem Goodfellas, a sprawling epic about the morality of gangsters in the contextual framework of modern life. Goodfellas is a striking analysis of the illusory glamour of the criminal lifestyle, showcasing how the very definition of the ‘American Dream’ has changed.
“I was interested in breaking up all the traditional ways of shooting the picture,” Scorsese explained. “A guy comes in, sits down, exposition is given. So the hell with the exposition — do it on the voiceover, if need be at all. And then just jump the scene together. Not by chance. The shots are designed so that I know where the cut’s going to be. The action is pulled out of the middle of the scene, but I know where I’m going to cut it so that it makes an interesting cut.”
Starring the likes of Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, the very fabric of this iconic film could’ve been far different if it had been up to the producers who wanted to feature two iconic industry stars in the picture. For the role of Henry Hill, played in the film by Ray Liotta, Warner Bros reportedly wanted to cast Tom Cruise with the Top Gun actor having worked with Martin Scorsese previously on The Color of Money.
Speaking to GQ magazine in 2010, Goodfellas executive producer Barbara De Fina, “I don’t remember there being a lot of choices about who could play Henry Hill,” as she recalls, “there weren’t a lot of actors who could pull it off”. Though, as Irwin Winkler reported, it wasn’t long till the superstar Tom Cruise was part of the “discussion”, yet Scorsese was opposed to the idea, with Winkler remembering, “Marty wanted Ray very badly”.
In addition to wanting Tom Cruise to take the lead role, Warner Bros also reportedly wanted Madonna to play the role of Lorraine Bracco’s Karen Hill. An actress who was certainly “In the mix” according to Barbara de Fina, the producer also remembers that she and Martin Scorsese went to evaluate her chances of being in Goodfellas by going to see David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. Unfortunately for Madonna, it didn’t work out.
The classic Martin Scorsese gangster flick would’ve taken on an altogether more glitzy feel if it had featured both Tom Cruise and Madonna in lead roles, becoming somewhat of a strange parody of itself. Though it sounds like a compelling concept, we’re quite pleased it never happened.