The Gilded Dinner: A Symbolic Representation of Mobster Life
by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez
Goodfellas (1990) is known as the quintessential American gangster film, yet many don’t recognize the hidden symbolism behind it, especially as it relates to food. The film traces the life of Henry Hill as he moves up through the ranks of the mob until his eventual downfall. Since he was in school, Henry had fantasized about joining the mob and acquiring the wealth and aura of importance that the gangsters had. Yet, as he gets further into the belly of the beast he begins to realize that the gangster life is not everything he had hoped for. The moment that best signals the beginning of the end for Henry is the dinner scene in prison.
Henry, Paulie, Vinnie, and Johnny Dio have just been sentenced to 10 years for assaulting a man who owed a debt. Henry begins to describe the luxuries he is afforded as a mobster in prison as a close-up shot of an onion and then a red sauce with meat leaves the audience’s mouth watering: “In prison, dinner was always a big thing,” he said (1:21:40). “We had a pasta course, and then we had a meat or a fish.” On the outside, and from Henry’s narration, it seems like the mobsters have the best of the best. Whereas normal prisoners live an extremely controlled life dictated by a monotonous daily routine, the mobsters live alone and can move about the prison with relative ease. In fact, the mobsters want for nothing, while the regular prisoners are fighting for survival daily. Henry, himself, best sums it up: “Everybody else in the joint was doing real time, all mixed together living like pigs,” he said (1:03:40). “But we lived alone. I mean, we owned the joint.” This scene epitomizes the gangster lifestyle that Henry longs for as a kid. The fancy clothes, the jewelry, and the aura of respect all look very good from the outside. As such, the dinner and conditions in the prison look elegant and dignified to the other prisoners as well as the audience. Although the viewer may be convinced that the mobsters live all-around extravagant lives, in the next scene, Henry’s wife Karen reminds him and the audience that the mob life is not as good as it seems.
Karen, Henry’s wife, explodes in rage at Henry when she sees the name of Henry’s lover on the visitor log. A longshot reveals Karen throwing salami, bread, and wine at Henry, and she exclaims: “Let her sneak this stuff in for you every week,” (1:24:02). This moment shows the sacrifices that are at the center of the mob lifestyle. In this instant Karen is illustrating that despite eating luxury foods, Henry is still in prison. Henry is harming his family by being in prison because his wife is struggling to take care of things at home: “I asked your friend Remo for the money that he owes you,” she said. “You know what he told me? He told me to take my kids down to the police station and get on welfare.” (1:24:10) It is obvious to the audience at this point that Henry cannot sustain his family while at the same time sustaining his mobster lifestyle.
Overall, the dichotomy presented between these two prison food scenes is emblematic of the gilded mobster lifestyle. Although the dinner that Henry and his friends eat is one that may seem fit for kings, all in all it is still a prison dinner. When Karen throws the food at Henry she is symbolically saying “If you’re going to cheat and not provide for your family, take the luxury of the gang lifestyle back.” Although Henry had achieved almost everything he had dreamed of by becoming a gangster, balancing his dream with his family obligations is his prison.
Goodfellas. Martin Scorcese. Warner Bros. 1990.