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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
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)
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.
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)