Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is filled with memorable sequences, from that famous tracking shot through the Copacabana to a young Michael Imperioli getting shot by Joe Pesci... twice. But arguably the pivotal scene in the director’s gangster classic, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in August, is the scene where Karen (Lorraine Bracco) tells her soon-to-be husband Henry (Ray Liotta) that she was attacked by a neighbor, and then watches as he proceeds to beat the man senseless and even hides the gun he used in the fight. At that moment, she becomes his literal partner-in-crime — a partnership that continues throughout the movie.
“The most important part of that scene for Karen Hill was, yes she realized who [Henry] was,” Bracco tells Yahoo Entertainment during a conversation about her new HGTV series, My Big Italian Adventure. “He was the antithesis of her family... she totally did not want to marry her father. Henry was the opposite of that. He was dangerous and sexy and something her father was not.” (Watch our video interview above.)
Years after Goodfellas, Bracco had the opportunity to play out a similar scenario with another gangster — James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Only this time, she made a very different choice. Season 3 of David Chase’s pioneering HBO drama, The Sopranos, features a controversial storyline where Bracco’s character, therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, is raped in a parking garage by a man who is later caught by the police, but then released. Presented with the opportunity to enact some private justice by telling her Mafia-associated patient about the crime, she ultimately opts to stay silent.
Interestingly, Bracco says that Melfi’s storyline in The Sopranos owes more to real life than Goodfellas. “Robin Green wrote that script,” she explains. “She apparently had a friend who was raped in a garage. She went to David at the time and said, ‘This is what I would like to write.’” (Green and co-writer Mitchell Burgess later won an Emmy award for the episode.) Like the audience, Bracco was initially shocked by the writers’ plans for Melfi. “When they told me they were going to do this, I was like, ‘Why are you going to hurt Melfi?’ And David said, ‘Because I know the ending, and that’s because she doesn’t tell him.’”
Melfi’s decision has been a sticking point with a vocal segment of Sopranos fans since the episode aired in 2001 — a group that includes Bracco’s parents. “My mom and dad were screaming, ‘Tell him, tell him!’” she says, laughing. But the actress stands by her alter ego’s choice to this day. “[David] felt it was really a question of her ethics. If she told him, she knew he would go and hurt him, and then she could no longer be his doctor. It was not the right thing to do.”
Bracco remembers that shooting the rape sequence put everyone on edge, including the actor playing the rapist. “The actor who played the rapist was a fireman,” she explains. “It was so emotional — he had to stop at one point and say, ‘I save people for a living; I don’t hurt people.’ When I saw him literally put his head down and cry, I said to myself, ‘I must be doing something right.’” Asked whether she’d feel comfortable shooting a scene that brutal and violent today, Bracco answers by making another link between her two gangster tales. “Look, violence is violent. I always said this about Goodfellas and The Sopranos: I believe in showing violence for what it is. It’s important that people see that they are hurting another human being. I think one of the reasons we have a lot of violence in this country is because we don’t show it for what it is.”
As to where Dr. Melfi might be now, Bracco believes she’s still sitting in that office in New Jersey. “I think she continued her practice,” she says, adding that she still regrets the way Melfi ended her professional relationship with Tony in the show’s penultimate episode. “I hated it! I felt she was really mean and rough on him, even though he deserved it. I always felt that it was rough and that I would have liked it to have been different — let's put it that way.”
Bracco isn’t staying in one place, though. My Big Italian Adventure, which sends her overseas to pre-pandemic Sicily to renovate a villa that really puts the “rust” in rustic.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says, laughing. “There were houses that nobody’s lived in for 50 years, and there’s no plumbing, no electricity, no ceilings! It was an adventure, I have to say that.”
That adventure, which premieres on HGTV Oct. 30, also introduced her to the profound differences between the Italian and American approaches to home repairs. “Everything is done by hand. There’s no drywall; they plaster the walls three, four or five times... I don’t know if we could really afford to build like that here anymore. I was in awe.”
My Big Italian Adventure premieres Friday, Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. on HGTV; The Sopranos is currently streaming on HBO and HBO Max.
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