When Paul Sorvino was offered the role of Paulie Cicero, the Queens-based mob underboss in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), he really didn’t want to accept it. First, he was a proud Italian-American. A connoisseur of Italian culture, especially food and music, he was not inclined to play mafia. Plus, Sorvino, who died Monday at age 83, was a talkative guy, and he liked to play talkative guys. Paulie was largely a brick. Much is made in the film’s opening scenes of how most of the criminal’s directives were carried out with a mere nod.
He accepted the role anyway and went to rehearsals. A few days before filming began, he called his agent and asked if he could be released on bail. During a 2015 panel at the Tribeca Film Festival commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Goodfellas,” Sorvino teased a little about people who complimented him on his “picks” in what has become one of his iconic roles. He scoffed at the idea of “choices,” insisting, “I found the guy and the guy made the choices.”
“It was very difficult,” Sorvino told panel moderator Jon Stewart. “I’m a poet, I’m an opera singer, I’m an author…none of that is gangster.” But then, for Sorvino, came a moment. In his story at this panel, it was when he was straightening his tie. In other stories, he pulled out a bit of spinach from between his teeth. In both versions, Sorvino looked at himself in the mirror. And there was a fixed scowl to meet him.
“I saw this guy.” And that was it.
Sorvino’s vision of Paulie was an incredibly nuanced depiction of a man who, on the page, appears as simple and as unpleasant as sudden death. In “Wise Guy”, the non-fiction book that was the basis of “Goodfellas”, author Nick Pileggi wrote, “It was heard on the streets that Paul Vario” – the mobster’s surname has been changed for the movie – “led one of New York’s toughest and most violent gangs. In the city’s Brownsville-East New York neighborhood, “the body count was still high, and in the 1960s and 1970s, the Vario thugs did most of the strong arm work,” Pileggi explained, later adding, “There were always heads to be knocked on picket lines, businessmen to be forced to pay their loan sharks, freelancers to straighten out on territorial lines, potential witnesses to murder and saddle pigeons to bury.
Vario was then a chaos middle manager. Sorvino played him like a guy who kept his cool and has tried to keep his subordinates in line.
Paul Sorvino (1939-2022)
The tough actor, who was best known for his role as mobster Paulie Cicero in ‘Goodfellas’, has died aged 83.
Much of “Goodfellas” (streaming on HBO Max) is devoted to how three underlings, played by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, didn’t stay online. Paulie can be a tolerant and affectionate “dad”. Sorvino uses his natural warmth to greet “good earner” Jimmy (De Niro) in a back room casino early in the film. Later, overseeing elaborate dinner parties in prison, he has a special system for slicing garlic, and once his cellmate Henry (Liotta) enters with wine and scotch, he proclaims, “Now we can eat. . Presiding over a celebration of Henry’s release from the joint is Uncle Paulie.
But it’s when he’s playing bricks that Sorvino kills. During this celebration, he brings Henry to his garden. Henry had been selling drugs in prison, with Paulie’s tacit approval. Now in fixed scowl mode, Paulie tells Henry to “stay away from the trash.” When Henry plays dumb, Paulie doesn’t. ” Do not make fun of me. Do not do it. Without losing any of the intonations of the character’s outward roundness, Sorvino cuts through the words as if snapping his necks.
Henry and his merry men pay tribute to Paulie with a percentage of their ill-gotten gains or lie to his face. This character dynamic is complicated – Paulie seems too strong for not knows he is cheated, but what can he do about it? One thing he can do is eliminate Joe Pesci’s Tommy from the group, using his brother Tuddy Cicero (Frank DiLeo) as his deadly proxy.
Paulie’s last words to Henry – “Now I have to turn my back” – are as chilling as any of the film’s most grisly sights.
Sorvino’s decades-long career has been checkered. One of his first starring roles was as a raped man in a very poorly conceived 1974 ABC Movie of the Week titled “Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy.” In the 1974 version of “The Gambler” (available to rent or buy on major platforms), he played his first mob-adjacent character, a bookmaker named Hips, but that character was not Paulie: he has a real personal affection for the main character. (James Caan), Hips’ most messed up and indebted client.
For another taste of the more talkative Sorvino, his role as Curtis Mahoney, a federal agent posing as an investigative reporter in Mike Nichols’ much-maligned 1974 “Day of the Dolphin” (available on Kino Now) , deserves consideration. Far from being an accomplished mole, Mahoney is an overly talkative blunderer. Sorvino is also memorable as Edelson, the commanding officer of undercover cop Burns (Al Pacino) in William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (from 1980; rent or buy on major platforms). Assigning his underling to work in the Manhattan gay sex club underworld in search of a killer, Edelson investigates Burns’ sexual history with the most straightforward, unflinching question imaginable.
Before and after “Goodfellas”, Sorvino was regularly present in films directed by and with Warren Beatty, most recently “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016). Sorvino’s post-“Goodfellas” filmography has oscillated between solid character roles in independent films like “The Cooler” (2003) and James Gray’s “The Immigrant” (2014) and the actor’s usual dreck of concert.
In 2018, the world learned just how passionate Sorvino could be off-screen. Responding to revelations of abuse and blackball his daughter, actor Mira Sorvino, endured at the hands of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein, Sorvino told TMZ he hopes Weinstein will serve time in prison: “Because otherwise , he must meet me.” Sorvino then told in no uncertain terms what was about to happen.
The role of a proud father driven to an indignant and justified rage suited this performer well enough. But we wish he didn’t have to live it.
Glenn Kenny is a critic and author of “Made Men: The Story of ‘Goodfellas'”.
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