Joe motherflippin* Pesci, one of America’s greatest living actors, and the Baby Boomer’s answer to James Cagney, has a strange and wonderful résumé. At the front of mind are his collaborations with Scorsese and De Niro or the intensity that he brings to every gangster he portrays; but as you take a closer gander there’s a plethora of roles that comedic flair and slapstick sensibility that show that he’s not just a maestro with the word f*ck.
Home Alone: Harry Lime
Do not dismiss Pesci’s human incarnation of Hanna-Barbera’s Muttley in Chris Columbus and John Hughes’ juggernaut Christmas classic Home Alone. It showcases a Pesci being a bad guy that you love to watch fall down, get kicked in crotch and be tortured by all of Kevin’s (Culkin) traps; and for a man that’s infamous for his use of profanity, watching him smother his outbursts with that Muttley mumble is hilarious. Bubbling beneath the surface though, is a monstrous character that would kill a kid for a score.
Lethal Weapon 2: Leo Getz
During Pesci’s Inside the Actor’s Studio session with James Lipton, he revealed that the infectiously enthusiastic younger staff at Disneyland, and their use of “Okay, okay, okay, okay” to gather their thoughts informed his approach to money laundering, police snitch Leo Getz. He’s an incredibly great foil for Riggs and Murtaugh throughout the film, but his infamous “they f*ck you in the ‘drive-thru’” rant is a sensational slice of observational comedy.
Raging Bull: Joey, Jake’s brother
Pesci’s Joey is a character, that unlike some of his other crazed characters, has been nurtured, by his relationship with his brother, into a volcanic temper and extreme violence problem resolution mechanism. Alongside Jake’s (De Niro) schizophrenic behaviour, personal paranoia and straight out intent to alienate himself from the power brokers in the boxing world, he’s forced to confirm to this savage state.
The Good Shepherd: Joseph Palmi
Pesci’s role as mob boss Joseph Palmi (said to be a fictionalised amalgamation of Mafiosi bosses Santo Trafficante Jr. and Sam Giancana) is a role that temporarily coaxed him out of retirement. With his dear friend Robert De Niro in the director’s chair he delivers a quiet and weary performance as Palmi who realises that he’s seen out the heights of the Mafia, as the government becomes its own brand of organised crime. It’s a performance loaded with what you’re expecting and subverting those expectations expertly. It packs a punch, even though it’s a tiny scene in the larger espionage epic.
Goodfellas: Tommy “Funny, funny how?” DeVito
Save the best ‘til last. Tommy DeVito is one of the most terrifying and hilarious characters to ever grace celluloid. Whether it’s the perpetual state of imbalance that he strikes through his own crew, or his demand for respect to those who serve him or interact with him he’s like a grenade with a pin taken out being held with a tenuous grip. Some will say that it’s the “funny, funny how?” scene that’s the high point of the film, however for me it’s the scene where Jimmy, Henry and Tommy are having dinner with Tommy’s mother and he asks to borrow the knife. He’s clearly lying through his teeth and the story is flimsy at best, but the sweetness that he shows to his mother (paired with her rose coloured perspective of her son) is just divine.
*not his actual middle name
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.