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There’s nothing a healthy percentage of Oscar voters love more than a showy performance. Physical transformations. Mental breakdowns. Dramatic weight gains or weight losses. There are a lot of voters who will always prioritize going big, and in many years, the biggest performance really is the best performance. That’s a fine enough approach most of the time, but now and again, needing that one scene or moment where the actor really gets to go for it disqualifies or at least deprioritizes a certain kind of performance. Enter Joe Pesci in The Irishman.
The Irishman is a great movie filled with great performances. Robert DeNiro is probably the best he’s been since at least Silver Linings Playbook, maybe longer. Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa feels like he’s the focal point of every single scene he’s in. He’s similarly the best he’s been in years. To be clear, both of those men deserve all the praise they’re getting, and I hope they end up with Oscar nominations. But the reason the whole thing works is because of Joe Pesci’s low key brilliant performance as Russell Bufalino.
Joe Pesci has a long history of going big himself. He’s an outrageous, look at me type personality in My Cousin Vinny and countless other movies. His funny-like-a-clown rant in Goodfellas might be the most beloved scene in the history of mob movies, a genre filled with all-time classic moments. Whether he’s dressed like a chicken in Home Alone or not, when he wants to be the center of attention, he’s more than capable of stealing attention from other performers whenever he wants to. And yet, throughout The Irishman, he consistently stays restrained, a decision that’s both in service to his character and in service to the other performers.
Respect is earned in different ways, and The Irishman spends a lot of time showing that. Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa desperately tries to keep it through bombastic displays. His speeches are aggressive and play to the crowd. His threats are direct and to the point, and his ego is on display at all times. When he wants respect, he asks for it directly, whether he wants votes or someone to wear pants to a meeting. Robert DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran earns his respect through violence. He’ll get his hands dirty and take care of his own business without many questions. Mess with his daughter? He’ll throw you through a window without a second thought, whether his daughter wants him to or not.
Joe Pesci’s Bufalino is different. We never actually seen him earning any respect or fighting for it. He already has it without questions or second thoughts. Some of that is because he’s already older and more established when the movie starts, but most of it is because of his personality. There’s a darkness behind his eyes. There’s always a lingering sense that he’s capable of and has done unspeakable violence to people in the past, but that’s balanced with a sense of control neither Sheeran or Hoffa has. So, when he says, “It’s what it is”, that’s exactly what it is. He doesn’t have to scream it. He just needs to say it.
For Pesci’s Bufalino, showiness would have undermined his character. A big scene would have taken away from the steadiness. So, instead, what we get is a consistent level of quiet brilliance throughout The Irishman. It all works so freaking well, and because it’s all so seamless, I’m terrified Oscar voters will ignore it and push it aside in favor of some roles in which a few people yelled a bit louder or cried a little harder.
The Irishman is one of the best movies of the year, largely because of great acting performances. I hope award season voters honor the work, and that should start with Joe Pesci’s whose sacrifice makes the entire thing work.