In The Irishman, Joe Pesci bosses over De Niro
All through their acting lives, Robert De Niro has had better gigs, lines and dames than Joe Pesci. Especially in the films made by Martin Scorsese. So when Scorsese sent Pesci the script of The Irishman (released on Netflix recently) via De Niro who, according to the Hollywood grapevine, said, “Joe, you gotta”, he turned it down at least 40 times.
Why he finally agreed to be Russell Bufalino is evident in the movie. For the first time, something else was being demanded of him.
People like to see little Joe self-destruct and explode. His angry cinematic moments on YouTube have garnered a million views. Pesci, playing Tommy DeVito, brow-beats a fellow mobster (Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) in a restaurant…. Then there is the thrashing he gives actor Frank Vincent in the same movie, who in turn, thrashes him back in Casino…. Pesci’s slow-burn malignant buffoonery before he moves in for the kill, draws both chills and laughs. Always nasal, his high-pitched yap-yap is a signal that the plot will thicken and head towards a crisis. From that point onwards, it’s a cinch that a Joe Pesci film will leave someone dead; in many cases, Pesci included.
But not this time. In The Irishman, the 76-year-old actor has a place at the high table of Philadelphia crime; he is Mister Gravitas gently nudging hitman Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro, to bump off inconvenient friends like trade union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and foes. Here, De Niro waits for Pesci’s cues; in Pesci’s presence, he waits hat in hand. All roads, says Sheeran, lead back to boss Buffalino.
Buffalino has Sheeran on a tight leash but keeps the pull gentle. There’s an exchange of sad and grim smiles on either side when Sheeran does a job on the side without letting the boss know or when Buffalino observes that Hoffa is getting “too emotional” and disturbing the status quo achieved between the union and the mafia. And towards the end of the film when Buffalino calls Sheeran “my kid” before handing him the Hoffa job, we know that a line has been crossed in cinematic history.
This may or may not be Joe Pesci’s swan song but after The Irishman, he will no longer be seen as someone standing behind a De Niro. Or, an Al Pacino. As Pesci keeps saying in The Irishman, “It’s what it is.”
Joe Pesci’s best work was in the 1990s. The role of Russell Buffalino for which he came out of retirement is widely tipped to win an Oscar.
Joey LaMotta: In Raging Bull (1980), Pesci plays boxing champ Jake LaMotta’s (De Niro) younger brother. He is the loyal and tough younger brother, the one person who can totally level with Jake but who is also his brother’s punching bag.
Tommy DeVito: Pesci won the Best Supporting Actor playing the mobster with a hinge loose in Goodfellas (1991). DeVito is recalling past exploits with fellow gangsters at a restaurant when one of his listeners, says he’s funny. “Funny how?” asks Pesci quietly. The laughter at the table dies.
Bernstein: Pesci plays Bernstein in The Public Eye (1992), based on the life of Weegee, the photographer of New York crime in the 1940s. “Pesci’s introspective, crablike performance gets under your skin,” said the Newsweek in praise.
Vinny Gambini: In My Cousin Vinny (1992), Pesci plays the lead role for a change. Hot-tempered and witty, he plays a lawyer called in to defend his cousin in a murder case.
Nicky Santoro: In Casino (1995), he plays the man with the money of an establishment run by his childhood friend Sam Ace Rothstein (De Niro). In the end, his greed and ambition get the better of him.