Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective on the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Joseph Frank Pesci: the diminutive movie tough guy with starring roles in Goodfellas, Casino, My Cousin Vinny, etc. has led a sporadic yet incredible career. He recently returned from a decade-long acting break to star in Martin Scrosese’s The Irishman. However, he first broke out in Scorsese’s pugilistic 1980 classic Raging Bull, playing the younger brother to Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta.
His path to the role, and the performance itself marks one of the great film partnerships: De Niro and Pesci. It demonstrated all the key factors of a great performance — larger-than-life moments and nuanced introspection — that would make the relatively unknown actor into a star.
Production for Scorsese’s masterpiece began under the auspices of (what else?) cocaine. With a debilitating coke habit, the legendary director watched his 1977 film New York, New York bomb critically and financially. Three years prior, on the set of Godfather II, De Niro had read LaMotta’s autobiography. He approached Scorsese about adapting the book into a movie as he filmed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The director turned it down, famously disliking sports. However, when Scorsese nearly died of an overdose, he came to identify with LaMotta and began production on the film.
The casting appeared easy enough: they had De Niro after all. But finding a person to play Joey, Jake’s younger brother, proved difficult. “We had another actor in mind who was much younger who should have played the younger brother because that is the way the story actually was with Jake La Motta and his brother Joe,” De Niro remembered.
Pesci himself was an unknown at the time. Earlier in his career, he played guitar for Joey Dee and the Starliters—and in 1968 released a collection of 1968 pop hits like The Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life” for his album Little Joe Sure Can Sing. He later formed a comedy with Frank Vincent, and move to Los Angeles with the hope of breaking into films. But he soon moved back East to manage a Bronx restaurant named Amici’s once his career stalled.
However, before he moved back to the Bronx he made a low-budget crime drama called The Death Collector in 1976. There, he played an ill-tempered enforcer in organized crime. Sound familiar? In one scene, his character and a few friends go out to a club. They heckle an effeminate but schmaltzy piano player, throwing peanuts at him. The wiseguy act to the club owner, the “I’m not doing nothing here” reaction, became a Pesci staple.
De Niro saw the film and loved it. He later recommended to Scorsese that the part of Joey be played by Pesci. When Pesci received the call for Raging Bull in 1979, he initially believed the offer was a prank.
Joey is a composite character. For one, Pesci was 36 years old when cast, while the real Joey in 1941 couldn’t have been more than 16. In the first draft of Mardik Martin’s script, the character wasn’t remotely prominent. Instead, LaMotta’s lifelong friend Peter Savage performed many of the tasks attributed to Joey in the later revisions of the screenplay.
For those revisions, Paul Schrader came on board and reworked the script to combine Joey and Peter into one character. The real-life Joey later sued Scorsese and co. for defamation, as a few unsavory acts like beating up an underworld gangster in a club were attributed to him when they were in fact perpetrated by Peter.
But obviously, Pesci remained the key ingredient. Because Raging Bull isn’t just a boxing movie, it’s a breakup movie too.
Joey and Jake shared a close-knit duo of blood and ambition as trainer and boxer, fixated on one goal: winning the World Middleweight title. Through the ten years that comprise most of Raging Bull’s 129-minute runtime, Joey tries to keep Jake in line, channeling his brother’s irascible nature into boxing.
The dynamic remains ironic today, considering that so often De Niro played the straight man to Pesci’s erratic characters in films like Goodfellas and Casino. Nevertheless, the brothers slowly become estranged, as Jake, a domestic abuser, and jealous maniac, begins to incorrectly suspect Joey of cheating with his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty, another strong newcomer in the cast).
Raging Bull isn’t just a boxing movie, it’s a breakup movie too.
For Pesci, two scenes are pivotal: the club encounter and the bust-up. During the club sequence, Joey sees Vickie dining with Salvy—a possible former lover—at the Copacabana. When he sees her, he’s conversing with two fans of Jake. The side-eye he gives, as he watches Vicki sit while still trying to remain interested in the conversation at hand, demonstrates Pesci’s great talent for tracking his character’s emotional reactions.
Watch any Pesci blow-up, and you can see the build within himself, like in the Billy Batts scene from Goodfellas. There, he begins irritated, then conforms to pleasantries, then explodes. Here, he opens as disgusted and nervous. Joey knows his brother’s temper, the fact that he’s spent years trying to catch Vickie in the act of cheating, abusing her because he can’t find evidence.
Consequently, Pesci spends half of the scene holding back. When Vickie says she’s tired of having both Joey and Jake on her case all the time, the beat Pesci gives before he quietly whispers “shut up” is just as much about gathering and calming his character’s internal anger as naturally reacting to his co-star Moriarty. Standing at 5’ 4”, the actor’s height never hides his command—even when the much taller Moriarity towers over him.
Furthermore, when Vickie returns to the table, Joey finally bursts. Pesci consciously juxtaposes the earlier instance of “shut up” with Vickie to this, as he throws a drink and pointedly tells Salvy through gritted teeth to “shut up.” Later, Joey asks everyone to calm down. Pesci retains his energy—converting from kinetic to potential, then bursting again as Joey jumps upon Salvy.
The other consequential scene arrives a year later when Jake confronts Joey about the fight between him and Salvy. Jake wants to know what happened that night—he’s heard things. Pesci’s breathing as he sits on the couch is short and shallow, while his blank expression delicately exhibits Joey’s fear. It’s minimalist for an actor known for his larger-than-life moments. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing during this boxing match of words is peerless, moving from full-shots as jabs, body-shots as mids, and uppercuts as close-ups.
Meanwhile, Pesci adds beats, dancing in a verbal ring to avoid the knock-out blow, the question Jake wants answered: Did you fuck my wife? Vicky later, sarcastically, admits that she did fuck Joey—and the whole block with him. Jake, with uncontrollable anger, storms into his brother’s home and throws him through a glass door—their relationship as broken as the shards upon the floor, never seeing each other again until a dark street with the two as broken men.
Under Scorsese, Pesci has rarely had the same level of nuance, at least with how his characters are written. Though, he’s always bought a fair bit of silent detail to the table. Still, not until The Irishman did Pesci return to a thought-provoking character who was just as much about their most introspective moments as their loudest. Still, through his career he’s remained an incredible actor—winning Best Supporting Actor in 1991 for Goodfellas.
Consequently, while Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece will always be remembered for De Niro’s Academy Award-winning performance, and the highly stylized camera movements and editing, it should be just as known as the movie that let the world know about a restaurant manager who would become the greatest character actor of his generation.