After writing a post on Eddie Murphy last month, I started thinking about other actors whose careers have ebbed and flowed with great success followed by not so great success with long absences from moviemaking and the biz. Then I saw Joe Pesci in a Snickers commercial and I thought, where the heck has he been and when was the last time he made a good movie?
There was a time when Joe Pesci was synonymous with a loud mouth gangster. He endeared himself to film audiences through violence and bloodshed by playing the baddest mother-fucker in organized crime. He established himself as one of the greatest gangsters in cinema beginning with Once Upon A Time in America and solidifying that embodiment with Goodfellas and Casino. Partnered with legendary director Martin Scorsese for both films, the two seemed to truly understand the art of the gangster film and about what it felt like to be in the Mafia. Pesci is a master at showing the unhinged, ruthless, madly driven and sociopathic tendencies of a gangster living in the world of organized crime through the good times and the bad.
As Tommy Devito in Goodfellas, Pesci brilliantly portrayed a likeable guy with a fearsome temper that could explode in a second. Tommy bashed in heads and kicked a “made” Mafioso almost to death. As Nicky Santoro in Casino, Pesci played a similarly homicidal killer who throws his weight around; squeeze’s a guy’s head in a vise and mistakenly earns a reputation as the mob’s enforcer. Santoro taught audiences that a ballpoint pen can be as lethal as a bullet to the brain.
Though playing a gangster has become Pesci’s signature, he’s demonstrated over the course of his career that he has great chops as a comedian too. In the Lethal Weapon series, he became as indelible to fans as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. His role as the fast-talking and spastic Leo Getz became a fan favourite. Who could forget his incessant, “Okay, okay, okay” refrain. In 1990’s Home Alone, he nearly stole the show from a young Macaulay Culkin when he played a bumbling, inept burglar who gets outsmarted by an 8-year-old boy who is left home alone. The scene where the blowtorch sets his head on fire is one of the most memorable in film.
One of my favourite Pesci films is the underrated comedy My Cousin Vinny. Pesci is great as the fish-out-of-water lawyer who takes the bar exam six times before passing it and fumbles his way through his first ever murder trial. The plot isn’t terribly complex or interesting, but the movie is fun and so is watching Pesci’s character go from an inexperienced, incompetent novice to a clever and intelligent lawyer who saves the day.
After Casino, Pesci made two comedies which tanked – 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Gone Fishin’. When Pesci appeared in the hugely successful fourth installment of Lethal Weapon in 1998, he seemed poised to bounce back from those earlier commercial failures, but that would be the last we’d see of Pesci for several years. After a successful string of films in the 90s including an Oscar win for Goodfellas, Pesci seemed to somehow fade away and vanish from the spotlight.
In 2006, Pesci reemerged in his good pal Robert DeNiro’s directorial effort, The Good Sheppard. This was the first time in almost a decade that Pesci appeared in a movie. However, this reemergence was short-lived. Pesci didn’t appear in a theatrically released movie again until 2010’s Love Ranch. Where did he disappear to and what was he doing during his absence from moviemaking and Hollywood? Well, we know he endorsed a chocolate bar.
Pesci was slated to star in a new mobster movie about the infamous Gotti family called Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father; a role that had created serious buzz for Pesci in what promised to be his glorious return to gangster cinema. Instead, Pesci’s involvement in the project has been mired in controversy and legal drama, as Pesci has filed suit against the producers of the film for allegedly cutting his salary and asking him to take a smaller part. Pesci has argued that the producers used his name to generate publicity and support for the film and to draw marquee actors to the project, and then reneged on the agreement.
It’s a real shame the pairing of Pesci and Gotti hit a rough patch, for I can think of no better way for Pesci to reestablish himself as a premiere force in Hollywood in a role tailor-made for him. Fear not, however, because Pesci is connected to a project involving none other than Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino called The Irishman based on the real-life story of a Mafia hitman. Can you say a dream come true? It will mark the first time since 1995’s Casino that the dream team of Scorsese, DeNiro and Pesci will be reunited and in a Mafia movie no less. With only two films in the last decade, it will be great to see Pesci on the big screen again led by a director with whom he makes magic and co-starring actors who will undoubtedly be a tour-de-force combination. If all goes well, this could be one of the most anticipated films of 2012 and Joe Pesci’s return to the big time.