“I’m a bore. I save all my energy for my characters.”– Joe Pesci
Joe Pesci turns 78 today and continues to be a multi-talented badass icon whose volatile on-screen presence helped him deliver electrifying performances. An integral part of every film he has starred in, irrespective of the screentime, Pesci is highly underrated with just one Oscar to his name. Born to working-class parents of Italian descent, Pesci has always nurtured the love for showbiz, appearing in TV shows at a young age of 10. He has often credited his father for helping him stay focused on his dreams, commenting: “My father loved me so much that he did not want me to be a labourer or anything. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do – push your kids into something and then stay on them until they do it. Let them pick what they want to do.”
While working as a barber alongside his mother in the 1960s, Pesci played an integral role in creating a band named ‘The Four Seasons’ by introducing his friends Frankie Valli and Tommy DeVito to Bob Gaudio. Pesci made use of his various talents; he tried his hand at singing before moving on to the comedy circuit, performing alongside Frank Vincent, who became a close friend of his.
Pesci eventually starred in Ralph DeVito’s 1976 crime film The Death Collector which caught Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese’s attention. This led to the beginning of a wonderful trio-chemistry which has been retained in many of Scorsese’s films. Pesci was quickly cast in Raging Bull as Joey LaMotta, the brother of DeNiro’s character, which was a very challenging role as it left Pesci with a broken rib and a mere Oscar bid.
However, he avenged himself ten years later by winning the Academy Award for Scorsese’s Goodfellas, accepting the Oscar speech with an awkward and shy moment behind the microphone. He has emphasised Scorsese and DeNiro’s contribution to his acting style, stating: “Scorsese and De Niro taught me to bring out the natural side of myself. And they taught me to think of myself as the average guy. Sometimes the average guy belongs in a role more than your matinee idol-type of person. We have to have people we can relate to.”
Pesci has been vocal about his love for films and good roles. “I love to star in movies, but I want to have good roles. It doesn’t help to get starring roles in something that’s no good. I mean, that will just kill you.” To plot his career steps, Pesci has appeared in small and leading roles in films of all nature. He continued his music career and in 1999 announced his retirement, making occasional on-screen appearances. However, Scorsese’s 2019 masterstroke saw Pesci, DeNiro and Al Pacino (re)uniting on-screen which was a visual delight for fans. Although Pesci did not want to “do the gangster thing again”, Scorsese’s coaxing skills sure did work and for good. His stoic and somewhat quiet performance earned him his third Oscar nomination.
Known for his volatile and enraged characters as well as the comic ones, Pesci has always managed to have a commanding on-screen presence, being an all-time fan favourite. On his 78th birthday today, let us take a look at this legendary actor’s best films, ranking them in order of greatness.
10 best Joe Pesci films
10. Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner, 1989)
Following the success of the first film in the buddy cop genre, Mel Gibson and Danny Grover reunited for this second film before doing so in the third and fourth instalments respectively. They have been entrusted with the duty of protecting a difficult and obnoxious federal witness Leo Getz while having to take on South African drug dealers who are taking shelter under the garb of being diplomats.
Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz, which debuted in the second film of the franchise, was a regular in the following two films. Neurotic and wild, he makes the stressful lives of the detectives even worse. Entertaining and playful, the film somewhat remains the best of the franchise with explosive humour and chaotic action sequences.
“I remember because 9 is my lucky number.”
9. With Honors (Alek Keshishian, 1994)
In a heartwarming yet cliched tale, an honours student named Monty Kessler rooms with three other students while working hard on his thesis at Harvard. One night, he loses his thesis and sues a homeless man named Simon for it. Soon the two strike up an unlikely friendship and quickly grow comfortable with each other. However, Monty’s disgruntled roommate poses a threat to their relationship as does time which is ticking away with the deadline for the thesis nearing and Monty still not having a thesis ready.
While the plot is very predictable, Joe Pesci as the homeless Simon shines through. Via his extremely emotive acting abilities. Although people often consider it to be a dumb teen movie, it really is not. The underlying message, if understood, leaves an everlasting impression. Heartfelt and funny, this is one of those underrated gems that deserves a watch to feel the potent message being conveyed.
“You respect each others’ empty air? That’s very profound for a couple of Harvard students.”
8. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
Adapted from Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins as well as Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, the film is a political thriller that deals with the events that led to John F. Kennedy’s assassination as well as how the New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison covered up the truth. Although Garrison convicted a businessman for his part in the conspiracy, the Warren Commission found Lee Harvey Oswald, a US Marine, guilty.
A controversial film, editorials accused the director of tweaking historical facts to fit his own narrative. Joe Pesci starred as David Ferrie, the private pilot, who was initially questioned. Despite the innumerable controversies it fuelled, the film is a product of Stone’s masterful genius. Nerve-wracking and intense, it is wonderfully complex and might leave the audience breathless in its sheer sensationalism and depth.
“What are our lives worth?”
7. My Cousin Vinny (Jonathan Lynn, 1992)
Two UCLA students Bill and Stan shoplifted, following which the store clerk was murdered and the boys were held accountable for murder. After several missed chances, Bill’s cousin Vincent Gambini, a lawyer, successfully passed the bar exam. After the boys appointed him to defend them, it became a challenge for Vincent to prove himself in court which becomes comical and heartwarming.
Set in a not-so-happening premise of easy-going Alabama, the film sees Joe Pesci as Vinny stealing the show with his comical and abrasive out-of-the-place attitude inside and outside the courtroom. Although Marisa Tomei as his fiance with whom he constantly bickers won an Academy Award, Pesci deserved one as well for his brilliant on-screen presence. The courtroom sequences are hilarious and despite the predictability of the overall script, the film is an enjoyable experience.
“Take your time, pick the right words, get back to New York and give me a call.”
6. Casino (Martin Scorsese,1995)
Adapted from yet another Nicholas Pileggi novel, the film revolves around Robert De Niro’s Jewish American gambling expert persona by the name of Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein who is entrusted with overseeing the operations at Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. The trials and tribulations faced by Ace include operational difficulties due to subsequent Mafia involvement which lead to the further disintegration of his relationships and marital life, with a rapidly changing Las Vegas as its background.
A fine blend of violence, tragedy, mishaps, exuberance, jazz and humour, the film is a delicately balanced masterpiece. Supported by a brilliant ensemble including Joe Pesci, James Woods, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, Kevin Pollard etc., Robert De Niro as the principal character delivers an outstanding performance as the troubled casino handler while Pesci as the mercenary Mafia operative who is entrusted with the responsibility of making sure that they receive their share is compelling. A tale of American opulence and excess, the exhilarating performances take Scorsese’s carefully crafted humorous and jazzy film forward.
“For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins. It’s like a morality car wash.”
5. Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)
Home Alone stars a young and adorable Macaulay Culkin who plays the eight-year-old Kevin McCallister who is tired of his siblings’ incessant taunts and wishes to get rid of his obnoxious family. Due to a common misunderstanding, his family goes off to Paris, leaving him alone. Very soon, Kevin’s quietude is disrupted by a pair of burglars as they embark on an intense and hilarious cat-and-mouse chase.
This film is among one of the best Christmas films of all time. While it celebrates the spirit of familial love and togetherness, a feeling of warmth and nostalgia enshrouds us while watching this timeless classic. Joe Pesci plays one of the burglars who are slightly sharp-witted than his companion. Although he tries to outwit Kevin, he is foolish enough to give in to the clever boobytraps and eventually get arrested. Pesci, in particular, is hilarious and deserves a special mention besides Culkin’s brilliant performance.
“Would you please tell him that instead of presents this year I want my family back?”
4. One Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
Sergio Leone’s magnum opus was a gangster film about Jewish gangster and organised crime in New York City; when Leone finally directed the film, he died shortly after, making this his final film. Adapted from a novel, The Hoods, the film, which was considered by the Italian composer Ennio Morricone as Leone’s “masterpiece”, revolves around the lives of David (known as Noodles) and Maxmillian (known as Max), who leads a group of gangsters in a Jewish ghetto to prominence.
A nearly perfect depiction of the American society, this is indeed Leone’s finest film as it explores themes of childhood, friendship, trust, loyalty, betrayal, greed, loss and the gangster life. To enhance the effect the soundtracks which been employed, brought out the themes of the bygone times and the past slowly disintegrating into fragments, fading away. With Robert DeNiro as Noodles and James Woods as Max, Pesci appears in a somewhat smaller role as Frankie Monaldi.
“It’s 10:25. And I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
3. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
An old school masterpiece, the film focuses on Frank Sheeran, a truck driver-turned-hitman who works in close collaboration with a north-eastern Pennsylvania crime family, headed by Russell Bufalino. Frank begins “painting houses”, a code word for contract-killing and is cold and charismatic. Eventually, he is introduced to the fiery Jimmy Hoffa who has ties with organised crime. Scorsese’s brand-new outlook on the gangster genre is phenomenal.
Finely curated, the film boasts of a heavyweight ensemble, including Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and more. Pacino is exhausted and vulnerable yet loud and funny. DeNiro as the cold-blooded killer does not talk much and carries out his orders without breaking into a cold sweat. Pesci is equally compelling and communicates with his mere presence. Reminiscent of Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the film conveys how the upcoming modernity is changing the ways of the old world. The film ends on a poignant note, and with Scorsese’s name in the credits, it is almost heartbreaking to think of how the golden era has come to an end. A brilliant epic, it features the dream team while paying tribute to the dying genre via the inevitable doom that awaits the characters.
“You don’t know how fast time goes until you get there.”
2. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese,1980)
Robert De Niro plays the protagonist Jake LaMotta, an Italian-American middleweight boxer. As he rises through the ranks to bag the crown, he falls in love and gets married to a beautiful girl. However, overcome by psychological demons like self-destructive and uncontrollable rage, sexual jealousy and gluttony along with his general animosity severely affects his interpersonal relationships.
The brutal fight sequences coupled with a man’s wounded ego causing rifts in his relationships weigh heavily; the film is poetic and psychologically scarring at the same time with an intense and brutal script by the legendary Paul Schrader. Joe Pesci rose to prominence with this film as Jake LaMotta’s supportive brother and manager Joey who tries hard to help his brother battle his inner demons. Jake’s slow and steady emotional degradation leads to his isolation; the beautiful monochromatic cinematography brilliantly captures the depressive and gloomy atmosphere that pervades through the screen. De Niro is explosive as the “unsympathetic hero” whose insecurity and obsession leads him to crave control over events inside as well as outside the boxing ring.
“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”
1. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Adapted from Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, the film revolves around the lives of three pivotal figures and their lives as a part of 1960s and ‘70s New York mafia. It follows the journey of a young, petty criminal Henry Hill, who along with his friends, the jack-of-all-trades Jimmy Conway and the intimidating Tommy DeVito, ascends the organised crime ladder to live a life of luxury. Unbeknownst to him, the brutalities soon cause a sea change in their lives, bringing into the picture the question of survival.
An obvious fan favourite, this film made Scorsese the household name he is. The film, which questions the extent of willful ignorance on the part of an individual towards his compatriot’s immorality, stars an incredible ensemble comprising Robert De Niro, Jo Pesci, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. The rehearsals led to a variety of improvs and ad-libs which gave the actors creative freedom to express themselves and the best ones were retained in the improvised script. Pesci, who received the Oscar for it, shyly accepted the award with “um, ah it’s my privilege, thank you.” Iconic!
“Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”