Almost any tribute to the career of Ray Liotta is going to begin with his role in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece on the life of gangster Henry Hill, and I won’t be the outlier. You can make a fair argument that his performance in the central role of this drop-dead, no-argument classic is one of the greatest performances ever to not be nominated for an Oscar.
Ray Liotta owned that part, and it’s worth remembering who he was surrounded by—Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Lorraine Bracco—the latter two giving career-best performances. And while those three actors deserve all possible plaudits for their work on GoodFellas (it’s worth mentioning DeNiro did not receive a nomination either), Liotta is the center of the film. It’s his story. He is the connective tissue that holds the film together, and he does so brilliantly.
It’s not just the ease in which he inhabits the character, or the particular charisma he gives to it—it’s more than that. There is a tendency with GoodFellas to talk about certain scenes: “How am I funny?” or the extraordinary one-cut tracking shot in the nightclub that introduces us to a number of characters. But the scene I love most is Liotta on the stand as Henry Hill, breaking the fourth wall as he descends from the witness chair, looks right at the audience, and explains: “and now it’s all over.” It’s a masterstroke by the greatest American director ever, but it doesn’t work without Ray Liotta and his remarkable nonchalance. It’s both electrifying and natural. For a lot of moviegoers, that was their introduction to Ray Liotta.
But it’s worth remembering that Ray Liotta was already a proven and gifted performer before being cast in the lead for GoodFellas. Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild from 1986 was his coming out party. While I’m not sure how much screen time Liotta actually has in the film (it’s not a lot) as the psychopath who upends Jeff Daniels’ and Melanie Griffith’s off-kilter romance, he somehow steals the whole movie out from under Demme’s two superb leads despite not showing up until late in the third act.
Two years later, he played the caretaker to his developmentally challenged younger brother Dominick (Tom Hulce) in Dominick & Eugene, a true sleeper of a film in which Liotta could not have played a more different character than he was in Something Wild. His Eugene is sweet, caring, and longs for a life in medicine and perhaps for a budding romance with a woman (played by a lovely Jamie Lee Curtis) who works with his younger brother. The tender way Liotta handles the role and situation is so incredibly graceful that you can’t help but think that he, the maniac from Something Wild, is something of a magician.
Then in 1989, just one year before GoodFellas, Liotta played “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the classic baseball movie (that really is about so much more than baseball) Field of Dreams. The straight-forward, no-bullshit style of acting that Liotta always brought to the table helped ground this gentle fable in its own sort of reality. Every time I think of Liotta saying, “Ty Cobb wanted to play, but none of us could stand the sonuvabitch when he was alive, so we told him to stick it!” and then following it up with that slightly deranged cackle of his, it makes me smile.
After getting his big break in GoodFellas, Liotta never quite became a huge star despite his initial hot streak. Still, a number of extraordinary performances followed. Unlawful Entry may have been sordid pulp, but Liotta’s Madeleine-Stowe-obsessed cop (who could blame him?) elevates the film in ways that only a great actor can. Even better was his role as a bloated dirty cop in James Mangold’s Cop Land from 1997. The film was sold as Sylvester Stallone playing a real character instead of the cartoonish action heroes he became know for (and he’s fine in the film), but it’s Liotta who makes the strongest impression as he risks his life and redeems himself to save Stallone in the film’s climax.
Significant roles in Hannibal and Blow followed in 2001, but it wasn’t until the next year that Liotta got a role he could really sink his incisors into as another dirty cop (the spectacularly named Henry Oak) in Joe Carnahan’s Narc (co-starring Jason Patric). Liotta’s physicality was notable in Narc. He seemed to somehow be taller, bigger, and more formidable—the long coat he wore looked like it had to be invented for his particular size, and he was both magnetic and terrifying. I suppose that’s not a bad way to sum up Liotta’s entire career: magnetic and (quite frequently) terrifying.
Over the next 20-plus years of his career, Liotta turned up in films that were worthy of esteem and those that were less so. In all of them, he made what was happening on the screen more interesting. He has, what, two or maybe three scenes in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story as a divorce attorney? What I do know is that he kills in all of them. As Adam Driver’s divorce lawyer, his explanation of how awful all of this is going to be is painfully hilarious, and seemingly effortless. He’s so good you wonder why Baumbach didn’t write in more scenes for Liotta just on the basis of his performance.
And that’s the thing about Liotta—he had so few leads. You always wished he had more scenes. He knew what to do with them. He knew how to make everything he was in better.
Liotta was a very busy actor. At the time of his passing, according to IMDB, he had three projects in the can and three that were underway.
There will be more scenes from Ray Liotta to come. But there won’t be nearly enough.
Ray Liotta died today. He was 67 years old.