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Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster film, Goodfellas released 31 years ago on September 19. It was a riveting look into the life of Henry Hill, a gangster, and it also became one the most important gangster movies ever made. 

Ray Liotta starred as Henry Hill. Joe Pesci played Tommy DeVito and Jimmy Conway was played by Robert di Nero. Amid all the gangsters, played by men in the film, there was Lorraine Bracco, who played the role of Karen Hill — the only female in the lead cast.

Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta| Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Bracco played the role of Henry Hill’s wife in ‘Goodfellas’

Karen Hill was a Jewish girl who fell in love with a gangster. After being considered against Madonna and other candidates, Bracco accepted the role. For her part, she was also nominated for an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor (Female).  Bracco found the role exhausting, despite all the accolades that came later. According to The New York Times, Bracco found it emotionally draining to play the role of the lone female in a violent and violent world of male Gangsters.

She felt that she had the responsibility to put in a lot of effort to get her scenes cut from the movie.

“If I didn’t make my work important, it would probably end up on the cutting room floor,” Bracco said.

Bracco felt immense pressure as the only woman among a group of men in this movie. She was certain that her performance would not be as important as the male counterparts if it wasn’t extraordinary.

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“Marty said to me, ‘I know you think I only make men’s movies, but I really love this character, Karen.’” Bracco said. “But I think if push came to shove, if the performance wasn’t there, he would have geared the film more to Ray and the boys, so I felt a little bit of extra pressure on me.”

Bracco found Karen and Henry’s relationship unhealthy

In the movie, Bracco’s Karen is initially concerned about Henry’s illegal activities. She gives in to his extravagant lifestyle and falls in love with her. 

Karen marries Henry despite her parents’ approval. The movie looks at Karen and Henry’s turbulent relationship as she unwittingly becomes associated with Henry’s criminal activities. Henry appears extremely rude during their first date. Then he stands up for their second date. 

In a particular scene in the movie, Karen also torments Henry’s mistress with her words. Another scene has her holding a gun in her hands, pointed at Henry, as she threatens him for his infidelity. 

She chooses to help him escape the law and break it. Bracco noted that Scorsese and Liotta believed Henry’s affection for Karen to be genuine. Bracco agreed but had a different opinion about their relationship.

“I see no difference between an abused wife and Karen Hill,” Bracco said. “There’s nothing, nothing, nothing romantic about this. I said to Marty[Scorsese] and Ray[Liotta] a hundred times, ‘I want to leave him.’ And on those days we’d do improvisations: ‘I’m leaving you, Henry,’ I’d say, and he’d[Liotta] say, ‘You can’t honey. You have nowhere to go.’”

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The real Karen divorced Henry in 1990

Apart from Karen’s soft spot for Henry, her character was not portrayed as timid and helpless. She was often torn between staying at Henry’s house or going out on her own, but she always chose the latter. Their relationship was a bigger critique of the power dynamics in gangster marriages. 

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Karen eventually decided to leave Henry. Henry was willing to be an FBI informant and he entered witness protection. However, he was still arrested in 1987 for cocaine trafficking. Karen kept an alias, even after splitting with Henry, to protect her identity. 

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