"You only exist out here because of me!" - An Account of the onscreen relationship between Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro.
Under the stewardship of Maverick Director Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci have become perhaps the greatest movie double act of all
tim. The title quote taken from Casino is very ironic. It can be argued their undeniable stardom can partly be credited to each other, with their seemingly telepathic screen relationship providing us with some of the most memorable movie moments over the years.
The legendary Italian-American duo's first career defining movie came in 1980 with the Oscar winning Raging Bull a movie which remained the greatest movie of that decade, arguably being topped by the 1990 hit Goodfellas which was also decorated by the Academy. In arguably the finest display of method acting we have ever seen, Raging Bull saw De Niro play the character of the legendary war-time Middleweight Champion Jake la Motta. In order to prepare for the role De Niro sparred with la Motta for a full year, completing over 1000 rounds of boxing, leading la Motta to state that "By the time I had finished with him he could have fought professionally" He then famously ate his way around the world, gaining 60 lbs to cater for Jake's post career weight issues.
"The method-man" was the undoubted star of that movie as he amazingly forces us to empathize with this monster of a man and deserved the gong, which quite unbelievably is his only 'Best Actor' Oscar. However the quality of the performance that the very youthful Pesci turns in is extremely underrated. Jake's screen brother 'Joey' also acts as his conscience, the angel on his shoulder if you will. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that once Jake's relationship with his brother deteriorates so does his own life and his eventual alienation from Joey sends la Motta into freefall. It can be considered one of the central themes of the movie and a sparked a chemistry which Scorsese saw enough in to cast the pair in two further movies (the trio of Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino being arguably Marty's finest since Taxi Driver, which also star's De Niro).
Throughout their screen relationship, which for the main is embezzled in conflict as a result of Jake's overriding paranoia, there is still scope for a great deal of humor. Even as De Niro is accusing Pesci of "fucking my wife" the man who made a career out of putting his own persona on to the screen responds with (partly improvised) dialogue such as this:
"I'm not gonna answer it, that's a sick question you're a sick fuck and I'm not that sick that I'm gonna answer it... I'm not tellin' ya anything...
I'm gonna leave. If Lenore calls tell her I went home, I'm not staying in this nuthouse house with ya, your a sick bastard I feel sorry for ya I really do,
you know what you should do try a little more fuckin' a little less eating then ya won't have troubles upstairs in your bedroom and you won't take it out on
me and everybody else, ya understand ya fuckin' wacko, your cracking up! Ya fuckin' screwball, ya!"
From Bob and Joe, Scorsese sought to encapsulate the comedy of greats such as Albert & Costello and Bing Crosby & Bob Hope combined with a dark
narrative, full of gritty realism. The entertainment value the pair provide helped Scorsese create the illusion of the usually immoral characters becoming
the moral centre of his movies. Clever Guy eh? But as Joe would say:
"Funny how? Like a clown? Do I amuse you? I'm here to fucking amuse you?" But that's another story.
Namely Goodfellas - a movie which in my humble opinion is the greatest ever to hit the silver screen. If not related by blood this time, Goodfellas
narrative sees the duo star as part of Paul Cicero's mafia 'family' in which they play a supporting role to Ray Liotta as real life Gangster and 'Fuckin'
Duuurty Rat' the legendary Henry Hill. The generous but devious Jimmy 'the Gent' Conway (De Niro). The psychotic yet sensitive Tommy De Vito (Pesci) and the moral centre - yet not so in the long run - Hill form an irresistible partnership, providing some of the most enthralling cinematic moments of all time. I really cannot be too high in my praise for Goodfellas. It is simply the perfect movie, perfectly written, cast and directed, with a narrative to die for - after all, quite a few of the characters did - and beautifully scored by Scorsese himself.
But I'm going of on a tangent here, Where was I? Ah De Niro and Pesci. For his magnificent performance, 'the little guy' was awarded the Oscar for best
supporting actor, his only Oscar. Again this is an absolute scandal, But baring in mind the Academy Awards are decided by a bunch of - and to quote Joe himself - "antique greaseballs" who base their choices on how many 'bums' fill the multiplexes or how well they are treated at the movie premiere. They are indeed the bitches of mainstream Hollywood and as the man himself would say "Fuck 'em, Fuck 'em, they 'ain't getting' rid a me" Damn right, who needs Oscars?
The Murder of Billy Batts stands out as a highpoint in the movie, as Conway remarks afterwards "Da Fuckin mut dented my shoes" followed by De
Vito's ever so sensitive "I didn't want to get blood on your floor" after he has just 'pistol whipped' the "mudda fuckin' mut" to death. The trivialization of murder was another tool used by Scorsese in order to put his characters over from an emotional and sometimes amusing standpoint, for example the digging up of the now decomposing Batts. As Henry struggles not to regurgitate his evening meal, Tommy and Jimmy feel it appropriate to crack jokes.
- Tommy: Hey Henry Henry hurry up will ya, my mudda's gonna make us
some fresh peppers and sausage for ya.
- Jimmy: (laughs)
- Henry: (loud, disgusted grunt in response to the sight of the decomposition)
- Jimmy: Hey Henry Henry here's an arm.
- Henry: Very funny, you guys.
- Jimmy: And here's a leg.
- Tommy: Here's a wing.
(Tommy and Jimmy laugh)
whaddaya like, Henry, the leg or the wing? Or ya still goin' for the ol' hearts and lungs?
- Henry: (now vomiting) Oh, that's so bad!
In any other movie, this would be its darkest moment. The shooting of the scene would certainly suggest that, lit with neon red mist and showing the characters in silhouette, it has the potential to be a real knee-jerker, this dialogue makes a mockery of that, kudos all round.
The scene in which Tommy gets 'whacked' also stands out as a memorable moment. Jimmy's reaction is such that you would struggle to convince someone who had joined the movie half way that they weren't blood brothers. De Niro cried like a baby, just as hard as he did after taking a dive in Raging Bull except this time he didn't have his brother to console him:
- Jimmy: "Fuck, I can't believe that, I can't fucking believe it. (sobbing and smashing up the phone box)
- Henry: What happened?
- Jimmy: They whacked him, they fuckin' whacked him!
- Henry: Oh fuck! (Jimmy trashes the phone booth)
- Jimmy: Motherfucker! (sobbing)
Five years later the two would unite for a third time in the adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's Casino.
Once again taking the form of mobsters, Sam "Ace" Rothstein (De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Pesci) form a duel assault on the city of Las Vegas with disastrous effects. Nicky put it better than I ever could:
"In the end we fucked it all up. It should have been so sweet, too, but as it turned out, it was the last time time that street guys like us were ever given anything that valuable"
The above is an extract from the voice over narrative, which De Niro and Pesci share beautifully. De Niro's monosyllabic, dark, deep voice combined with Pesci's quirky, shrill quips which more often than not bring a smile to the audiences face. The voice-over uses both characters' personalities to tell the story from their own perspective. This highlights yet another seamless technique in which the pair blend as if they were born of the same womb.
Now if Pesci's character in Goodfellas was considered a loose cannon, multiply his wildness by ten and you have Nicky Santoro. You see here we have the basis of the initial conflict. Sam wanted a quite life, only wanting to run a legitimate joint (Casino) but Nicky, on the other hand, wanted to take over, not only Las Vegas - which he had in his back pocket within weeks of his arrival - but everything, he wanted to go after the bosses and by adding Ace's wife Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone in a magnificent performance) we have the ultimate recipe for a grandiose fuck up.
The volatile relationship between the two is a recreation of their feud in Raging Bull, only this time it is Pesci who takes on the role of resident
psycho and in turn the power figure. The following is arguably the most intense exchange between the two throughout all of the screen time they have shared,
cue a very angry Nicky.
- Nicky: (storms out of the car) Where the fuck do you get off talking to people about me behind my back, going over my head?
- Sam: What people?
- Nicky: What people? What did ya think I wasn't going to find out?
- Sam: I don't even know what your talkin' about, Nick.
- Nicky: No? you said I'm bringin' heat on you? I gotta listen to people because of your fuckin' shit? You're orderin' me out? You better get your own fuckin' army, pal.
- Sam: (stuttering nervously) I didn't do anything. I'm mean, I didn't order you or anybody out, I just told Andy Stone that you had a lot of heat on you and that I was a problem.
- Nicky: You want me to get out of my own fuckin' town?
- Sam: Yeah, I said (stuttering) l-l-let the bullshit blow over for a while so I can run the casino. If anything goes wrong with the casino, it's my ass. It's not yours—it's my ass.
- Nicky: Oh, I don't know whether you know this or not but you only have ya fuckin' casino because I made that possible. I'm what counts out here, not ya fuckin' country clubs or your fuckin' TV shows and what the fuck are you doin' on TV anyhow? You know, I get calls from back home every fucking day, they think you went bat-shit.
- Sam: I'm only on TV because I gotta be able to hang around the casino. You understand that. You know that! C'mon!
- Nicky: Your fuckin' ass! You could have had the food and beverage job without goin' on television. You wanted to go on TV.
- Sam: Yeah, I did wanna go on TV. That way I have a forum—I can fight back, I'm known, people see me, they know that they can't fuck around with me like they could if I was an unknown. That's right, yeah.
- Nicky: You're making a big fuckin' spectacle of yourself.
- Sam: Me? I wouldn't even be in this situation if it wasn't for you. You brought down so much fuckin' heat on me, I mean every time I meet somebody the big question is "do I know you?"
- Nicky: Oh, sure, now you wanna blame your fuckin' license on me? Is that it?
- Sam: Nah, I just... Nicky, when you asked me if you could come out here what did I tell ya? I mean you asked me but I knew you were gonna come
out no matter what I said but what did I tell you? You remember what I told you?
- Nicky: Back. Back up.
- Sam: D'you remember what I told you?
- Nicky: Back up a fuckin' minute, here, one minute, I ask you? When the fuck did I ever ask you if I could come out here? Get this through your
- Sam: You ne... (interrupted)
- Nicky: Get this through your head, you Jew muddafucker you, you only exist out here because of me. That's the only reason, without me, you personally every fuckin' wiseguy still around will take a piece of your fuckin' Jew ass, then where you gonna go? You're fuckin' warned, don't ever go over my fuckin' head again you muddafucker, you!
(Nicky storms back into the car leaving Sam speechless)
A fatal conflict emerges due to this exchange, in which Pesci is the victim. He is not however the victim of the movie as a whole. If Raging Bull provided De Niro's finest hour, then Casino does this for 'the little guy'. De Niro for once is not the power figure, but contrasts Santoro's rampage superbly, especially in the voice over, constantly straightening out Nicky's hothead reactions. Perhaps the most evil character in any Scorsese movie - putting him alongside Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Max Cady (Cape Fear) - Nicky takes us through a journey of brutal murder in which, he sleeps with his best friend's wife and then attempts to have him killed. However, because of a moral and sensitive side - highlighted by going home every morning and making breakfast for his son and giving handouts for "degenerate gamblers" to put the heat on - we are obliged feel sorry for him when he is brutally beaten to death with baseball bats by his own crew. A quite magnificent performance.
Pesci has taken a lot of criticism down the years for only being able to play himself in roles and has been dismissed as a 'C list' actor. This is total rubbish. It would be interesting to see a Michael Douglas or a Mel Gibson or a Russell Crowe attempt to play one of his roles with such passion and realism. I mean, who gives a fuck how many fucking times he says "fuck"? Who cares if he is simply putting his own persona on to the big screen? The man is a genius and placed alongside De Niro, they form the perfect double act. Their performances together have a certain consistency that suggests they DID grow up together, whether it's De Niro as the overpowering brother or Pesci as 'the made guy' you just don't fuck with, every single interaction between them is seamless and perfectly performed.
Quite simply they are the two men who have provided this reporter with his most enjoyable cinematic experiences down the years.
Let us hope that no holes in the desert are being dug to bury their partnership.