Legend has it that Joe Pesci is an actor today because Robert De Niro was watching the late show and saw Pesci in some horror movie that should have been cut up to make ukulele picks. This was in 1979. De Niro and Martin Scorsese were looking for someone to play the brother in "Raging Bull." They called Pesci for an interview, which was just as well for his career, because he had decided to retire from acting and try something that paid money. In the 12 years since then, Joe Pesci has developed into one of the two or three best character actors in American movies, not to mention winning the Academy Award.
In "Raging Bull," he was a character caught in the middle, between the fight game and his brother's jealous rages. He walked away with "Lethal Weapon 2" as a manic little accountant who kept interrupting with explanations of things that didn't need explaining. He was one of the burglars who got taken apart by Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone." He won his Oscar playing a trigger-tempered gangster in Scorsese's "GoodFellas," where he has perhaps the best moment in the movie - the moment he walks into a room, thinking he is going to become a made man in the Mafia, and only has time to register his mistake before he gets shot dead.
Earlier this year, Pesci the longtime supporting actor finally got billing above the title in "My Cousin Vinny," the story of a cut-rate New York lawyer who tries to outsmart the best legal minds in a small Alabama town. And now he stars again in "The Public Eye" (1992), in one of the year's best performances, as a New York newspaper photographer in the 1940s - the kind of guy who has a police radio in his car, and a darkroom in the trunk, and prowls the midnight streets, looking for photos he can sell to the tabloids. He is a loner, a little guy with a cigar jammed in his mouth, who is flattered when a beautiful dame asks his help. She's the widow of a nightclub owner - some say she married the old guy for his club - and now some mob boys want to become her partners, and she needs advice.
Pesci's character is known in the movie as Bernzy, although the credit line under his photos reads, "The Great Bernzini." I assumed he was modeled on the legendary New York candid photographer Weegee, whose photos of Manhattan's 1940s night people now sell for thousands of dollars. But Pesci said no: "Howard Franklin (who wrote and directed the movie) told me that when he wrote the script, he wasn't even aware of Weegee. He wrote it about this photographer and then someone mentioned Weegee to him."
Bernzy takes his work very seriously in the movie. In his own way, he's an artist. "Put the guy's hat in the shot," he asks a cop, while photographing a mob victim. "People like to see a stiff's hat." Bernzy dreams of someday collecting his seamy photos into a book, and maybe that's when he falls in love - when the beautiful dame who owns the nightclub expresses an interest in his book. A love supreme
She's named Kay, and is played by Barbara Hershey as the kind of woman who has good instincts and would like to trust people, but has been burned too often by too many men. Bernzy comes to love her, although he never expresses that idea out loud. She comes to love him, too, although she doesn't rise to the demands of her love. In the movie's saddest and most romantic scene, she confesses to Bernzy that she thought there was something he wouldn't do for her. "You have no idea," he says, "what I might have done for you."
But about the art in Bernzy's photos: Pesci said that if his director stayed at arm's length from Weegee, he didn't. Pesci got his hands on all of the Weegee books, "and I studied them and looked at them and figured what he would be thinking when he took the pictures; how he felt. I tried to make myself feel like him and look like him and take pictures and learn how to do everything."
Weegee was a forerunner of Diane Arbus, I said. He took pictures that found beauty where others could see only poverty, deformity or the bizarre.
"If you go out at midnight and walk the streets of New York," Pesci said, "you're not going to take pictures of priests and nuns. Nor are you gonna be necessarily such a great guy. "One thing I found out was, actually, Weegee was an obnoxious type of a person. If I played Bernzy true to life like Weegee, the audience would never be able to buy this girl going for him at all. I don't care how much he loved his art form, she would never be able to crawl in the sack with him. He was so obnoxious; he would walk around with his fly open. We played Bernzy sleazy enough, but I kept saying, `No more. I can't. There's no way she would even go near him and that will kill us because he does everything because of her.' "
This interview was conducted a few weeks ago in Toronto, where "The Public Eye" premiered at the film festival. It rolls out nationally on Friday (it opens Wednesday in Chicago), and will quite likely win Pesci an Oscar nomination as best actor.
In the movie, the gangsters take a sort of perverse pride in having their portraits snapped by Bernzy. "In the 1940s, it was an innocent time; it was better," Pesci said. "You can tell by the pictures Weegee took. The picture that I love is the one with all the people on Coney Island, on the beach. How did he get all those people to turn at the right time and wave? Not one of them was looking the other way. It's, like, such a great picture. He captured people enjoying themselves, but who are really dying inside."
Bernzy, however, mostly shoots people who have already died. It is a wonderful performance, a portrait of a scruffy professional true to his humble art - who risks his life because he wants to take great photos.
People who have seen Pesci in other roles will be surprised at the privacy he brings to this character. He isn't loud and he isn't flashy; he almost blends in, and when he talks, he seems to expect only himself to be listening. It's kind of a surprise, how much we like Bernzy by the end of the film. "Scorsese and De Niro taught me to bring out the natural side of myself," Pesci said. "And they taught me to think of myself as the average guy. Sometimes the average guy belongs in a role more than your matinee idol-type of person. We have to have people we can relate to." A quiet hero
Bernzy is an average guy who becomes a quiet hero, I said, especially in that scene where he risks death for a perfect photo of a gang assassination. What makes this guy tick? "I think he's like any artist; sometimes it's they're compelled to do things that we don't really know why. We just go about and do it. But if you want to get into the psyche of it, the reasons are obvious to me, anyway. He's a very lonely person, and he doesn't seem to have any family; he certainly doesn't have a love life. And he lives through the subjects that he photographs. He really enjoys life. His happiness is photographing people who are happy, having a good time. He feels part of it; On the other end of it, when he's photographing people who are going through great pain, he may be crying along with them."
When he falls for the Barbara Hershey character, I said, that must have been difficult to communicate - because he's so afraid of rejection, he doesn't let her see how deeply he feels. He hardly lets us see.
Pesci nodded sort of sadly. "Nowadays, in love scenes in the movies, they don't hold anything back, and they just rip into each other. I never really went in for that kind of filmmaking about love. I think love is deeper than that. I think one thing is sex and another thing is love. You expect him to rip into her when he gets the opportunity. But he doesn't even know how to hold someone. When he had the opportunity, he didn't know where to put his arms to hold and kiss her.
"And Barbara knows how to play her end of it so to make him feel awkward, anyway. When she says that great line to him, 'Ask me; don't make me ask you.' It's like he doesn't even want to ask her after she tells him to. The audience wants to see them together. They really hope that she's crazy about him, and they know where he is with her."
It all leads up to that line, "You have no idea what I might have done for you."
"Right. It's terrible. The first time she did it, I could not stop crying. I mean, I was like a mess. And she was a mess in turn. It was so sad to see these two people knowing they're not going to get together. Listening to her, she did the monologue so good; it was so sad listening to her make her bid for an affair. And that's what she's doing; she's making her bid. "I was talking to a girl yesterday who said, 'Well, I'm sure that Kay really loved Bernzy. I don't know why he just turned her away.' I said, 'Well, you have to understand. You saw Kay do things that Bernzy didn't see. You saw Kay defend him to the gangster in the car, saying, 'Don't you talk to him like that; you don't know him.' You saw Kay slap the doorman and fire him. Bernzy never saw these things. All he knows is that he was betrayed and he could have got killed.' "
She's fighting for survival, too.
"She's never had a man she could trust. I think the moment when she starts loving him is when she comes outside in the rain, and he's photographing the drunks in the rain, going about his art form, and she feels like such an intruder and she realizes the love that he has for his art form. I think she slowly but surely realized that all he wanted to do is help her; he loved her. It's just a great romantic story."