One day a few years ago my roommate mentioned how much she liked the actor Joe Pesci– how funny he was, and how My Cousin Vinny is her favorite movie. I said, “You’ve never seen Goodfellas, have you?”
Made in 1990, directed by Martin Scorcese, it was The Wolf of Wall Street, twenty-three years ahead of its time. Minus Venus and her candles. Ahem. It’s based on the story of Henry Hill, a small-time gangster who eventually turned state’s evidence and went into witness protection. Before that happens, he befriends to other goodfellas, Jimmy the Gent (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) as they try to rise up the mob hierarchy.
According to the real Henry Hill, Pesci’s portrayal of the unstable, violent Tommy was about 90% accurate– the difference being that the real one was a big, strapping guy, and Pesci is a bit vertically challenged. Even so, Pesci is quite frightening in the role… a lot of tension builds up in the “Am I funny?” scene because the audience has no idea what Tommy will do (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E84VqqCPI7w). Even Henry and Jimmy tiptoe around him at times because he will, and does kill people at the drop of a hat. He’ll beat somebody to death and then go have breakfast with his mother like nothing happened.
It’s like he’s a light switch, and you never know what will flip it. Pesci makes the switches perfectly– one minute cheery the next murderous, but the audience will always want him at least five blocks away from the dark alley they’re walking in.