'The Godfather' vs. 'Goodfellas': There can only be one Boss

Godfather-Goodfellas

Image Credit: MPTVimages.com; Everett Collection

When you think of mafia movies, do you immediately hear the mournful trumpet from The Godfather‘s elegant main title? Or do you hear Eric Clapton’s “Layla”? It’s the question at the core of a crucial cinematic debate. What is the greatest mob movie ever? Francis Ford Coppola’s epic drama, The Godfather? Or Martin Scorsese’s gritty masterpiece, Goodfellas? Even though Sonny would’ve been pals with Jimmy Conway, and Paul Cicero would’ve been welcome in Don Corleone’s home, these are two very different Italian-American filmmakers telling very different tales about the Italian-American experience. But there can only be one boss, so Kevin Sullivan and I are mere loyal soldiers willing to go the mattresses to argue which film kisses the other’s ring.

(This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which EW writers debate the most defining pop culture rivalries. Past subjects have included the Kirk/Picard Star Trek captain showdown, a Schwarzenegger/Stallone throwdown, and an extremely close boy-band arms race between ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Come back next Tuesday for a diva-off between Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and check back next Thursday for a sure-to-be-emotional battle over a question for our moment: Have videogames become better than movies?)

Jeff Labrecque (Team Godfather): For two films that get lumped together often because they’re quote-unquote mafia movies, they couldn’t be more different. The Godfather is modern Shakespeare, while Goodfellas revels in the ugly underbelly of mob life. (It’s like comparing High Noon with Unforgiven!) But what makes the Godfather superior to me is Michael Corleone. He is the most iconic, most heartless, most tragic, most mesmerizing movie character of the last… 70 years? Goodfellas, on the other hand, is the story of a rat.

Kevin Sullivan (Team Goodfellas): If anyone were to deny The Godfather‘s status as a deserving classic, I’d be the first to tell him he’s dead wrong (like Carlo-dead), but when comparing it to Goodfellas, you’ll have a hard time arguing any kind of superiority. You said it yourself. The Godfather is modern Shakespeare, Drama with a capital D. The action is so heightened and the Corleones operate so far out of the realm of reality, it seems almost artificial compared to the living, breathing world Scorsese knew growing up and shared in Goodfellas. It might be ugly, but Goodfellas doesn’t pull any punches. You can’t say the same for The Godfather.

JL: Goodfellas is certainly more visceral, and, you’re right, it doesn’t pull any punches. But it is nothing more than what it is, if that makes any sense. “Here’s the jaw-dropping story about the miserable lives of real-life cut-your-throat-for-a-buck gangsters. Try not to watch!” The Godfather just happens to be about a regal crime family, but really, it’s the story of power, the story of America. There’s a clue in the film’s first line, “I believe in America,” says the vengeful baker. Reweaving timeless themes into something we’d never experienced before, this is a daring, dangerous movie with something to say to any era and culture. Its characters are both repulsive and magnetic, but they may as well be Kennedys or 16th-century Italian nobles. In 100 years, people will still be studying The Godfather as a great morality tale, while Goodfellas will be equally admired, but only by film students.

KS: You’ve touched on exactly why Goodfellas is the better mob movie of the two, and that’s because The Godfather isn’t a mob movie. It works on a much broader, more universal set of themes. You could swap in any iconic clan and end up with the same great film because, at its core, The Godfather is about America, loyalty, family, etc.  Goodfellas is about — yes, it’s about something — a specific lifestyle and the people who lived it. More importantly, when considered with the rest of Scorsese’s filmography, it fits in perfectly with the director’s favorite themes: guilt and destructive forces of masculinity. I’ll admit that The Godfather has more to say about morality, but the issues Goodfellas tackles are more specific and told in a more exciting way. And not to side with the shorter attention spans of today’s  average movie-goer/teenager, but there is a reason more people fall asleep during The Godfather than Goodfellas.

JL: Fall asleep? Fall asleep?! May you wake with Khartoum’s head in in your bed! Or worse: May you be forced to watch The Godfather III repeatedly until you want to commit a Frank Pentangeli! Such references bring me to another point: The Godfather has more iconic scenes, and more classic quotes — “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” — than any American film ever made. More importantly, “The Godfather is the I-ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” And that isn’t me talking; that is America’s Most Trusted Actor Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail. Are you calling Tom Hanks a liar?

KS: If you have to know one thing about me it’s that I would never call Mr. Hanks a liar. I would, however, like to take a moment to question this very popular notion of The Godfather as “the I-ching.” The Godfather’s status as iconic, as perhaps the greatest movie movie of all time, perpetuates itself. Since its release, fathers have passed the film down to their sons and told them “This is a man’s movie. This is the greatest movie.” Admittedly, I would  have a much easier time arguing that The Godfather is literally perfect, than any other film I know of. We as a film culture have been conditioned to not question The Godfather’s perfection, lest we sleep with the fishes. No piece of art deserves that free of a ride, and if we’re talking strictly mob movies, I have to give Goodfellas the edge. Sorry, Tom.

JL: The way you call it a “man’s movie” immediately makes me think of Don Corleone slapping pitiful Johnny Fontaine around at Connie’s wedding. And The Godfather is a total man’s movie, though as you already pointed out, so is Goodfellas and most of Scorsese’s best work. Women are ogled, belittled, and if they stand up to the men, ostracized. If The Godfather has gotten a free ride — and I’m not sure it has — it’s probably because it shattered the Hollywood archetype of the gangster film (Yes, it’s still a gangster film). Michael Corleone is a monster. Yet we root for him even while he destroys his family and torches his own soul. There is no Goodfellas, there is no Scarface or Training Day without The Godfather. There might not even be an Analyze This! Put simply, The Godfather is the godfather of godfather movies.

KS: The Godfather will always be the blueprint for the gangster flick. Its presence in film culture is beyond ubiquitous at this point, and that’s precisely the reason Goodfellas should be considered, at the very least, on equal footing with it. Goodfellas made a huge mark on a genre that remained unchanged for almost 20 years. Scorsese’s film took all of the honor, glamour and shine out of the world Coppola created and served up a piping hot plate of reality, smothered in a marinara sauce. That isn’t to say the lifestyles shown in Goodfellas weren’t without their perks, and we see them in a style that has been imitated more times than I can begin to count, Hill’s voiceover and his club date with Karen especially. The Godfather may have laid the foundation for the genre, but Goodfellas took it to the next level. And the beat down on Billy Batts tops Carlo’s any day.

JL: I feel at any point, the two of us could switch sides and make an equally compelling case for the other’s film. These films might be rivals in some sense, but I don’t know many folks who like one and not the other. They are the yin and the yang of the genre, and they perfectly epitomize the style and personality of their directors. I couldn’t imagine them directing the other’s mafia masterpiece. But I’ll stick with The Godfather because it transcends its genre. And because of Michael. Pacino created a character that cast an enormous shadow on everything he’s ever done since. I loved the production story that nervous studio execs wanted him canned at the beginning of the film because he wasn’t emoting, wasn’t leaping off the screen with charisma. Only after the scene where he shot Sollozzo did they see what they really had. Like I said at the start, Michael Corleone is the most iconic, most heartless, most tragic, most mesmerizing character we have. And I refuse to cross him.

KS: You’re finally talking some sense. Our debate is not a new one, and people will debate which is better, The Godfather or Goodfellas, until another movie “redefines” the gangster genre and enters the equation. Making some of the arguments I’ve made against The Godfather, a movie I truly love, are enough to cause guilt-ridden dreams of Michael laying the kiss of death on me. In all honesty, mob movies and film in general are better because both Goodfellas and The Godfather exist. One wrote the book. The other tore pages out and made its own revisions. Where your loyalty lies depends on what you value more, invention or innovation. While Michael Corleone will forever go down as one of film’s greatest and most complex characters, Goodfellas strength lies in the total package, the excitement filling each frame and a tone that changed movies in and of itself. Which one you prefer is more about taste than anything.

JL: There’s only one way to objectively settle this without a garrote. Shall we step back and let the esteemed Academy decide? Wait just a sec… I have to sneeze… Ah-ahhh-ahhhhh… danceswithwolves! ‘Scuse me. Where were we again?

KS: Yeah, let’s go with the institution that awarded Ordinary People over Raging Bull. That’s good, Jeff. You know. You’re funny. Like a clown. You amuse me.

JL: Nice. I can’t beat that without telling you to go home and get your shinebox. Salute.


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Comments (60 total) Add your comment
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  • Lickolas

    I like ‘The Godfather’ better but honestly I like ‘The Godfather Part 2′ better then both of them. Great article though, loved both points of view.

    • outrageousness

      Finally, a great article from EW.

      All this glee/twilight/harry potter crap was getting old.

      Truth be told, I love both The Godfather and its sequel equally, and I love The Goodfellas nearly as much. But the combination of Brando, Duvall and Pacino wins it for me. Casino, which is also from Scorcese, is just as enjoyable to me.

      • tg

        Don’t forget Casino, also a great mob movie with stellar performances. But Godfather II tops them all, always will.

    • Templar

      If you can find it go with The Godfather Epic. It’s The Godfather series edited in chronological order starting with DeNiro as the young Vito Corleone. A masterpiece.

      • Squishmar

        It’s very odd seeing it that way. A friend of mine, who’d never seen the original films, started with the Epic. When he later did see the original films, he couldn’t believe that The Godfather started with Connie’s wedding! Also, there are some scenes that were cut that I think Coppola really needs to explain. They enhance the film so much (I will always pretend the scene of Michael and Kay in the hotel room is in the original). On the other hand, there are a couple of deleted scenes I wish I could take back ever seeing because they should never have been filmed. And I take exception to the notion that they are both “guy films.” I’m a woman and I love all of them. They’re just great films.

    • tvgirl48

      I second the comment on the article. It was entertaining without being silly and immature, it was serious without being pretentious. It’s great to hear people discuss films like this (two of the greatest of all time) with an open mind and not descend into film student snobbery. And kudos on the You’ve Got Mail reference! “What is it with men and the Godfather?”

  • European girl

    Voted for “The Godfather” b/c to me, that is the quintessential mafia movie. Together with Part 2, the shows the evolution of the mafia through a truly magnetic and transformative family. It doesn’t need to show such blatant violence as “Goodfellas.” Points taken off for Part 3 though.

    • Squishmar

      Have you seen Part III lately? It’s really not nearly as bad as you might remember and truly makes a nice ending to the other two. I mean, of course, I could have loved the other two and been happy having never seen the third, but it does follow through with the whole theme and if seen with an open mind, acquits itself nicely.

  • Annie

    I voted “The Godfather”, but prefer Part II because of the Michael/Fredo dynamic. Watching Pacino and John Cazale together is like to two great acting warriors doing battle. Poor weak pitiful Fredo should be the villain for turning against his brother and putting his family in danger, but those scenes in Lake Tahoe after Michael finds out, my heart breaks for Fredo. Pacino and Cazale were simply amazing.

    • outrageousness

      Fredo was so gullible and even though he betrays Michael, you feel for him because he was mostly left out of the mob business. His death was a real shocker.

      By the way, I’d recommend checking out Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon”, which came out in 1975. Both Pacino and Cazale were young, but they really delivered. In fact, this film is probably one of the best bank heist movies ever made.

      • Chick

        YES!! ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ is such an overlooked film! I never miss an opportunity to watch it. Every element is perfected. The characters pull you in and you cannot help but care about everyone of them. And poor Leon, so well played by Chris Sarandon, if my memory serves me correctly. I feel this is one of Pacino’s most overlooked achievements; a true gem.

      • Squishmar

        Not so overlooked… after “The Godfather”, it’s his most iconic role. It was nominated up the wazoo and only lost because it was up against “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and even Lumet said he was proud to lose to that. But John Cazale was so incredible. What a career in such a short life! Don’t forget “The Deer Hunter” too… for both him and De Niro. And to Annie: the part that gets me is in Cuba. I get chills just thinking about Michael taking Fredo’s face in his hands and kissing him and saying, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” Chills.

  • Lauren

    I can see the argument that The Godfather is not really a mafia movie. Goodfellas is a good mafia movie but it was always a little too rough around the edges for me. And the accents were super annoying. Maybe I like the Godfather more because I, personally, don’t really like gangster movies.

    • Dave

      Oh my God, this is such an easy question. Goodfellas is WAY better than The Godfather. The people who like Godfather are mostly older people who fondly remember that movie from their youth, blah blah. Objectively, there’s no comparison. De Niro, Pesci and Liotta were way more compelling than Brando with his weird voice and swollen cheeks (seriously, that was just bizarre). Godfather was the film that laid the foundation, I’ll give it that. But Goodfellas, that was the classic.

      • Lyndsey

        I’m 32 & think The Godfather is the superior film. It’s not just older people!

      • Dave

        Uh… Hmmm…. How do I say this….. Lyndsey, 32 is… (sigh) forget it… You are still as youthful as ever… My apologies.

      • ikagirl

        @Dave – While I am a die hard Goodfellas fan, it’s not exactly freshly minted either, so stop the comments about age, yours is showing.

      • Squishmar

        Yeah, Dave, (sigh) Lyndsey is 32 so “Goodfellas” would be the film that she “fondly remembers from her youth”. She wasn’t even born till seven years after “The Godfather” came out. It’s not of her generation. And, like ikagirl said, “Goodfellas” is not a new film either. If it were a person, it could gamble and buy alcohol legally.

  • Macaulay Culkin

    Tony Montana would have his little friend say hello to them all

    • outrageousness

      Lol, Macaulay, don’t you have thieves to deal with? Joe Pesci’s coming for you.

      • Auth

        My personal opoiinn: you should get yourself a new bachelor pad! The one in the pic looks pretty cool although it’d be tough to find one that looks like that! You don’t wanna be 32 and living with your parents for too long. Past about 25 and it does looks pretty sad if you still live with your folks. I know this is generation stay-at-home and ppl stay at home way longer but beyond a certain age it gets kinda weird. If I meet a guy in his late twenties or thirties living with the parents and it’s not real temporary I think: what is wrong with him?!

    • Macaulay Culkin

      Pesci’s a clown

  • cshock

    “The Godfather” is the best film of the 1970’s, perhaps cinema’s finest decade. “Goodfellas” is the best film of the 1990’s, which was certainly not a great decade at the movies. Great article, but I disagreed with one line: ‘The Godfather’ has… more classic quotes — “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” — than any American film ever made.” Sorry, but that honor goes to “Casablanca.” (I love “The Godfather” more than that Bogart-Bergman classic, but when it comes to iconic quotes, the 1942 film stands head and shoulders above all others, even my beloved “Godfather”.)

    • Squishmar

      Totally agree about “Casablanca”… I was thinking the exact same thing when I saw that in the article above (and the AFI’s Greatest Film Quotes bears this out). But the 1990s certainly was a good decade for film. 1994 alone saw many classics (“Pulp Fiction”; “The Shawshank Redemption”; “Forrest Gump”). But yeah, definitely with you on the “Casablanca” thing. I prefer both of the Godfather films and Goodfellas to “Casablanca” but I would argue that Casablanca just might have the best script ever written.

  • tgb

    I have a sentimental attachment to Goodfellas – my father was on the periphery of those guys (though not involved in anything illegal, afaik). He hung out at the same bars, got his toupee from Morrie (the wig shop owner that gets whacked), and worked for the same florist as Henry’s girlfriend.

    For that alone, Goodfellas gets the nod.

    • Dave

      Wow, tgb, that is cool.

  • kremzeek!

    the godfather is overrated.goodfellas tells the real story of that kind of life and it admits that the fun they had was fun(before it all went to hell).it’s been said that goodfellas is SO good that even when it’s on tv it is watchable.goodfellas is far superior,and it’s funny as hell too.

  • StewyFan

    Nothing is better than The Godfather. Nothing.

    • Eric

      Citizen Kane

  • Jason

    The Godfather is a masterpiece. Every frame is a work of art.

  • Jose

    I think the Godfather is a great movie and the sequel is better because of De Niro’s portrayal. But Imma have to go with Goodfellas because it’s the Rock N Roll of movies, every time I watch it, it’s just an adrenaline rush to the next scene. Whether it be the Cocobana one shot scene, Layla, “How am I funny…” scene, The last act it keeps me on the edge.

  • DK

    The Godfather isn’t just the greatest mafia movie.
    It’s the greatest movie of all time.

  • Lloyd

    No competition at all. The Godfather is a perfect film. Not one second of it could be improved upon, and even though it is long, it is a master class in pacing and editing. Goodfellas has always felt very overrated to me.

  • Vince from NYC

    The Godfather is a Romance not a Gangster flick. The Godfather I &II together are great, no doubt. Deniro’s broken English/Italian/Sicilian dialect is amazing. But as far as the Mafia is concerned, I give it to Goodfellas. I grew up in areas of Queens and Brooklyn in the 90’s that were heavily influenced by the Mafia. I feel like some of the Characters in Goodfellas were taken right out of my old neighborhoods. I knew a Pauly, I knew Tommy and a few Carbones. Carbone, btw is a perfect character. The slang and the accents were spot on. It’s funny another poster said they were annoying, but they were so accurate I never even thought about it. That’s how people I grew up around spoke. Even Lorraine Bracco wasgreat in the movie. I have a circle of friends and family who can quote the movie all day. ” Now go get yout *&%^& shine box” “Now Now, you insulted him a lil bit, you were a little out of line yourself” ” Spider, what am I on the pay no mind list” Crawl to the docter, like you crawled for the *%#%&* drinks.. I can go on and on.. Yea, so I don’t agree Godfather is more quotable.. A better movie? Maybe, A better Gangster movie? No way..

    • Squishmar

      But how do you define “Gangster”? So much of the crime in Goodfellas doesn’t even have to do with the Mafia. It’s just crime. It’s a great crime movie and I love it to death. But as a “Mafia Movie” (which is what the poll is asking), it has to go to The Godfather.

  • Clete

    “Goodfellas” is probably more realistic as a true idea what a real mob family is like and how they operate. It is based on the partial bio of Henry Hill. “The Godfather” is more of a period piece base on the novel by Mario Puzo. Both are good movies and both are worth watching, but in comparison, I think “Goodfellas” stands up better as a true representation of what a New York crime family was really like.

    • benlinus

      This comment hit’s it on the head. Can’t really compare the 2 movies because Goodfellas is actually based off of real life mafia history as opposed to the God Father which was ripped off of the Borgia families History and passed off as an original idea. Granted the writer behind the god father admitted later in life that he he copied History almost word for word but by that point what did it matter the money was in the bank ( this would be like Casey Anthony admitting she murdered her kid now that there are no repercussions since she got away with it.)

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