The Painting In ‘Goodfellas’ Is Based On A National Geographic Photo From 1978
One of the most interesting movie scenes of all-time is the dinner scene in Goodfellas, which turns 30-years-old in September. For one, the entire scene was improvised. Secondly, the star of the dinner scene isn’t Academy Award-winning Robert De Niro (James Conway), Golden Globe-nominated Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), or accomplished character actor Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito). The star of the scene was Catherine Scorsese, the mother of Goodfellas director Martin Scorsese.
“She perceived it as, ‘My son’s making a film. And these are my son’s friends,'” Martin Scorsese said of his mother’s performance in his gangster movie. “It wasn’t De Niro. It wasn’t Joe Pesci, it wasn’t the level of these incredible actors. It was literally my son’s friends.”
The scene was so unforgettable because the actors are interacting very naturally. Tommy DeVito is cracking jokes and eating his mom’s leftovers with his fellow mafia members (spoiler alert) only minutes after nearly killing Billy Batts. They have a dead guy in the trunk of their car, and they’re making inside jokes about the half-dead guy in the trunk of the car right outside.
Tommy is borrowing his mom’s kitchen knife because he needs to cut off the paw, errr hoof, of a deer they hit. Then Tommy’s mother proudly displays her new painting, a man in a boat with two dogs.
“I like this one. One dog goes one way, and the other goes the other way,” Tommy says. “And this guy’s saying, ‘Whaddya want from me?’ The guy’s got a nice head of white hair. Look how beautiful with the dog.”
“Looks like somebody we know,” De Niro says. And then Pesci replies, “Without the beard! Oh no, it’s him! It’s him.”
Scorsese’s mother didn’t actually paint the painting. But someone else’s mother did. The painting was painted by the mother of Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplay for Goodfellas and Casino.
“They improvised everything, the only that was written was, ‘Did you seen my painting?’ Which was from Nick Pileggi’s mother, it was her painting,” Scorsese said of the iconic scene.
“All that went on with two cameras, and I just sat there. Two cameras and a small little house in Astoria, Queens,” Scorsese said in an interview. “It’s a very special thing. She does love her son unequivocally.”
The Goodfellas oil painting of the bearded man with the dogs in the boat was based on a photograph from National Geographic magazine. The man with the nice head of hair is real, and he was featured in a photo from the November 1978 issue of National Geographic.