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(Credit: Warner Bros.)


The "$20,000 mistake" behind one of Martin Scorsese's greatest scenes

Martin Scorsese picture Goodfellas is one of the defining films of the 1990s and of the auteur’s long, illustrious career. The crime/biographical drama is an adaptation of the 1985 nonfiction novel, Wiseguy, by journalist Nicholas Pileggi. Starring longtime Scorsese associates Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, the blockbuster also starred Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino, and the all-star cast added a brilliant allure to the already compelling subject matter.

Celebrated as a highpoint in the “mob movie” subgenre, and featuring all of Scorsese hallmarks, even three decades later, the film holds up. Funny yet dramatic in equal parts, the film has an almost operatic feel to it, and across its 146-minute duration, Scorsese takes you on a journey of the soul reflected by Ray Liotta’s leading man, Henry Hill. The film was so influential that its ethos had a massive impact on the development of the Sopranos, according to its creator David Chase. 

Scorsese treats the viewer to many iconic scenes across the film’s long duration. One of the most memorable is the Christmas bar scene. After the pivotal plot point of the Lufthansa heist, Hill and the rest of the crew are celebrating time off at Christmas with their girlfriend’s and loved ones, enjoying the fruits of their “labour”.

It is actually this scene where Scorsese exhibits his majesty as a cameraman. The camera is set behind the bar, and he introduces the extended tracking shot that encompasses a whole host of primary and secondary characters. It turns out, though, getting this shot perfected wasn’t plain sailing. 

If you cast your mind back, at the inception of the scene, the audience is first met with the De Niro opening his arms wide, saying: “Hey, come here you”. After a few shots of serious dialogue between the gangsters, we are met with the image of Illeana Douglas, who plays Rosie. Douglas’ character is really a supporting character in the film’s journey; however, in this scene, she played a crucial part in swapping from the scene’s undercurrent of tension to humour.

We then see Stacks Edwards, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who is pouring drinks. The shot then glides through the bar, and you then end up at the other end of the room where Chuck Low’s Morris is harassing the gangsters about his share of the heist, which develops into a more significant plot point. 

Representing the claustrophobic nature of being a mob girlfriend, the camera tracks back to Douglas, who tells the woman next to her at the bar: “If I even look at anyone else, (Tommy) will kill me.” In her 2015 memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper, Douglas revealed the shocking truth behind this iconic scene. 

Rehearsals for this time-consuming shot took all day, and Douglas, who was still a relatively unknown actress, was telling herself: “Don’t screw this shot up. Don’t do anything phony.” In short, she capitulated. Instead of saying her famous line, she froze and downed the rest of her drink. Scorsese could be heard yelling, “Cut!”.

Understandably, Douglas was mortified. Fearing that she had ruined her chances in front of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Scorsese and De Niro, the tension was palpable. However, all was not lost. Being the gentleman he is, Scorsese diverted the blame from Douglas towards a “technical problem”.

It was not until much later that Douglas would discover the true cost of her mistake. She recalled, “$20,000 mistake, Marty later told me”. She explained that “he never let anyone know but me, but he cared enough that he wanted every actor in the frame to be perfect.”

Furthermore, after her error, Douglas got the scene right for several successive takes. In fact, in her book, she holds the moment up as an embarrassing yet worthwhile lesson in her career. Concluding on the vignette, she shares: “People always ask me, ‘What did you learn from Marty?'”, showing why the auteur is one of our favourites, “That was one. Sensitivity.”

Watch the iconic yuletide scene, below.