Robert De Niro has had a long and very prolific career, and in 1980, he first worked with Joe Pesci, who would become a regular collaborator on some of his greatest movies. The Godfather Part II actor has starred in everything from comic book films to rom-coms to his specialty, mob movies, which has led to not one but two Academy Award wins. Though less prolific, Pesci has had a similar and just-as-celebrated career, being the go-to actor in Hollywood for playing made men in gangster movies, but he ironically had his most success, at least commercially, in the family holiday series Home Alone as Marv.
However, the actors’ best work is when they’re in movies together. Whether it’s due to supporting each other or friendly competition, they bring out the very best in each other. While De Niro has a great working relationship with Al Pacino the on-screen duo of De Niro and Pesci is as good. That close working relationship has lasted for 40 years, as they have been in seven movies together, starting with 1980’s Raging Bull and all the way up to 2019’s The Irishman. Though Goodfellas is the most talked about and has a legacy status, there are way more great De Niro and Pesci movies to discover.
The Good Shepherd is a period spy movie about the fruition of counterintelligence in the C.I.A. De Niro plays General Bill Sullivan in the agency, and while it’s a great film, it isn’t a must-watch in terms of the two actors chewing the scenery together. The two longtime collaborators don’t share any scenes together in The Good Shepherd. Pesci essentially has a glorified cameo, as he appears in just one great scene. Based on Pesci’s “Pinky Ring” SNL sketch, the actor is very aware of how he’s typecast in mob roles, but he delivers another powerhouse performance as an old and regretful mobster in the 2006 movie.
After De Niro worked with Martin Scorsese so much, it was only a matter of time until he’d be influenced to make his own movie. The De Niro-directed A Bronx Tale is like an expanded, more meditative version of the first few minutes of Goodfellas, but it’s way more emotional. The film follows a conflicted teenager who is torn between following in the footsteps of a mafia boss (Chazz Palminteri) and his honest father (De Niro). Once again, Pesci has a glorified cameo, appearing only at the end of the film, and he doesn’t share any screen time with De Niro except for when they pass each other in a hall.
Scorsese’s Goodfellas made Casino possible, but as a result, the 1995 movie has so many parallels with the mobster classic, for better and worse. Both films are about mobsters, both are period dramas, and both of them are exaggerated true stories. Casino follows two close friends and mobsters (Pesci and De Niro) who are relocated to Vegas to oversee the day-to-day operations of a casino. And while it might feel a little too familiar, it repeats one of Goodfellas‘ best styles and makes it even better. Pesci and De Niro’s back and forth in the movie is witty, intense, and exciting, and sometimes all at once.
The 1995 release might be the turning point when everyone knew what to expect from a Scorsese movie. Casino has a ton of f-bombs, a 60s rock soundtrack, a rhythmic voiceover narration, and a three-hour runtime that mostly made good use of the time. The snappy pacing and the actors’ performances make the runtime fly by, and, as a result, it even turned a much greater profit than Goodfellas, making over $116 million worldwide (via Box Office Mojo). If Scorsese made Casino before Goodfellas, it could very well be looked at as the better movie, but Goodfellas arrived five years earlier.
The Irishman is the most recent movie from the trio of Pesci, De Niro, and Scorsese, and it could be the last. It’s lucky that they even reunited for it in the first place given that Pesci had long been retired prior to 2019. However, there are so many other Goodfellas actors in The Irishman that the movie is almost like a spiritual successor to the 1990 classic. With the returning cast of cherished Italian American actors, an epic story about what has long been a mystery; the killing of Jimmy Hoffa, and a huge budget gifted to Scorsese from Netflix, The Irishman is Scorsese’s late-career masterpiece.
The Netflix movie is a who’s who of seasoned gangster actors and Scorsese collaborators, as it throws Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel into the fold too. But it’s Pesci who shines the most in one of his best performances. Given that he’s known for playing fiercely unpredictable characters, even in family movies like Home Alone, Pesci subverts expectations with a more meditative and less instinctual mobster. Between the 200-minute runtime, the fact that it spans decades, and that The Irishman de-aged the two actors, the 2019 Netflix release is easily the most ambitious movie Pesci and De Niro have ever been involved in.
Once Upon a Time in America is essentially a western set in 1930s New York. The Sergio Leone-directed gangster epic has the tone and feel of his classic spaghetti westerns, and a score from Ennio Morricone, and that’s what sets it apart from other Godfather-influenced movies. Pesci plays Frankie Monaldi, yet another made man, who sets up heists. However, the movie follows Noodles (De Niro) and his friends rising through the ranks as they sell liquor during the prohibition and commit diamond heists, and while it’s considered Sergio Leone’s best movie, it isn’t exactly the fast-paced and entertaining Reservoir Dogs.
While many of the great gangster movies are criticized for glamorizing mobsters’ stylish lives of crime, Once Upon a Time in America does anything but. The slow-paced 1984 release is full of heavy scenes and it’s completely emotionally exhausting. It was a box office bomb when it was first released, making just a sixth of its budget back (via Box Office Mojo), but it has become a prestige movie and is often called one of the greatest films of all time. The four-plus hour runtime was whittled down to just two hours for the theatrical cut of the film, but the epic extended cut is the true version of the movie.
Raging Bull is undisputedly one of the best black-and-white movies ever, and the film holds a legacy that few others do. The Scorsese-directed sports movie was so influential and changed boxing films forever. Many other movies have copied the film’s entire narrative, such as The Fighter, and even Boogie Nights, a movie about the adult entertainment industry in the late 70s and early 80s, borrows Raging Bull’s structure. Between the creative first-person shots in the ring, the exquisite cinematography, and, of course, De Niro and Pesci’s performances, Raging Bull is the ultimate movie about the rise and fall of a professional sportsperson.
While De Niro was a huge actor by 1980 and already had an Academy Award under his belt, Pesci was a complete unknown, and Raging Bull was his first major role in a movie. Yet that makes his performance all the more outstanding. For what was ultimately his first proper role, Pesci was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and De Niro won another Oscar for playing Jake LaMotta too. The movie started what would become a long working relationship between two iconic actors who have some of the best on-screen chemistry and truly come across as real brothers.
It might be hard to believe given its legacy status, but Goodfellas was an underdog when it was first released. The film came out in the same year as The Godfather Part III, a threequel to what many considered the greatest films of all time, and nobody would have thought Goodfellas was going to be the better of the two. But Goodfellas was a refreshing and exciting take on the genre that followed years of slow and overly serious gangster films. Goodfellas is about the real-life gangster Henry Hill, and De Niro and Pesci play the two most influential figures in Hill’s life, James Conway and the vicious Tommy DeVito.
Pesci finally won an Academy Award for his role as Tommy, and the movie was nominated for a bunch of other awards too, though losing Best Picture to Dances with Wolves remains one of the biggest Oscar upsets ever. While Scorsese is known to encourage improvisation on his sets, Goodfellas features the best improv yet, as Pesci improvised the “Funny how?” scene, a moment that’s both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. The movie has absolutely stood the test of time, as Goodfellas has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.7 on IMDb, making it the 17th best movie of all time on the movie database.
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