“This is going to be a lot of fun watching people get killed!”
So joked director Jason Reitman as he kicked off the latest installment of Film Independent’s popular Live Read series on Thursday night with perhaps his boldest selection yet: Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.”
At the event, which returned to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art following last month’s sojourn to downtown L.A., Reitman praised the gangster classic as having “a perfect screenplay.”
Written by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, and based on Pileggi’s non-fiction book “Wiseguy,” the story chronicles the rise and fall of mobster-turned-FBI-informant Henry Hill.
To celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary, Reitman cast a fresh ensemble of actors, including Laurence Fishburne (in the part originated by Robert De Niro) and Fred Savage (in Ray Liotta’s signature role), to read the Oscar-nominated screenplay before a live audience.
Before the show began, Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell introduced two special guests who were instrumental in bringing “Goodfellas” to the screen: producer Irwin Winkler and author Pileggi.
“It’s a miracle we’re here today,” Winkler quipped while describing the film’s disastrous preview screening back in 1990, the problem being the amount of graphic violence. “By the time it was over, we had seventy-one walkouts. Probably a world record,” he said. “We did everything we could to convince Warner Brothers to release the picture.”
Pileggi acknowledged the mass walkout. “I told Marty they’re all just going to the bathroom. But they didn’t come back,” he said.
Designed as a unique, one-time-only experience, no recordings of the “Goodfellas” Live Read were permitted. Rietman insists that these events are performed exclusively for those present in the audience at the time they’re held. “Also, we don’t want to get in trouble with the WGA,” he deadpanned.
As in the past, this was a cold reading with no advanced rehearsal. Several of the actors hadn’t even met before taking the stage. “It’s a bit like seeing a jazz show,” Reitman said. “For the first 20 minutes or so we might be terrible.”
He needn’t have worried.
Unlike last month’s reading of “The Empire Strikes Back,” which found some of the actors struggling to connect with their characters, the eclectic “Goodfellas” cast gelled almost instantly.
Fishburne imbued the part of stone-cold Jimmy Conway with an air of palpable menace. His boisterous laugh and sly charm belied a savage killer lurking just beneath the surface. Recalling at times his memorable role in the 1990 crime thriller “King of New York,” Fishburne gave one of the night’s scariest, yet most natural, performances.
Introduced by Reitman as “The baddest Jew I know,” Fred Savage may have seemed an unlikely choice to portray the infamous Henry Hill, but from the moment he delivered the character’s iconic line — “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” –- all doubts were put to rest. Tasked with delivering a running voiceover, the actor rose to the challenge at virtually every turn. Whether waxing nostalgic about hijacking trucks or screaming in horror that his wife flushed $60,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet, Savage showed a side of himself that few have seen before.
In the role that earned Joe Pesci an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Eric Andre (“The Internship,” “2 Broke Girls”) was arguably the event’s breakout star. Playing psychotic mobster Tommy DeVito, whose explosive temper and hair-trigger violence threatened everyone around him, Andre’s readings were so dynamic that the audience repeatedly burst into applause at the end of his scenes. More importantly, fans waiting to see how the unforgettable “funny guy” scene between Henry and Tommy would play out in a live setting were rewarded with the most electric moment of the show.
Playing long-suffering mob wife Karen Hill, Michaela Watkins (“Transparent,” “Afternoon Delight”) brought a welcome degree of street-wise toughness and brassy humor to the role. Seduced by the lavish criminal lifestyle, Watkins gradually revealed her character’s moral ambiguity and willful ignorance. Her eventual breakdown was rendered both tragic and pathetic.
Rounding out the cast were comedian Dane Cook, Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”) and Mae Whitman (“Parenthood,” “Arrested Development”). All three proved to be expert utility players whose hilarious voice work and razor-sharp improvisational skills allowed them to play multiple supporting roles throughout the reading.
As usual, Reitman himself read the screenplay’s stage directions. Beautifully written and strikingly visual, the highly descriptive text was occasionally too much for the director to handle. Racing too quickly at times, Reitman stumbled through the denser sections of the script, and briefly stepped away to clear his throat at one point. Whitman seamlessly took over in his absence.
Casually dressed and clearly enjoying themselves, the cast’s unmistakable chemistry worked better than anyone could have hoped for, allowing the audience, and the actors themselves, to experience “Goodfellas” in new and unexpected ways.
(Pictured: Laurence Fishburne, Fred Savage and Eric Andre.)