Henry Hill: a Rat, a Junkie, and an American Legend
By Jack Kelly
“O Henry, the pipes, the pipes are calling” Or more like, the grim reaper has finally come to pluck you from your insanely riveting yet, pathetic existence. For those unfortunate souls who do not know who I am referring to, just google it and move along. For the rest of us, the death of Henry Hill probably came not as a surprise or a shock of infinite sadness, but a curious glance of calculable minimalness. My first reaction was “hmm, I am surprised he lived as long as he did.” And then the song “Rags to Riches” by Tony Bennet came dancing through my head with the infamous image of Ray Liotta , who played Hill in Goodfellas saying ” As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be was a gangsta.”
With this opening scene, the legend of Henry Hill was born, for better or worse. For anyone who has watched Goodfellas, it is almost impossible to not be drawn into the magnetism of the cinematic version of Hill, played brilliantly by Liotta. Although the flaws in his character are rightfully displayed by director Martin Scorsese, they are flaws you are immediately seduced by. Scorsese portrays Hill as an unapologetic ‘gangsta’ and mocks you for not having a similar goal. As a viewer, you keep thinking, I would never choose such a life, but I might want it.
Remember this scene with the song “Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals” playing?
play this video and tell me a at least a small part of you wouldn’t want this life?
Possibly the greatest all time scene, ever in a movie.
Anyhow, the question I always pondered when considering the power of the Henry Hill character is how did such a despicable individual become someone I secretly wanted to emulate, if only in a knowingly fantastical sense? Why was the pull of Hill’s character as an attractive as say, a President or an athlete? Partially, this blame of “attractiveness” could be attributed to basic American vices’ and wants’; money, perception of power, and a competitive nature we all secretly adhere to. These traits have always been associated with the aforementioned professions, at least subtly. But the key difference, an athlete and a President are at least considered legal professions that socially acceptable America will commend, at least partially.
But aspiring to be a gangsta? Not so much, and yet,,, the seduction is the same.
But is the character of Hill symbolic of something larger and more prevalent in American culture that is just as easily attributed to Presidents’ and athletes’ alike? Characteristically speaking, to achieve the sort of greatness and level of superiority a President or high-powered athlete must reach, in some ways, the traits of a Henry Hill are more similar when objectively considered. For example, Hill is simply refusing to be “average” and trying to have a life that others are afraid to pursue. At one point in the film, Liotta states “people who show up for shitty paychecks, at jobs they don’t like, have no balls.” This statement is more representative of the character Scorsese is demonstrating in Hill and its appeal to us, might be a reflection of our own collective insecurities and emphasizes that pursuing greatness or ‘above averageness,’ is a gamble that only a small select few dare to take.
In Goodfellas, Hill is taking that gamble. And in real life, maybe we don’t?
So part of the appeal with Henry Hill, speaking strictly from a cinematic point of view, is his determined ability to live a life above average, or at least pursing something different from the expected or required. The ‘gangsterism’ portrayed in Goodfellas is one based in absolute terms of fantasy that barley captures the horrific realities of such a life. Sure, we see the downfall of Hill as a pathetic rat who selfishly and villainously “rats” out his mentor and symbolic father figure for the sole purpose of saving his own ass, but the emotional context is less pursued, than the glorification of the of the happier moments Hill endures as a gangsta.
Fortunately, the real life of Hill is truly commiserable. Nothing about Hill’s actual life is truly intriguing, except for his outright levels of shallowness and impurities. After he ‘ratted’ out all of his friends in the Lufthansa heist (a real life event in Jersey), Hill was placed into the witness protection program, where he continued to get high and did nothing to turn around his life or offer any sense of public good from his shallow existence. Well, except for the book he wrote that Goodfellas was based on.
In some ways, a Goodfeellas sequel would be apropos, to demonstrably destroy the myth of Henry Hill as a sympathetic figure. If America could see Hill strung out on heroin and living the life as a former informant resorting to petty drug dealing to feed his habit, the true picture of a ‘gangsta’ could be adequately explored.
The sequel would “bomb” at the box office and after watching it, intellectually I would nod my head and say “what a scumbag.”
But, most likely the fantasy of Henry Hill will always have an emotionally appeal to all of us, because after all, that character portrayed in Goodfellas, is partial what we all want.
It’s Just A Shot Away- Give Me Shelter