pesci the irishman

The Irishman (2019)


Alexandra Molotkow

An onscreen fling with Joe Pesci.

Also Starring... Joe Pesci screens at Metrograph from January 6.

Alexandra Molotkow comes to 7 Ludlow Sunday, January 22 to introduce My Cousin Vinny.

What exactly makes a leading man? Conventional good looks are a rule with plenty of exceptions; relatability is key, but not so relatable that you’re consigned to bit parts. Range is a bonus, but it’s certainly not necessary. The simplest answer, I think, is romantic viability, which is something different than attractiveness. A star might prove his mettle in any number of genres, only dabbling in romance; but if we can’t at least imagine him as the center of somebody’s world, it’s hard to center him in the world of a movie.

In 1992, Joe Pesci was coming off a string of high-profile supporting roles—Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas (1990), Harry Lime in Home Alone (1990)—and it seemed about time for him to graduate to protagonist. That year he appeared in four films, taking top billing in two of them. The first was, of course, My Cousin Vinny—a slow-burn success that made him lovable, but didn’t quite make him a romantic lead.

One reason was his age: Pesci, a late bloomer to the screen, was nearly 50; Marisa Tomei was 27. To reduce the evidence of their gap, Pesci wore an elaborate toupee rigged to lift up the skin of his face. More substantively, he played against his co-star with decorum and generosity, letting her generate the heat between them. This minimized audience discomfort, and suited the couple’s charming antagonism, while possibly downplaying evidence of his bankable virility.

Very little physical affection passes between Vinny Gambini and Mona Lisa Vito; instead, they flirt by fighting. In the film’s only love scene—an argument over a leaking faucet in their hotel bathroom—he plays the skeptical judge to her master litigator, giving just enough to spring her solo routine to comedic heights. Tomei won an Oscar for the part; in the clip she’s shown beaming in her opera gloves and Chanel gown, thanking Pesci with a swoon “for his endless support and great talent.” The camera cuts to him, expressionless in wire-rim spectacles and an overgrown beard, looking more or less like a roadie.

pesci the public eye

The Public Eye (1992)

And so Pesci is known today as a scene-stealing character actor... not a romantic lead. Frankly, it’s everyone’s loss.

Pesci’s other big outing that year was The Public Eye, a neo-noir in which he plays a 1940s crime photographer named Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein (inspired by real-life New York photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig). Bernzy falls for a glamorous nightclub owner, Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey), who asks for his help deflecting the mob. She’s beautiful and sleek; he’s grubby and balding—a true artist, as Kay finds out, but known among her milieu as a nuisance. The two fall in love, but Bernzy, whose confidence begins and ends with his craft, never convinces himself he could “have” her, and he never convinces us, either. “Ask me. Don’t make me ask you,” she whispers, as she initiates their only kiss. He keeps his eyes open; he looks petrified. “You expect him to rip into her when he gets the opportunity,” Pesci told Roger Ebert, “but he doesn’t even know how to hold someone.”

In the end, they don’t get together. And while Pesci plays the role with pathos and delicacy, demonstrating a range that might have startled those who saw the movie in theaters, this was perhaps the problem. “There are a lot of actors who can turn in incredible performances,” the film’s writer-director Howard Franklin told the LA Times, “but they can’t resist telling you ‘by the way, this is technique—I’m not really like this.’ But great actors like Joe don’t leave any fingerprints on the picture.” Had Pesci been willing to compromise his performance for the sake of his image—less willing to appear so meek—the film might have been more palatable; it might have been a grand introduction to his sensitive side.

Audiences preferred Tommy DeVito. They wanted to be amused by the little guy with the chip on his shoulder, not exposed to his deepest vulnerabilities. And so Pesci is known today as a scene-stealing character actor—an onscreen fling, perhaps, but not a romantic lead. Frankly, it’s everyone’s loss.


The term “character actor” is famously ambiguous, and a little contradictory. It suggests both obscurity—the journeyman’s ability to camouflage in a role—and distinction, implying that one is rarely the star of the show, but always the star of their own. Pesci is proof that character actors can vault above feature players in name recognition: on the strength of just a few supporting roles, he is iconic—in the classic sense; an artist who kicks up a dust of associations, but represents nothing quite so much as himself.

That’s an issue: Pesci is frequently overshadowed by his own good work. Though he’s played a range of parts, in a variety of films (he even starred in a short-lived TV series, as a cop deemed too short to play himself in the movie of his life), he dazzles so thoroughly as a sideman and a villain that his quieter, more nuanced performances are generally neglected. Even his best-known characters are often reduced, in pop-culture memory, to one-liners (“funny how?!”), many of which he improvised himself. It’s not that he’s given to schtick; it’s that his delivery is always impeccable.

pesci raging bull

Raging Bull (1980)

“If you learn to do comedy at a young age, it creeps into everything you do,” he told Empire in 2012. “You find out you don’t have to lean on a line to make it funny.” Pesci is one of the last great movie stars to have come of age in show biz, as opposed to the acting workshop or the theater. The son of a blue-collar stage dad, who worked three jobs to keep his son in tap lessons, Pesci spent his early years appearing in New York stage productions and TV variety shows; as an adult, he charmed nightclub patrons as part of a musical comedy act with future GoodFellas co-star Frank Vincent. For the first half of his life, Pesci was very much a working entertainer—not that the work was consistent, necessarily, but in that he sang for his supper. (In between, he delivered mail, worked the docks, even styled hair at his own salon in New Jersey.) He was never a mobster, but he honed his chops keeping mobsters amused.

Robert De Niro recognized this quality when he caught The Death Collector (1976)—Pesci’s first movie (second, if you count an uncredited appearance in 1961’s Hey, Let’s Twist!)—on late-night TV, and asked him to read for the part of his brother in an upcoming film. By then, Pesci, following a failed attempt to break into the movies, was managing a restaurant in the Bronx, Amici’s, by Arthur Avenue. He’d grown so exhausted by the grind, the financial insecurity and the constant blows to his pride, that he almost didn’t bother.

Raging Bull (1980), his second film, won him an Oscar nomination, and if it seemed to audiences that he’d emerged onscreen fully formed, it’s because he had: a performer so seasoned that he’d already retired. Years of hard work and disappointment had granted him self-possession—or pushed him past giving a fuck—while also ripening his dramatic instincts. They’d trained him so well in showmanship that many fans would never notice his depth.

Nearly 40 years later, Pesci would slip, reluctantly, out of a second retirement. Playing the graceful mob boss in Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), he wowed longtime admirers with his quiet gravitas. It wasn’t the first time he’d performed with such persuasive subtlety, as Violet Lucca wrote in the New York Times; only the first time most had seen it.


If you want to understand what goes into a Joe Pesci performance, you have to know who his hero was: not Frank Sinatra, or James Cagney, but Little Jimmy Scott: a Black American jazz singer renowned among fellow musicians and aficionados for his languid phrasing and the raw, transcendent sadness in his voice. Pesci was a teenager when he first saw Scott sing, at a Newark nightclub in the late 1950s. “The sound of his voice turned my world upside-down,” he told David Ritz, Scott’s biographer. “All the magic, all the mystery of grown-up life, was in his voice.”

Scott had a genetic condition called Kallmann syndrome, which had prevented him from undergoing puberty. In his thirties, he stood at 4’11’ and sang in an alto range often mistaken for a woman’s. His slightness, combined with the might of his voice, had an awe-inspiring effect. “I related in every way,” Pesci said. “Just as he was called Little Jimmy, they were calling me Little Joe.” Pesci introduced himself, and the two struck up a friendship. Pesci followed him around, trying to make himself useful; Scott mentored him, teaching him standards and shaping his vocal technique.

pesci casino

Casino (1995)

Pesci dropped out of school to become a musician, and while he never had the luck of some of his peers—his friends Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, for instance, who met through him and went on to great success in the Four Seasons—his first love is evident onscreen. In more subdued parts, like the tragic, aspiring lounge singer he plays in 1982’s Dear Mr. Wonderful; and in his better known, more volatile ones, too, where he performs with an emotional dexterity that feels musical even when it’s violent.

Take, as evidence, his love scene with Sharon Stone in Casino (1995), which is more like an inversion of a love scene, thematizing the bleaker spurs to human attraction. Stone’s hustler turned trophy wife, Ginger McKenna, is spiraling into addiction and contempt for her husband. Pesci plays the brutal mob enforcer Nicky Santoro, her husband’s friend and, increasingly, rival. The spark between Ginger and Nicky is transactional on the surface: she needs muscle to retrieve her valuables and get out of her marriage; he sees a valuable commodity at a discount. But there’s a lot more to it beating below: vindictiveness; death drive; sheer, chaotic lust. If you watch Pesci closely, you’ll see him play every intricacy at once.

Nicky Santoro is sometimes disregarded as a reprise of GoodFellas’ Tommy DeVito. But the two are different types. DeVito is fully externalized—a feral animal, acting in accordance with its nature—whereas Nicky has motives, foresight, a range of strategic dispositions; his taste for cruelty is more refined. For all the pyrotechnic violence and lightning-fast dialogue, it’s easy to miss the ways that Pesci shades his character. One is through touch: he playfully wrings his son’s neck after pouring syrup onto his pancakes; he pets a woman’s hair after shooting her in the head, just as blood starts to flow from her mouth.

The unnerving tenderness he exhibits in those scenes stands in contrast to the sloppy, perfunctory way that he rubs Stone’s shoulders and neck as he seduces her—a fidgeting caress that holds her aloft as he draws her in. When they kiss, he barely touches his lips to hers; his hand hovers over her head until he shoves it into his lap. Nicky Santoro is so hard-edged that he seems nearly invulnerable to his senses: he snatches up worldly goods, but he doesn’t take pleasure in them. His facial expression, in this scene, disputes that, placing him in the throes of submission—not to Ginger, but to drive itself. In the very same moment, Pesci indicates both ice-cold detachment and ruinous lust.

Pesci’s greatest instrument, though, is undeniably his voice. Throughout the film, between his rants and one-liners, he speaks with a jarring softness, which is closer to how he speaks as himself: gently. Pesci has released four studio albums, and while some are curiosities at best (1998’s Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, which spawned the baffling rap single “Wise Guy”), his later works are the product of lifelong study: 2019’s Still Singing was a loving, and very capable tribute to Jimmy Scott, who had died five years earlier.

Pesci’s pure watchability—his ability to show us a brutal killer, and make the experience delightful—is a form of service to the viewer; he doesn’t force our attention, or drag us in more than we’d want to be involved.

Whether or not you enjoy Pesci’s music, listening will twig you to the exquisiteness of his speech: he has an intimate, sticky timbre—the Barthesian “grain” that indicates glottis and tongue. He speaks in the sort of murmur that tends to cloy over headphones, pouring from one body into another, but his delivery is satisfyingly dry. I think that’s telling. Pesci knows how to please an audience; and he knows that pleasing an audience is not just a matter of talent, but courtesy—an intuition for what feels good and what doesn’t.


Normally, I find scenes like the Casino consummation difficult to watch. The erotic charge is dreadful, like waiting for the pain to rise after stubbing a toe. A different sort of director than Scorsese might have milked Ginger’s desperation; a lesser actor than Pesci might have given his character over to prurience. (Not that Stone would have allowed it: she gives Ginger an inner saga that matches the monumentality of the plot.)

I came of age in the era of antiheroes like Tony Soprano—characters designed to pretzel your allegiances and double you back on your values. I grew up feeling “weird” about children’s movie baddies who strutted with deviant charisma, but meant harm: Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch, or Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook. I love these sorts of characters; I invite the inner conflicts they produce. But sometimes I just want to enjoy a film without strings attached. Rewatching Pesci in Home Alone, I’m struck by his disinterest. His bumbling burglar, Harry, cares nothing for the forgotten kid he menaces, Kevin McAllister. He only cares about taking the McAllister family’s stuff. This feels safer, somehow—he threatens physical, not psychological harm.

Viewers don’t tend to grant Pesci an inner life; as is often the case with “naturals,” what seems spontaneous is really the product of immense skill and hard work. But I think Pesci’s pure watchability—his ability to show us a brutal killer, and make the experience delightful—is a form of service to the viewer; he doesn’t force our attention, or drag us in more than we’d want to be involved. In his more tender roles he is just as selfless a performer, allowing himself to be as vulnerable as the film demands, at the expense of romantic bravado. He may not play formidable lovers, but he is one to his audience. 

Alexandra Molotkow is a writer—currently of the newsletter/essay series Crush Material—and an editor who co-founded Real Life and Hazlitt magazines.

pesci home alone

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)