Wednesday, December 2, 2015

In Character: Joe Pesci

Few actors are as equally menacing as they are hilarious. And ever fewer make you want to revisit their work again and again (and again, and again) in films from completely different genres. But that’s Joe Pesci. The man who starred in (and won an Oscar for) arguably the greatest, most rewatchable mob movie of all time, and starred in one of the greatest, most rewatchable holiday films of all time... in the same year. Another thing I love about Pesci is that acting has never consumed his life. He’s been a forklift driver, lounge singer, bartender, restaurant owner, hell, he’s even responsible for helping create The Four Seasons. But despite having other interests (he’s been semi-retired since 1998), Pesci routinely delivered stellar work. He’s one of the best we’ve had, no question, period.

Five Essential Roles
Goodfellas (1990)
Tommy DeVito
One of the best decisions Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, ever made was taking a scene from the middle of Goodfellas and putting it in the very beginning of the film. By showing Henry (Ray Liotta), Tommy (Pesci), and Jimmy (Robert De Niro), murdering Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), we were immediately thrown into the harsh world of the film, and the characters who inhabit it. Following the opening, the first time we see Tommy do anything remotely threatening is during the “I’m funny how?” scene. And we fear him. We fear that he might go kill crazy and start shooting up the place.

And we feel this way for two reasons. One, because Schoonmaker added Batts’ murder to the opening of the film. Think about it, had the film opened with the young Henry Hill standing in his parent’s window, it would’ve taken longer to fear Pesci in the “I’m funny how?” scene. Oh, and the second reason? That would be Pesci’s relentlessly menacing, constantly fearful, Oscar-winning work. The man is violently magnetic in this film.

Home Alone (1990)
Harry
Rather infamously, if not officially verified, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern had no idea what they were getting into when Home Alone began filming. Assuming they were in a silly child’s film that few would see, they decided to play-up their performances in absurd, exaggerated fashion. Obviously, their bold choice worked, as they help make Home Alone (and its first sequel) a holiday movie staple. Home Alone featured a different kind of Pesci-funny. He’s Wile E. Coyote to Macaulay Culkin’s Road Runner. He’s a cartoon character limited to mumbled speech when frustrated, as a way of masking Pesci’s trademark penchant for profanity. Home Alone is a film worth revisiting for many reasons. Nostalgia perhaps the most significant, but Pesci and Stern’s hyperbolic work is certainly a close second.

JFK (1991)
David Ferrie
Oliver Stone vet, James Woods, was Stone’s first choice to play David Ferrie in JFK. When he turned it down, Stone reached out to Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich. All great actors, but I don’t think any of them could have pulled the mania of this scene off as well as Pesci. It speaks for itself, and, in three minutes, becomes one of Pesci’s best roles. “Black, black, just give it to me. Black.”

My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Vinny Gambini
The best comedic performance of Pesci’s career was as the street-smart but etiquette-challenged, Vinny Gambini in My Cousin Vinny. Like most every film highlighted in this post, My Cousin Vinny is endlessly rewatchable, thanks much in part to Pesci’s work. His chemistry with Marisa Tomei is electric. Despite their 22 year age difference, few on-screen couples have been able to match Vinny and Mona Lisa Vito’s tit-for-tat argumentative banter as humorously as Pesci and Tomei. Everything about Pesci’s performance works, from his smooth walk to his slick attitude, from his struggle to understand the law to his impatience with the Deep South. And genuinely, few moments in ‘90s film comedy top the sight of Joe Pesci strolling into a courtroom wearing a ridiculous red tuxedo. It’s utterly priceless, every time you watch it.

Casino (1995)
Nicky Santoro
Nicky Santoro is the most ruthless psychopath Joe Pesci ever played. And that’s saying something. The man hasn’t a shred of redemption to him. The man has no sympathy or remorse, he’s simply a batshit crazy mob enforcer who is really good at his job. “Arc.” That’s a word you see a lot in reference to character and script. Every character must have an arc. They must start here and end here, and have gone through change in the process. I disagree. The notion of arc is one that helps make audiences comfortable, but it certainly isn’t a necessity for a great performance. Nicky Santoro doesn’t change in Casino, at least not for the better. He only becomes more vulgar, more dangerous, more vengeful. It’s a go-for-broke, balls-to-the-wall work of fury, and I can’t get enough of it.

Wild Card
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
Leo Getz
One could say that Pesci had worn out his “Okay, okay, okay” shtick by the time Lethal Weapon 4 (Pesci’s third effort in the franchise) came around. One could say that. One could also say that Pesci and Mel Gibson’s heartfelt moment near the end of this film fell flat. One could say all of those things, but that one certainly wouldn’t be me. In just three minutes Pesci dismantles his violent/outlandish on-screen persona and delivers a monologue of such welcome sincerity. This one has always gotten me.

Best of the Best
Raging Bull (1980)
Joey La Motta
I didn’t arrive at this choice easily. In fact, I’ll say up top that if you flip a coin on any given day, I could just as easily choose Pesci’s work in Goodfellas has his best performance. But on this particular day, having recently seen Raging Bull on the big screen for the first time, I’m firmly sticking with Pesci’s early performance in Raging Bull as his best work to date. And sure, the context of inexperience plays into my decision. Raging Bull was Pesci’s second performance (after a fine debut in the little-seen The Death Collector), yet it feels like the work of a seasoned professional. Pesci is so confident in his movement, cadence and overall delivery of Joey La Motta, it is difficult to believe that this was his first role in a major movie.

Ultimately, I suppose I’m most drawn to the Joey’s humanity. The explosive anger is there, no question, but Pesci gives Joey a depth that I’m most taken with. You really believe Joey’s stunned disgust when his brother, Jake (Robert De Niro), asks Joey if he slept with Jake’s wife. Joey seems so appalled and offended, and instead of getting angry, he simply walks away, like a dog who just upset his unreasonable owner. And later, perhaps in the film’s most earnest moment, we watch as an older, rounder, more subdued Jake desperately tries to rekindle his relationship with Joey in a parking garage. Pesci hardly speaks in that scene, but everything we need to know about Joey is written on Pesci’s face. It’s in the looks of disgust, and the economy of his hurried movement. It’s a heartbreaking scene, the final one Pesci and De Niro share in the film, and one that helps cement Pesci’s early, lasting legacy.

Other Notable Roles
in The Good Shepherd
The Death Collector (1976)
Easy Money (1983)
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Half Nelson (1985)
Lethal Weapon 2-3 (1989/1992)
The Super (1991)
The Public Eye (1992)
Home Alone 2 (1992)
Tales from the Crypt (1992)
A Bronx Tale (1993)
Jimmy Hollywood (1994)
With Honors (1994)
8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997)
The Good Shepherd (2006)
Love Ranch (2010)

25 comments:

  1. Pesci is THE MAN. Love that dude. I would've went Goodfellas in the top spot, but what he did in Raging Bull is certainly worthy. I also find all of his Lethal Weapon turns hilarious. The scene in part 4 of he and Chris Rock discussing cell phones is comic gold. Great post.

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    1. Thanks Dell! Yeah, tough call between Raging Bull and Goodfellas. I love his back and forth with Rock in LW4 as well.

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  2. Good to know that im not the only one who loves his performance in Raging Bull more then anything else he has done. I think he overshadowed De Niro (:

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    1. Well, I don't know if her outplayed De Niro (!), but I do love that performance for sure haha

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    2. Yeah, one of the greats for sure.

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  3. Pesci is great. I've got JFK on my Blind Spot list for next year, I'm looking forward to those three minutes.

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    1. JFK is soooo good. He's in the film a bit more than that, but that scene is priceless. He's so bonkers.

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  4. YES. Pesci is so underrated. As brilliant as his performance in Goodfellas is, he is so much more than that. His humanity in Raging Bull is so beautiful, a different kind of realism when paired with De Niro's intensity. His comedy work is aces too. As I grow older, I find myself being more drawn to the superb work of Pesci, Stern, O'Hara and the other adults in Home Alone, rather than just Culkin. I love that he also has great chemistry with actors, especially in ensemble casts, or two handers like My Cousin Vinny.

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    1. Couldn't agree more! He has such a range as an actor, but that is rarely discussed. So glad to hear you're a fan of his different kids of performances.

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  5. I thought he was great in The Good Shepherd. His appearance was brief in what consider to be a rather good movie.

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    1. I've only seen that movie once (when it was in theaters), but his cameo was a definite standout to me.

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  6. I do love Joe Pesci. He's hilarious but also a guy you don't want to fuck with. I enjoyed his brief cameo in A Bronx Tale where it proves that he can be sensitive.

    I remember an episode of SNL where Pesci was supposed to be the host but couldn't do it because of commitments to Home Alone 2 where Tom Hanks took over and did the "why am I funny?" bit from Goodfellas. That was funny as I thought it was a great tribute to Pesci.

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    1. That Bronx Tale cameo is aces. He just swoops in for a late-game killer of a scene. Really enjoy that. I need to see this SNL clip asap!

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  7. One of my all time favorite actors. He is one of those guys that always makes a movie a little better just by appearing in it. My favorite performance from him is probably Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas. He is the main reason that movie is in my top 10 personal favorite. I can never get tired of his performance in it. I also really love him in the Lethal Weapon movies. "They FUCK YOU at the drive-thru!"

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    1. Haha yes! He really goes all in in those LW flicks. Just so crazy and funny. So glad you're a fan of his work!

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  8. "Tommy DeVito loved and respected his own mother, but Martin Scorsese doesn’t show us that side of Santoro" - what about his son and his brother?

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    1. That was a straight up brain fart on my part. Seriously, I read your comment and was like, "Wait, what the fuck, how did I forget that?" I deleted that sentence, not because I'm afraid of being called out. I just know how off I was there. Haha jesus. Good catch!

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    2. Oh my God. I cannot believe I actually caught on something you didn't! Not in a mean way, though - you know scary amount of stuff. If anything I only caught it because I literally know this movie by heart

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    3. You'd think after 8 years of blogging I would've learned to not write posts hungover. You'd think.

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  9. It's a tough line to ride between Pesci in Raging Bull and Pesci in Goodfellas. Coin flip for sure. Such a powerful presence in the right roles, this guy. And most of his roles have been exactly right. Great post.

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    1. Thanks Kevin! And yeah man, it's always a good problem for an actor when they have too many great roles to choose from.

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  10. Oh, I love that wild card pick! Totally forgot about that scene. I'd probably go with his performance in Goodfellas or maybe even Casino, but it's hard to argue with your #1. Pesci's in a class of his own, though. His Oscar speech will always be one of my favorites.

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    1. I LOVE that Oscar speech. And yeah man, you can't go wrong with Pesci's best work.

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