Directed by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) follows the rise and fall of mob henchman Henry Hill (Raymond, 2002). In this hyper-real world of crime and violence, the men dominate the scene. But its Scorsese’s dramatization of the film’s main female character, Karen Hill, that helps to depict the intensely violent and suffocating world of the mob. Scorsese uses the physical and behavioral transformation of Karen’s character to symbolize the evolution of Henry’s intricate involvement in the mob. As the film progresses, Scorsese takes Karen from being an illustrious Jewish beauty with a bad temperament to a paranoid, coked-out alcoholic who has let the life as a mobster’s wife beat her down.
When Scorsese first introduces Karen into the story she is the girl next door with something brewing underneath. Scorsese depicts her as prim and proper - almost innocent and pure - through her stylistic choices. Her clothes are classic, stylish, and modest and her hair and makeup are simplistic, which gives off this image of a proper and beautiful woman who goes through life safely. Yet, Scorsese also shows the audience her aggression - a fieriness brewing under the graceful surface. She has a bite and isn’t afraid to fight (Quart 1991). Karen, in many ways, reflects the world of the mob for Henry in these early years. Much like Karen, there is this haze of beauty and grace surrounding mob for Henry. At this early point in his gangster career, he is still in the honeymoon phase; he loves his life in the glamours and stylish mob world. But, also like Karen, there is an underbelly of trouble and mischief brewing in Henry's mob world, which is what Henry finds most attractive about both the gangster life and Karen.
This early version of Karen, who’s an outsider, ambitious, and pure, starkly contrasts the other mob wives she mingles with. Scorsese dedicates an entire scene to contrasting Karen with the other wives to draw attention to her and Henry’s place in this world. The other wives - whose husbands have surpassed the level of naivety that still surrounds Henry - are presented as vulgar and excessive (Quart 1991). Their makeup is unnatural and makes them look haggard. Their clothing is mismatched and their jewelry is bold and over the top. In appearance alone, they dramatically contrast the soft and posed appearance of Karen. Their behavior also contrasts Karen’s. At this point in the film, Karen is much more reserved in her actions. She acts out when she needs to, showing that she is tough enough to stay in this world, but overall she is calm and respectful. She is seen cuddling her kids and allowing the police to search her home without putting up a fight. The other women, on the other hand, beat their kids, shout constantly, act brutish, and speak their mind without any reserve. They represent, in both appearance and behavior, the brutish, gaudy, and excessive life in the mob. The mob wives embody the collective identity of the family - whereas Karen still has her individual identity. The other women and their husbands are fully engaged in the mob life - they are fully apart of the family and there is no foreseeable future outside of this world. Henry and Karen are still outsiders in this world. They both have yet to completely experience what it takes to become part of the family. They are both naively going through the motions of mob life, but it isn’t until Henry conspires against the family and helps Tommy and Jimmy kill Billy Batts that he passes the threshold into the real mob life.
When Henry partakes in the murder of the “made man” Batts, he is fully integrated into the mob world - it is the point of no return. And subsequently the beginning of his downfall (Verevis 2007). Henry has completely lost his former self and has begun to resemble the other mob members - he gets side girlfriends, he buys a garish house, and he lies to Paulie. This is also the point when Scorsese begins to morph Karen into a mob wife. She begins to dress excessively with more bold jewelry and louder outfitters and she is more aggressive and erratic in her behavior, most notably holding a gun to Henry’s head while he’s asleep. As Henry gets pulled deeper and deeper into the underworld, Karen slowly evolves from the respectable and sane woman she was at the beginning of the film to the garish and ostentatious wife of a gangster.
Finally, as Henry embarks on his career as a drug dealer and delves deeper into the underworld of mob life, Karen evolves even more into the other women in this world. During the climax of the film, Scorsese presents a very different Karen from the proud, respectable Jewish woman she was at the beginning of the film. She drinks and smokes excessively, she takes hits of cocaine, she looks worn down and beaten, she has dark circles under her eyes, and she is unkempt and paranoid. She goes along with whatever Henry tells her to do - just like other loyal mob wives. And this time when the police show up at her door, she doesn’t cordially invite them into the house. As Karen is pulled deeper and deeper into this world with Henry, she evolves and adapts to mirror it physically in her own appearance and behavior.
But even as Karen is physically transforming into the dark underworld of mob life, there is still an element of her own individuality that remains. Despite her gaudy jewelry, Karen still remains dressed in stylish clothing, unlike the other mob wives. Despite her haggard appearance, she never wears caked on makeup like the other mob wives (by the end of the film, she isn’t wearing any make at all). Perhaps this is Scorsese’s way of foreshadowing that Karen and Henry will truly never be apart of the family. They will always be outsiders looking. No matter how close they get to the inside, they will never truly be real Italian mobsters, which is why they could so easily give up the operation to the police.
Scorsese’s evolution of Karen’s appearance and behavior mimics the violent, excessive, and unhinged world of the mob. Karen evolves from being a well put together respectable woman to a paranoid, beaten down alcoholic. By the end of the film, there are little to no traces of the Karen from the beginning of the film, only a woman how has let the mob world fully integrate into her life, down to her erratic behavior and tacky jewelry.
Raymond, Marc. Martin Scorsese. Senses of Cinema. Flushing, New York. November 17, 1942. http://web.archive.org/web/20100130094630/http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/scorsese.html (9/5/2013).
Quart, Leonard. “Cinéaste.” Cinéaste, vol. 18, no. 2, 1991, pp. 43–45. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41687827.
Verevis, Constantine. “Way of Life: Goodfellas and Casino.” Gangster Film Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 2007, pp. 209–213.