By John H. Foote
Though he has not worked often when he does make a film, he makes it count and when working with actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese, it is legendary. Despite his small stature, Pesci can dominate a scene with the same ferocity as John Wayne, his explosive, uncontainable fury was simply terrifying. He looked his prey in the eye, spoke clearly at them, his entire body coiled like a rattlesnake and then he acted. No threats, he just went for you, and make no mistake, if he came after you, chances are you were dead.
And yet, incredibly that same man who could radiate such pure danger, was a gifted comedian, portraying a cartoonish burglar bested by an eight-year-old boy in Home Alone (1991), taking fearsome physical punishment. As a lawyer in My Cousin Vinny (1992) he bumbled his way through a murder case, bailed out by his smoking hot girlfriends knowledge of all things automobile.
Joe Pesci exploded into movies as Joey LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s stunning, bleak biography of fighter Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull (1980). The intensity of the chemistry between Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci was electrifying, exciting to watch because you just never knew what was going to happen. They were sensational together, they still are, and yet after such a stunning debut, Pesci would have a sporadic career through the nineties.
To be clear, Raging Bull was not his first film, he had appeared in a B movie years before that both De Niro and Martin Scorsese saw and had never forgotten the short, intense actor with the smouldering eyes.
Incredibly, Pesci never really wanted to be an actor, his first love was music. In fact, he was partly responsible for the creation of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons! The Joe Pesci in Jersey Boys (2014) is really this Joe Pesci! His love of music remains and he has cut a couple of albums over the last ten years, often turning down film roles. He has been absent from movie screens for ten years, and his wonderful turn in The Irishman makes clear his gifts and how much we have missed him.
Poised to receive his third Academy Award nomination and perhaps his second Oscar, I went back through his career and ranked his films.
Here are his ten best performances.
10. HOME ALONE (1991)
Wildly funny in the style of slapstick, like a Road Runner cartoon come to life, with Pesci and dumb partner Daniel Stern as the coyote. The damage and pain inflicted on Harry (Pesci) and Marv, is extraordinary, yet each time they get up and continue their attempt to rob the beautiful home inhabited by a child, left home alone. Paint cans in the head, BB guns aimed at the crotch, a flame thrower unleashed on his head, falls, being tripped, nails through the feet, being beaten up more than the average human could bear, they get horribly scarred, yet keep coming back for more. In the end, it is a touching Christmas story, with Pesci, wonderful as a comic book villain. Think about that…comic book violence. It is slapstick at its finest and most painful, and Pesci’s reactions are priceless. Try to imagine the film without him? You can’t.
9. MY COUSIN VINNY (1992)
A rarity, a courtroom comedy. Even rarer, a stunning, feisty New Yorker with the tough Bronx accent is the funniest character in the film, erupting like Mount St. Helen, winning an Academy Award for her efforts. Pesci is not only her straight man but the main source of comedy for the rest of the characters. Like a fish out of water, this New Yorker is way out of his league in the Deep South, knows it, but keeps going, defending his cousin of a murder charge. Pesci and the wonderful Marisa Tomei are terrific together, they all but glow when together on screen. Goofy good fun.
8. A BRONX TALE (1993)
Portraying a very small role, a cameo really, Pesci is Carmine, who is a powerful man in the crime world. Initially, we encounter him beaten with a baseball bat seemingly over a parking place but later at a funeral, we come to realize just who he is and the immense power he wields. Nothing showy, no grand “acting” moments, just a very fine actor in his element, exuding a quiet, dangerous confidence, something at which Pesci excelled, he steals the film with a few minutes of screen time.
7. LETHAL WEAPON 2 (1990)
Ok, ok, ok, ok, ok…Pesci is Leo Getz, (“what Leo wants, Leo gets”) a fast-talking, VERY accountant for the mob who has skimmed too much off the top, is under the protection of the state before he testifies in court, and manages to keep getting into all sorts of danger. Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are assigned to protect him, and almost at once attempts are made on his life. Faster than Leo can say “ok, ok, ok, ok” all hell breaks loose and Leo is part of the police action, always getting badly hurt, but remaining fiercely loyal to his friends, his protectors. A great comic performance and wildly original character. Ok?
6. THE PUBLIC EYE (1992)
A surprising film that gave Pesci one of his very rare lead roles, as audiences and critics were used to seeing him in supporting roles where he usually stole the film. Here as a crime photographer in New York in the forties, revered for the honesty and integrity of his gory, haunting images, Pesci is exceptional as Bernzy Bernstein, a hotshot freelance crime photographer who inadvertently gets pulled into a murder case and becomes both a suspect and target. A solid film in every way, with Pesci outstanding, it failed to attract attention or audiences despite an acclaimed premiere at TIFF 92.
5. JFK (1991)
As David Ferry, a dangerously paranoid homosexual who is connected somehow to the Kennedy Assassination, Pesci was alarmingly intense and frightening in his zealot beliefs and mounting paranoia. Homosexual at a time when coming out was dangerous, Ferrie ran with radical political groups that were anti-Castro but mostly anti-anyone else with a deep disdain for Kennedy. Knowing he knew far more than he should to stay alive, he is right in that his days are numbered. Pesci is truly alarming in the wild, terrified intensity he brings to David, brilliant in a massive film that should have seen him again nominated for Best Supporting Actor.,
4. CASINO (1995)
Comparisons were drawn between this character, Nicky Santoro and his character on Goodfellas, Tommy, but the only thing they share is their bloodlust. While Tommy was psychotic, a killer, Nicky moves to Las Vegas to run the criminal underworld and quickly is doing just that. He will kill if betrayed, if crossed, but only as a last resort. He prefers to take, by force. The trouble is he does not care who he takes from, including his bosses in the mob, and when he violates unwritten rules, stealing from the mob, sleeping with Ace Rothstein’s dangerous wife, he has to go. His death scene is horrific, forced to watch his young brother beaten to death with aluminum baseball bats, his same fate before being buried alive, tossed in a hole, dirt tossed on him as he still breathes. It is a profoundly powerful portrayal of a very dangerous man, who tried to take over Vegas, paying with his life. Stunning. How did the Academy miss this?
3. RAGING BULL (1980)
Pesci’s major breakthrough earned him rave reviews, several critics awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He is Joey LaMotta, brother, manager, long-suffering best friend to his vicious, volatile brother Jake. Together they rise in the world of middleweight boxing, all the way to the top, before a long painful fall. Joey speaks frankly to his brother, the only one who can truly speak the truth to his volatile brother, though often at his peril. Joey never forgives Jake for accusing him of sleeping with his wife, the beating matters not, but the accusation wounds him beyond repair. Pesci gave a stunning performance in the film, instantly an acting icon, electrifying audiences with his intense work. Though not as violent as his older brother, he can still explode in rage, which is horrific to see, a violence from the very pit of his soul. The beginning of an extraordinary career and his first Oscar nomination, along with a host of critics awards.
2. GOODFELLAS (1990)
Pesci won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his hot-headed, murderous psychopath Tommy De Vito in Martin Scorsese’s greatest achievement. His terrifying “Do you think I’m funny” is among the most intensely alarming scenes in modern movies as we expect Tommy to pull a gun and kill his friend Henry at any moment. He does just that to an underling who lips back at a card game, blowing the kid across the room. Pesci radiates absolute danger in the film, this guy does not bark, he bites. When he kills a made guy, eats dinner at his mother’s house, then hacks the body apart before burying it we gain insight into his madness, his entitlement at believing he had the right to do so. Yet on the day, Tommy is to be made, he walks into an empty room and in an instant knows he is a dead man. It is to Pesci’s staggering talent, we mourn his death.
1. THE IRISHMAN (2019)
After being absent from the screen for a decade, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese brought Pesci back and he gave the finest performance of his career in a role no one saw coming. After his volatile, murderous gangsters for Scorsese in two previous films, as well as hot-headed Joey LaMotta he is quietly dignified, graceful, but just as deadly as gentleman mob chieftain Russell Bufalino. Befriending Frank Sheeran, The Irishman of the title, Bufalino ushers him into the halls of great power, introducing him to Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Yet when Hoffa has outlived his use to the mob, it is quiet, dangerous Russell who gives the order to take Hoffa out. Never raising his voice, always watching and listening, the purity of Pesci’s astonishing, confident performance shows a genius he had not yet shown. A second Academy Award seems reasonable for this utterly brilliant performance, filled with melancholy and immense sadness.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”