Goodfellas is one of my favourite films of all time for a variety of reasons. But over recent years I have come to realise that the portrayal of Karen Hill and Lorraine Bracco’s performance and joint narration of the film are one of the reasons I keep returning to it. It is a rarity in the gangster film genre that a female character is afforded such a central role and even more rare that we get to be privy to how they feel. Indeed it is interesting to compare this to Scorsese’s subsequent gangster films like ‘Casino’ and especially ‘The Irishman’ that caused controversy for it’s lack of female representation. However ‘Goodfellas’ is based on a true story and involves real people. The (apparently) actual story of Karen Hill casts a very different light on the events portrayed in the film. So while the majority of this essay will look at Karen Hill as portrayed in the film, the final part will address how the film diverges (apparently) from some significant parts of her story.
We first meet Karen in the 1963 section when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is already at 21 firmly established in the mafia life working for Paul "Paulie" Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Henry meets her on a double date he has been reluctantly talked into by Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Henry’s rude behaviour on this date initially is off putting to Karen and he stands her up on the subsequent double date, enraging her. This is the point where Karen is also introduced as a narrator. We get to hear how she feels about the events she was involved with throughout the film. She looks back almost wryly at these first two encounters with Henry in her narration. Karen proves that she is not a woman to be trifled with as she gets Tommy to help her find Henry so she can give him a piece of her mind. We then switch back to Henry’s narration. Rather than be annoyed by Karen’s behaviour he is struck by how attractive she is (he compares her eyes to Elizabeth Taylor’s) and their argument turns into a mutual flirtation and he promises to take her on a proper date. The song on the soundtrack is Chariot by Betty Curtis. The most famous version of this song is the English language version ‘I will follow him’ by Peggy March. Ironically Karen has indeed followed Henry just to yell at him. But more seriously Karen will end up following Henry ‘wherever he may go’ (as the song goes) – be it through infidelity, to prison or into the drug trade, as a result of this encounter. As the song continues ‘He (Henry) is my destiny’ for Karen. Possibly Henry was also impressed Karen was the sort of woman who would stand up for herself and who knew her own mind. As the film progresses Henry will come to see that this is both a significant asset and liability in a Mafia wife.
Karen comes from a middle-class Jewish background. Like her we experience Henry’s world from the perspective of an outsider seeing both its attraction and danger. As someone from a different background Karen will several times misunderstand or disregard the rules that Mafia wives are expected to live by with significant impact for Henry over the years.
It is worth noting that over the course of the four ‘dates’ Karen’s dress and hair become more sophisticated indicating her maturing feelings toward Henry On the first ‘date’ she is dressed in blue with a cardigan, which reflects her coldness toward Henry. On the second date she is dressed in red indicating her anger at Henry standing her up. On the third date she is dressed in a floral dress and cardigan indicating her blooming feelings. On the fourth date (at the Copacabana) she is dressed in a black dress suggesting the maturation of her feelings is complete.
Karen gets an insight into Henry's world in the famous scene where he leads her through the Copacabana club. The soundtrack ‘Then he kissed me’ by the Crystals tells of a nascent relationship which ends in marriage echoing the situation between Henry and Karen. Henry and Karen’s courtship progresses with Karen gradually beginning to pick up clues that Henry does not simply make his living in ‘construction’. We get to experience the excitement and romanticism of this courtship through the soundtrack and camerawork. Karen is shown to enjoy the perks that come with being with Henry and to be impressed by his apparent maturity and connections. Like Karen the audience is seduced by the apparent glamour of Henry’s lifestyle. Matters come to a head when Karen is sexually assaulted by a neighbour Bruce. Henry decides to avenge her by pistol whipping Bruce. It is interesting this is the first act of violence we as an audience actually see Henry perform. It is not against a fellow mobster but someone who has hurt someone he is close to. This is an early indicator that while Henry is a committed gangster he has bonds outside the mafia which have their own requirements which may be in opposition to what his mob ‘family’ want. He gives Karen the bloodied gun to hide. This leaves Karen in no doubt about Henry’s criminal background and what he is capable of. But rather than being repulsed her narration relates ‘I got to admit the truth- it turned me on.’
This seals Karen and Henry’s relationship and the next scene is of their Jewish wedding ceremony. Karen’s narration discusses how she was introduced to Henry’s ‘family’ at their wedding. She jokes about being introduced to countless Marie’s, Peters and Pauls and how disorientating this was. The camerawork and soundtrack of the Harptone's ‘Life is but a dream’ re-enforces the dreamlike nature of the scene. The words ‘My life, my love’ repeat over the scene confirm that with marrying Henry Karen has entered a very different way of life.
We get a clue as to why Karen chose to marry Henry in the following scenes between her and her parents when Henry fails to come home from a night with his gang friends. Her mother berates her for not knowing where Henry is but Karen angrily accuses her of controlling her father’s life and not understanding (or indeed caring) how she feels. Karen did not want to replicate her parent’s relationship with her mother domineering her father. She has chosen Henry because he has shown himself to be independent and go getting. She also wants to move beyond the confines of the respectable world she has known. Karen’s mother asks if she knows what sort of person Henry and his friends really are and there is a lot of truth in this. When I asked Lorraine Bracco about her feelings about Karen at a BFI Q and A about the film a few years ago she said she felt Karen marrying Henry was an act of rebellion, and that she felt she had to stand by it even if it meant spending almost twenty five years married to a mafia member. It is worth noting Karen was only nineteen when she married Henry and had only known him four months- it is arguable whether she truly understood what she was getting herself into.
The scene of Mickey Conway’s (Julie Garfield) hostess party is a further baptism into life as a mafia wife for Karen (‘We weren’t married to nine to five guys but the first time I realised how different was when Mickey [Conway] had a hostess party’). She expresses her horror at how badly dressed the other mafia wives are, their heavy make-up and how ‘beat up’ they look (this could both mean how worn out they look but also that they bear signs of domestic violence), the casual violence they say they dole out to their children and how they complain about their domestic woes. Karen is physically separated from the other wives in this scene and chats with the beautician Rosie (Ileana Douglas) who like her is a young Jewish woman, sharing with her incredulous looks at what they are overhearing. The mafia wives in this scene are all middle aged with craggy faces and frumpy clothing. Scorsese shows them as slightly ridiculous hags with exaggerated facial expressions (note in particular the women who complains of being sexually harassed with her prominent facial mole). This is in sharp contrast to the manner that the male gangsters are portrayed earlier with their smart suits, bonhomie and self-possession. One woman even has her face half covered in a blue cosmetic emphasising that there is something ridiculous about her. We also do not get introduced to these women individually as we are with Henry’s associates with their colourful names- they are just a bunch of women (although one of them is Frankie Carbone’s wife). This indicates that Karen did not become close to any of these women bar Mickey (and even then this is a semi forced friendship). Mickey relates the misfortunes of a woman called Jeannie, who as well as having a husband in prison is dealing with her son being arrested for murder (which caused her mother to die of a heart attack). The other women lap up this tale of woe (while ostensibly sympathising with Jeannie) but it horrifies Karen. The soundtrack of this scene is the Shangri La’s ‘The leader of the pack’ which tells of a girl who falls in love with a ‘bad boy’ against parental approval only for it to end in tragedy. The words ‘Look out, look out look out!’ from the track are emphasised over a shot of Karen’s eyes expressing her concern at the world she has gotten herself involved in.
Karen discusses her concerns with Henry that night. He tries to laugh them off. Karen expresses particular concern over the possibility that Henry may go to prison like Jeannie’s husband. Henry jokes that Jeannie’s husband deliberately got caught so he could get away from her. He says that no gangster gets caught unless he wants to. These words are particularly interesting given later events when Henry does indeed get caught and imprisoned. Henry finally silences Karen’s concerns by initiating sex and we hear Karen justify Henry and his friends activities (‘ After a while It all got to be all normal- none of it seemed like crime’) over a love scene emphasising ,somewhat unsubtly, how seduced Karen has become by Henry’s words and life style.
It is interesting to compare how Karen justifies Henry and his associate’s criminal behaviour as just ‘cutting corners’ and ‘being enterprising’ against Henry’s justifications of his life style earlier in the film where he says to live any other way was ‘crazy’ and those who went out to work 9-5 were ‘dead’. There is more of a focus in Karen’s mind on the fact that Henry and his friends are domestic providers and that somehow as ‘blue collar guys’ they are only involved in crime as other avenues have been denied them. There is a certain amount of delusion about what activities (like protection rackets and loan sharkism) they are actually involved with rather like Henry only allows us to see him and his associates indulging in apparently harmless (and usually consensual) truck hijacking and a heist that did not even involve drawing a gun.
Karen continues her narration over a scene of Tommy performing a truck hijacking saying ‘We were all very close- there were never any outsiders around.’ emphasises the particular sort of social control the Mafia uses. People must be kept within the sphere of control and influence to ensure silence and cooperation. We see a couple of policemen turn up at Henry and Karen’s home to search it. We see from the look on Karen’s face this is not the first time this has happened and is something she is resigned to and her narration confirms this. She then discusses how herself and Henry would only usually socialise with other mobsters families like Jimmy and his wife Mickey. We then see a photo montage of Karen’s life with Henry and his friends. This could be argued to be a form of coercive control as Karen is expected to socialise almost exclusively with Henry’s associates.
We then do not see Karen again until the storyline about Henry’s relationship with Janice Rossi. Henry’s fellow gangsters all have mistresses (‘Saturday night was for wives but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends’) and their model of hypermasculinity dictates that they be sexually active outside of marriage. Indeed there is the practice in the Mafia of the ‘Goomah’ or mistress which the series ‘The Sopranos’ explored. As someone born outside the Italian/Sicilian American community, Karen was both not familiar with this practice and not willing to accept it. She first confronts Henry leading to him throwing a lamp at her along with some gaslighting (‘It’s all in your mind’). She angrily confronts Janice over the intercom to Janice’s building. She then threatens Henry with a gun while he is sleeping. This is the second scene where a gun plays a significant role in their relationship. We see Karen tremble and that she cannot bring herself to harm him (‘I was still very attracted to him’). Karen is not ‘masculine’ enough to fire the gun. When Henry eventually cajoles Karen into giving him the gun he angrily pins her down and points the gun at her in retaliation. Again this is one of the few times Henry is physically violent in the film and this time it is toward Karen. He walks out on her almost leading to the end of their marriage
However Henry’s fellow gangsters are not keen on Henry ending his marriage. In a later scene Paulie and Jimmy tell Henry he has go back to Karen and woo her again while affirming he can do what he likes outside the marriage. No doubt Karen has had a word with them both about the situation to persuade them to get Henry to return. But Paulie and Jimmy’s main concern is that if Henry abandons Karen, she will take her revenge by telling the authorities about his and his associates activities. Once within Mafia circles no one can be permitted to leave for fear of what they may reveal to the authorities. So Henry and Jimmy get sent on the fateful trip to Florida which leads to Henry being imprisoned for several years. We see a tearful Karen bid Henry an affectionate goodbye before he gets taken to prison. This is interesting given Henry’s earlier words to Karen that no mafia member goes to prison unless they truly want to. Does Henry subconsciously bring about his imprisonment to have time to sort his domestic life out?
When Karen visits Henry in prison she seems more outraged to find out Janice has recently visited him than that she has put herself at risk bringing contraband and drugs into the prison. She still is not over Henry’s affair (this scene is at least a couple of years after Henry was imprisoned) . She also expresses concern that Henry’s associates, even Paulie do not want to see her and are unwilling to offer financial support. Henry explains why they cannot help her because they need to lay low due to being on probation (again Karen does not understand the rules of mafia life) and urges her to help him continue his drug business. Karen is dealing with the hard reality that being a mafia wife does not guarantee a steady income and comfortable lifestyle. She wears a long heavy coat to conceal the contraband which could symbolise the weight of what she is dealing with. She also tells Henry she constantly writes to the parole board to try and get him released. Karen shows that she is willing to assist Henry in his criminal activities, and not just be a passive party in the relationship.
When Henry is released after several years, Karen is waiting for him on release. Her light clothes and short hair almost indicate her relief at Henry’s release and that this will be a new start or them as a couple. We get an indication of how difficult things have been for Karen when we see living conditions she and her children have been reduced to. Henry finds them a new home and sets about establishing his drug business to support them. When Henry starts a relationship with Janice’s friend Sandy, Karen probably accepts it as she sees that as far as Henry is concerned it is just a relationship of convenience as she is assisting him in cutting drugs. There is none of the emotional involvement he had with Janice. When Jimmy passes Henry his share of the Lufthansa robbery, Henry happily (but carefully) gets gifts for his family and shares the money with Karen.
Henry asks Karen to accompany him on the ‘final day’ drug deal when he meets with the Pittsburgh Connection. Tellingly Henry persuades Karen to hide the guns for the Pittsburgh connection at her parents home, not his (he has a pattern of using her parents as we will see). We see Karen ask for a drug hit (showing she also has issues with substance abuse) and get sexually harassed by the Pittsburgh connection, showing she has her own issues to deal with in Henry's drug dealing. Karen may not look as physically worn out as Henry but she shows signs of the the toll the lifestyle she is living is having on her.
When Henry is finally arrested we see Karen’s panic as she gets rid of the cocaine down the toilet. At the end of this scene she places a small gun down in her underwear (the fact she is also only dressed in underwear and dressing gown shows her vulnerability). Symbolically Karen has had to take on a male role (symbolised by the gun)
Tellingly Henry gets Karen’s parents to put up his bail, not his parents. When Karen tells him she has gotten rid of the cocaine he yells at her although this was probably the best course of action. However at the end of this scene, we see Henry and Karen lying together in a mutually supportive manner with Henry brandishing a gun in a protective manner. The order of male as protector has been re-established.
Karen begins to understand the threat to her family when she visits Jimmy to discuss Henry’s case. He tells her to help herself to some designer clothes from a warehouse but she gets spooked and leaves. While this is not the event that finally persuades Henry to go into the witness protection program it certainly contributes to his decision.
The final scene we see Karen in is when Henry agrees to go into the witness protection program Both Henry and the FBI man place emotional pressure on Karen to accept his decision to enter the witness protection programme and to accompany him. The FBI man reminds Karen that they have tapes of her helping arrange drug deals and that he has no concern about her fate, and that she is only useful as far as she makes Henry a good witness. Henry cajoles Karen to accompany him even though it means leaving her elderly parents. Karen wears a black and white polka dot dress which may indicate her lost innocence.
The closing credits tell us that Henry and Karen finally separated after 25 years of marriage they year before the film was released– they managed to stay together through infidelity, imprisonment and the witness protection program but eventually the toll of Henry’s lifestyle proved too much for Karen (the couple would only formally divorce in 2002). Karen and Henry’s children Greg and Gina would release a book ‘On the run – a mafia childhood’ in 2004 about their experiences on the witness protection program that would show that this was an incredibly difficult period of their lives (mainly because of Henry’s actions) that belies the ending of the film (there was at one point talk of a possible sequel to ‘Goodfellas’ based on Greg and Gina Hill’s book)
Lorraine Bracco gives a great performance in this film and she allows Karen to be a rounded character. We warm to her both because of an in spite of her flaws. Bracco did not get to meet Karen Hill but she clearly has sympathy with her and she remains proud of her involvement with the film (I greatly enjoyed hearing her discuss the film at the BFI a few years ago). She would earn an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for the role along with several other award nominations. It is worth noting Lorraine does bear an incredibly close physical resemblance to the real Karen Hill
I just want to take a quick look at the character of Mickey Conway who was played by Julie Garfield. She is Jimmy Conway’s wife and almost an opposite to Karen. She is based on Mickey Burke who was married to Jimmy Burke (the inspiration for Jimmy Conway). Jimmy and Mickey only married a couple of years before Karen and Henry but we get the impression she has been part of the mafia life for considerably longer in the film. Julie Garfield is also several years older than Lorraine Bracco which adds to this impression. Unlike Karen, Mickey’s hairstyle and fashion sense do not change over the seventeen or so years she is involved in the story, showing her to be a more conservative and settled woman in her role as a mafia wife. Karen and Mickey will spend a lot of time together over the years because of Henry and Jimmy’s friendship but as noted before it seems to be more a friendship by default. Karen discusses Mickey’s reaction to having the police constantly search her home (spitting on the floor) saying she cannot understand it and how it makes no sense to her which illustrates they have very different ways of dealing with the issues that come with being a mafia wife. The real Mickey Burke did go through some similar experiences to Karen in the film. Jimmy Burke had a mistress (actually Tommy DeSimones sister) and Mickey’s ex boyfriend who had been harassing her was found murdered around the time of her marriage to Jimmy. She had her own troubles (after all Jimmy was also in prison for several years at the same time as Henry). We see a close up on Mickey in a distressed state dressed in black and holding a handkerchief (obviously to wipe away her tears) as we hear Henry testify against Jimmy at the end. Jimmy Burke would die in prison in 1996 and one of his and Mickey’s sons would get killed in a drug deal in 1987 so the real Mickey’s woes would continue beyond the end of the film
The Sopranos factor
Of course Lorraine Bracco would go on to play Dr. Jennifer Melfi in ‘The Sopranos’. In many ways Dr. Jennifer Melfi is the opposite of Karen Hill. She is a middle-class Italian American who suddenly finds the mafia in her life in the form of Tony Soprano. Across the series she has to negotiate her feelings about Tony and his activities and keep him at a distance while trying to be his psychiatrist. Bracco was originally offered the role of Carmela Soprano but turned it down as she did not want to get typecast as playing mafia wives (Edie Falco would play Carmela). Bracco would win regular award nominations for her role as Melfi. Carmela Soprano is in herself an interesting and complex character and in all probability Bracco’s performance as Karen Hill helped path the way for the creation of the character.( Also worth noting that amusingly in one episode Melfi and her son discuss ‘Goodfellas’)
’And a lot of other things’
Now we come to where what may have actually happened and Goodfellas diverges and what light it casts on the real Karen Hill. There are a number of significant differences between ‘Goodfellas’ and actual events and the people portrayed in the film. For example Tommy DeSimone (who Tommy DeVito is based on) was several younger than Henry Hill and was married (also his body has never been found). Jimmy Burke (whom Jimmy Conway is based on) had at least one son who was also involved in the mafia and they were involved with the Lufthansa heist.
Here we come to the story of Karen Hill. She did not actually co-write ‘Wiseguys’ with Henry and Nicholas Pileggi. So the entire narration is a creation of Nicolas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese who wrote the script. Karen apparently did not actually want to be involved with the film, obviously trying to get her life back on track after the end of her marriage to Henry and several years on the witness protection program. This poses a number of issues about the ethics of the filmmakers speaking on Karen’s behalf. While it is appreciated Scorsese did go through the effort of creating a rounded female character and showing her inner life, he and Pileggi used the story of an actual woman at a vulnerable part of her life. I would hope that they at least spoke with Karen and got feedback from her when writing the script.
This is the point where we need to consider the story of Karen Hill that is in the public domain that is not in the film. Henry Hill claimed in his 2004 ook ‘Gangsters and Goodfellas’ claimed that Karen was having an affair with Paul Vario ( Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas). While Henry and Paul were imprisoned apparently Tommy DeSimone made advances toward Karen which she rejected and he attempted to rape her. She revealed this to Paul Vario and this was apparently one of the reasons he allowed Tommy’s ‘execution’ (as the film puts it ‘It was payback for Billy Batts and a lot of other things’)
Firstly to note – the ethics of someone revealing the sexual assault of another person without their consent in this way is a whole topic in itself, particularly given the relationship between Henry and Karen. We only have it on Henry’s word that Karen and Paul Vario were involved and it may be a way of detracting from his affairs. Even if true, there was large power imbalance between Henry and Paul that Karen may not have been in a position to refuse Paul or she may have gotten into the affair in order to help Henry. But if this attempted rape story is true it must have been a truly terrifying experience for Karen. It also has to be asked that if Paul Vario gave permission for the murder of Tommy DeSimone because of his behaviour toward Karen it has to be asked if it was out of affection toward her or that Tommy had ‘interfered’ with his property. I personally wonder if Henry's pistol whipping of Bruce in revenge for his attack on Karen early in the film is a subtle allusion to these events.
Henry Hill would enjoy a certain celebrity status, despite ongoing issues with drink and drugs (and continued criminal activities) appearing in several documentaries and television programmes up to his death (from natural causes) in 2012. Karen Hill has remained silent for the thirty years since ‘Goodfellas’ release. I hope wherever she is, she has managed to rebuild her life.