Ray Liotta was terrifying.
Sure, he played the occasional good guy over the course of his prolific but too-short career; and in the wake of his death late Wednesday night, former colleagues have testified to his off-screen warmth. But the dark energies that defined his persona were there from the start, in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 Something Wild. (He’d previously worked a few years on TV, then made his film debut in 1983’s forgotten Harold Robbins adaptation The Lonely Lady.)
There, playing a criminal determined to take his estranged wife (Melanie Griffith) back from the milquetoast guy (Jeff Daniels) she’s currently toying with, Liotta understood how to make false congeniality look just real enough to convince a gullible character (Daniels) while letting moviegoers see the menace beneath it. Pretending to be an old classmate who just wants to keep the fun of a high-school reunion going, Liotta’s Ray Sinclair muscles his way into the new lovers’ tryst and doesn’t let up until he shows the good guys they’re just as deceitful as he is. Stretched across a cheap motel bed with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, he looks briefly, genuinely happy.
In last year’s Steven Soderbergh crime pic No Sudden Move, another Liotta character finds the same kind of bitter satisfaction when proving that another wife (Julia Fox) has cuckolded him with another, much less innocent man (Benicio del Toro). Again playing a crook, Liotta’s looks have hardened. His red-lined eyes don’t look capable of opening as wide as they did when he chummed up to Daniels, which is fine: This man isn’t a hungry predator but a middle-management gangster, less interested in the betrayal than in the advantage it gives him in an underworld power play.
But the older Liotta didn’t need physical violence to embody horrors. In Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, he’s a top-dollar divorce attorney who terrifies us by being mercilessly clear-eyed about the many ways the legal system is about to ruin the life of a young father (Adam Driver). Here, the threats are all in the script, but Liotta’s delivery makes them visceral: Unsentimental with a client who doesn’t understand how bad things are going to get, Liotta doesn’t wait for him to get up to speed, but instead speaks as if addressing the sullied, compromised man he’ll be after months fighting for custody.
Liotta brought an edge even to movies intent on melting audiences’ hearts. In Field of Dreams, he played disgraced baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson, who miraculously comes back from the dead in an Iowa cornfield so a farmer (Kevin Costner) can rediscover the magic of baseball. Lean, reticent and haunted-looking, Liotta reminds us that ghosts aren’t cuddly, even when they’re giving a man the chance to play catch with his long-dead father.
Liotta was excellent in crime films of varying quality, specializing in unrepentant moral ambiguity even when he played men who were ostensibly on the right side of the law. He was a brutal cop in Joe Carnahan’s Friedkinesque Narc; part of a tainted community in James Mangold’s Cop Land; made ridiculous by Grand Guignol payback in Hannibal, Ridley Scott’s misbegotten sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. In between these, he took work in innocuous family pictures, low-profile comedies and indie dramas that benefitted from his presence whether they deserved him or not.
But of course he’ll always be best remembered for Goodfellas, where his job was to let other actors be the scariest people on the screen. He was the viewer’s surrogate here, making us feel the seductive pull of Mafia life on guys who weren’t born into the family. Scorsese’s true-crime epic was a perfect fit, surely the rangiest role the actor ever had, and Liotta’s narration was so charismatically effective it spawned generations of wiseguy imitations, most of them lousy. His “do I amuse you?” scene with Joe Pesci is a master class in stretched-out tension, but it’s made immortal by the maniacal laughter that caps it — Liotta showing Henry Hill’s delight in the older man’s psychopathic outburst of slapstick violence, his assurance that there will be no consequences, and his relief that he’s not the victim of it. Later it’s our turn to laugh, as a coked-up Henry sweats through his final days as an outlaw and Liotta hints at comedic potential the movies would never fully exploit.
How, after the critical and commercial success of Goodfellas, did the industry fail to make Liotta a successful leading man? In interviews, he seemed to suggest he’d gotten in his own way, passing up some good roles in an understandable effort to avoid typecasting. And though he was strikingly handsome, he didn’t have the kind of generic beauty Hollywood looks for (especially during Liotta’s generation) in a hero.
But recent years found him aging into roles that suited him quite well — even, in The Many Saints of Newark, into multiple roles in a single film. His talents had often been wasted, but there were ample reasons for fans to be hopeful; perhaps there’s another final gem lurking in the handful of projects he had going when he died, at 67. Whether there is or not, Liotta was right to observe that few actors are lucky enough to star in even one or two movies people truly love. To have your biggest role be in a bona-fide masterpiece is rarer still.