Hey, is this heaven?
Remembering Ray Liotta
I can’t remember the first time I saw Ray Liotta, barely contained behind the glass of the screen. It might have been standing opposite Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams as his question was answered (“No, it’s Iowa”). It could have been curled in a chair laughing at (with, ok with) Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. But I do remember the first time I felt him. Because that’s how it was with Ray Liotta. How he made us feel, will make us feel still.
You don’t watch and listen, content in the distance between the settee and the screen. A Liotta performance doesn’t just get under your skin but, after breaching the glass, seeps into your marrow. It works its way to your guts.
So, yeah: the first time I felt him. It was Goodfellas. The 1990s. My just-teenage brain not fully understanding everything I watched but understanding enough to know that this guy was special. Lightning caught in a bottle screwed tight. And truly, if Goodfellas, if Henry, was the only film, the only role for Liotta, we’d still be talking about him in these terms. That we’ve lost one of the greatest actors of all time.
Liotta died yesterday at just 67, reports stating that he died in the Dominican Republic while shooting the film Dangerous Waters. While it’s said he died in his sleep, no official cause has yet been given.
As Liotta headed for his eighth decade, the projects still stacked up. Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear and Apple’s series Black Bird were completed yet still to be released, and The Substance (with Demi Moore) yet to be shot. He, perhaps most fittingly, was due to exec produce the documentary series Five Families, about New York’s famous mob families.
While the actor is most well known for that depiction of one of history’s famous mobsters (he later turned down a role in The Sopranos, so he didn’t become typecast), Liotta was far from just being a thug in a fancy suit. Presence is always the result of an entirely-unique mix of characteristics. In Liotta’s case the building blocks were charisma, intensity, anger, vulnerability and – crucially – a flicker of the ordinary, the everyday, no matter how extraordinary the situation. It lent him a complexity that the very word can’t adequately convey.
Liotta’s breakthrough came in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 screwball romcom Something Wild. His entrance, sliding across the dancefloor to Melanie Griffith before single-handedly flipping the film on its head, leaving audiences with just one question: “Who the hell is that?!”. That was Ray Liotta, the name that Robert de Niro, impressed with his performance, then passed to Martin Scorsese (a New York Times review said “Mr Liotta nearly walks off with his sections of the film”).
Just two years later he was breaking our hearts as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams (showing off his trademark cackle again), and just one year after that, he became Henry Hill.
It's the performance of any actor’s career, in a movie full of performances of any actor’s career. Liotta commands the screen completely, initially only with his a voice as he narrates his early life, Christopher Serrone playing the young Henry.
Henry is not your regular mobster, Liotta playing him vitally as a man. A man who happens to have become a gangster. He’s one of us in the ‘funny how’ scene after Tommy (Joe Pesci at his psychopathic best) appears to take offence at Henry calling him a ”funny guy”.
Liotta’s laugh, starting out collegiate, cycles through bravado, confusion, nerves, fear and finally jaw-slacking relief. In that moment, he’s a guy caught in a gangster’s world. Yes, OK OK, sure, he’s involved in murder and drug dealing and racketeering and christ knows what else, but we somehow understand the boy who just “always wanted to be a gangster”. Who wanted to be someone, and for a while, was. Until Henry flips, enters witness protection and is faced with the ‘normal’ life he’d never ever wanted. “I’m an average nobody” he says. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook”.
This isn’t how it’s meant to go. We’re not meant to feel bad that the gangster will no longer be walked through a restaurant to a table that’s been specially put there just a second before; that he won’t receive champagne from a neighbouring table who owe him nothing and yet everything; that he’ll no longer strike fear and respect into his neighbours and colleagues. Justice, of a sort has been done, he deserves this inanity. But still, as he collects his newspaper from the doormat of his anonymous house in an anonymous town, your heart cracks open for what Henry has lost.
The regular guy inside the gangster affords Henry a texture not many mobsters are granted on screen. And it makes his violence, when it does appear, all the more terrifying. It’s right there in Liotta’s physicality, overpowering the charming guy who usually defuses situations. When Henry takes revenge on the neighbour who assaulted Karen, he says nothing as he gets out of the car, puts a gun in his waistband and strides across the street. But the anger is a rod in his shoulders and back; the violence he’s holding tight expressed in his body, the way he moves it, better than any words could.
It's a complexity that he brought to James Mangold’s Cop Land, alongside Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. Liotta, eyes still like the sea refracted through broken glass, is NYPD cop Gary Figgis, a guy who wobbles on the line between good and bad and only manages to convince you he’s fully neither. Who commits arson, accidentally killing his girlfriend, but also saves Freddy and, in one of the film’s quieter moments, is the only person to ever ask Sylvester Stallone’s small-town cop, “How does that make you feel, Freddy?”.
How does it make you feel that you saved the girl you loved, became deaf and lost your chance to be a detective in the process? How does it feel to be mocked by your neighbours, for them to assume your life has amounted to nothing? For you to feel, in every moment, like your life has amounted to nothing?
Liotta so often exists in the space between morality and judgement. As in his Emmy-winning guest appearance in ER in 2005 as Charlie, an ex-con alcoholic who’s broken and bitter and curdling under the mistakes he made with his wife and son. But, due to the sheer power of Liotta’s performance, it’s Charlie your devastation flows for when his son rejects him on the phone and he lies, surrounded by strangers, bleeding and sobbing and dying.
That’s not to say Liotta couldn’t do Full Bad Guy: look at his (terrifying) turn as dirty cop Henry Oak in Narc; the toxic lawyer Jay Marotta who gets up in the morning just to fuck the other side over in Marriage Story - the glee apparent as he drags Adam Driver’s Charlie into a divorce battle he can’t afford and doesn’t want.
He played literally both the good guy and the bad guy in 2021’s The Many Saints of Newark. While the whole twin thing was debatable - he played Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti and Salvatore ‘Sally’ Moltisanti - his performance wasn’t. He particularly nailed the menace of stomach-churning bully Dick, his venom sat right at the surface.
It’s clear that there would have been great work to come from Liotta. More indelible characters we’d quote and fall for and dislike and remember forever. But every time we press play at home, slide into our seat in the pictures, he‘ll be there, once more barely contained by the screen. And we’ll be left with the thing that maybe, in the end, matters the most: how he made us feel, will make us feel still.
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