It was The Wizard of Oz in 1939 that provided Hollywood with its most enduring depiction of the divide between the head and the heart. In their desperation to gain the organs they lacked, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man proved themselves willing to endure any indignity, from flying monkeys to grabby munchkins. No task was too great, no road too yellow or too long. Everything was worth it in their tireless quest to appear either smarter or more caring.
The Wizard of Oz didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture — the trophy that year went to some overheated epic about wind. But in many ways the shared journey of the Scarecrow and the Tin Man toward wildly disparate goals presaged every stupid Academy decision for the next 70-plus years. When given the chance, the Oscars always trip themselves up lunging for hearts or smarts, never rewarding actual artistic achievement when something tear-jerking or historical is there to get in the way. Hollywood, as one or two (million) people have blithely commented, is a wildly insecure town, its denizens desperate to be thought of as both relatably human (they are not) and inspirationally erudite (ditto). The Oscars, more often than not, reflect this; the final tally saying more about how the voters wish to be perceived than anything about the movies themselves.
Look, I don’t hate Dances With Wolves. Unlike most of my film-snob friends, I actually have a soft spot for it. I remember watching it in the theater and being moved enough to want to see it again. I cheered when the tatonka finally showed up and Kevin Costner’s Lieutenant Dunbar got to ride to the American Indian camp and rouse them to the hunt. And speaking of Costner, I really like him, too. From Silverado to Company Men to the vastly underrated Thirteen Days, Costner’s appearance on screen always brings a smile to my face. And he directed the film with craft and artistry. So I have no problem with Dances With Wolves (and Costner himself) getting nominated in 1990.
But if you’re asking me to be OK with the fact that both the film and Costner beat Goodfellas and Martin Scorsese? The answer would have to be: Go fuck yourself. Because that is undoubtedly the greatest travesty in Oscar history.
With the possible exception of Salman Rushdie, no one lived life in hiding as publicly as Henry Hill, who beat the odds on Tuesday by dying, in a hospital, at 69, of a long illness. It was (probably) a lifetime of smoking that did him in, not a hot-lead overdose or an ice-pick to the endocranium, so he won, kind of.
Sixty-nine is old for a Mob turncoat expelled from federal witness protection for all manner of criminal backsliding. But it's fairly young for a celebrity, and that's what Henry Hill was when he died — a celebrity, in that a celebrity is almost always a chimera of fictional character and actual human being.
The life of Henry Hill as seen in the film Goodfellas is merely a snapshot of what would turn out to be a true American story: one of rags to riches, sin and redemption, full of flaws, and with a slice of Hollywood flair for good measure.
I personally had the opportunity to get a glimpse of this ongoing tale back in 2007, when former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was suddenly neck-deep in a mob-connected point-shaving scandal. As expected, a story like this coming during the 24/7 Internet age prompted questions from almost every angle: How is the league handling this? How are the players handling this? How are the refs handling this?
Still, there was one question not asked: How is the Mafia handling this?