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The Ray Liotta Syllabus

In remembrance of the ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Field of Dreams’ actor, who died at the age of 67 on Thursday

Getty Images/HBO/Universal Pictures/Legendary Entertainment/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

“I can be anywhere in the world & people will come up & tell me their favorite movie is Goodfellas,” Lorraine Bracco tweeted. “Then they always ask what was the best part of making that movie. My response has always been the same…Ray Liotta.” Liotta passed away at the age of 67, his publicist confirmed on Thursday. Below, we remember some of his greatest performances.


Goodfellas

The Goodfellas cast features the most charismatic actors of a generation—yet it’s impossible to watch the movie and take your eyes off of Ray Liotta. From the second that trunk slams shut to reveal Henry Hill’s face and Liotta utters those 14 now-famous words, you’re in his thrall. The way he smokes a cigarette is impossibly seductive. The way he laughs, making a noise no other human has ever made, is confounding yet magnetic. The way he pounds his fist against the tile after hearing about the Lufthansa heist on the radio; the way he starts the movie as a wide-eyed kid and ends it as just, well, wide-eyed; the way he talks to you—you personally—and pleads for you to see it his way. The way he stares into the camera, humbled and bored, when it’s all over …

Martin Scorsese is obsessed with morality. His gangster movies are often misinterpreted as celebrations of violence, but they’re actually about justice and consequence. And the morality play of Goodfellas doesn’t work without Ray Liotta and his ability to encompass each step of the arc—the innocence, the corruption, the anger, the hubris, the regret, the acceptance. Henry ends up a schmuck just like the rest of us; Liotta was always anything but. —Andrew Gruttadaro

Field of Dreams

American icons don’t come much more contradictory than “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, the mythic white knight of the Black Sox—the question of whether the sweet-swinging outfielder had been on the take has been debated and dramatized on film and in print for the better part of a century. In Field of Dreams, the thesis seems to be not only that Jackson was an innocent but also a mythic symbol of old-school Americana, and while originally director Phil Alden Robinson imagined an older actor embodying him in faded middle age, Liotta’s eerie, ethereal presence in the part is unforgettable. In a film where nearly every actor chews the scenery—easy and fun to do when you’re literally surrounded by corn—Liotta opts for an odd, watchful stillness; he’s believable as a ghostly manifestation, and he soft-pedals his lines so that everything Joe says is imbued with tragic gravitas. Last year, on The Rich Eisen Show, Liotta confirmed that he’d never actually watched Field of Dreams, and that he thought the script was “the silliest, silliest thing” when he first read it. He wasn’t wrong, necessarily, but if Field of Dreams is a classic for a lot of people, Liotta’s brief, indelible turn is probably the reason. —Adam Nayman

The Many Saints of Newark

Ray Liotta could’ve been Ralph Cifaretto. The actor met with The Sopranos creator David Chase in 2000 about joining the cast of the hit HBO show, but he ultimately passed. He felt the ghost of Henry Hill loomed too large. “It just didn’t feel right. Having done Goodfellas, I needed something different,” Liotta said last year. Instead, Joe Pantoliano and his toupée became the chafing DiMeo family captain, and Liotta went on to do Hannibal and dozens of other non-gangster films (the occasional Killing Them Softly notwithstanding). Still, on some level, North Jersey beckoned. After Liotta got his hands on the script of the Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, he strong-armed his way into the cast, forcing a lunch with Chase and director Alan Taylor. By the time the meeting had ended, they had offered him a role—or rather, two roles.

Released last October, Many Saints is somewhat of a mess, teetering between unwitting parody and worthy homage. No actor better encapsulates that duality than Liotta, who plays both “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and his twin brother, Sally. As the former, he’s a cackling caricature who embodies the worst traits of the men in the Sopranos universe—as obnoxious as Ralphie, as egomaniacal as Tony, and as abusive as his grandson, Christopher—with none of their charms. But as the convicted killer Sally, he captures what made the series the most artful depiction of mob life since, well, Goodfellas, playing a spiritual adviser to his nephew Dickie up to the point his nephew’s spirit wasn’t worth advising anymore.

Where Liotta worried about playing Ralphie because of his previous work, the baggage only enhances his turn as Sally. Every word uttered by the wizened mobster carries decades of weight—it’s easy to imagine the chilling line What kind of god, huh? spoken by a weathered Henry Hill, a one-time hotshot who’s had to stare down the consequences of his actions. In the process, Liotta became the emotional anchor for a film that desperately needed one. Twenty-odd years ago, Liotta appearing in The Sopranos may not have felt right, but by the time it finally happened, it was exactly the something different both he and the movie needed. —Justin Sayles

Something Wild

For most of Something Wild, Liotta’s sociopathic Ray Sinclair is a structuring absence—the lurking, unseen answer to the question of what Melanie Griffith’s elusive, free-spirited Lulu is running from. Nobody made road movies with the momentum of Jonathan Demme, and Something Wild careens through Lulu’s on-the-run romance with straitlaced city boy Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) so joyfully it seems they’ll never get caught—that is until Ray, her ex-con ex-husband, appears and plunges the film into a horror movie. Liotta was an unknown when Demme cast him, and the role weaponizes his smooth-faced, powder-blue-eyed handsomeness in a way that anticipates later villainous turns, although a case could be made that he never topped Ray’s churning, relentless sense of menace. Whether impulsively pistol-whipping Daniels in the face or sweet-talking a shop girl, he’s magnetically malevolent, and in a movie full of pungent, memorable dialogue, he takes the best one-liner and hits it out of the park. After finally cornering Lulu at Charlie’s well-appointed Long Island home, he rages at her decision to leave him, implying that trading up for a Yuppie like Daniels is selling out: “I’m glad to see you finally made it to the suburbs, bitch.” —Nayman

Marriage Story

“I needed my own asshole.” That’s what Charlie (Adam Driver) tells his soon-to-be-ex-wife when explaining why he’s retained the services of divorce lawyer Jay Marotta, played by a bellowing, bellicose Liotta. There’s a reason writer-director Noah Baumbach barely bothered to change Liotta’s name: the character is a perfect use of the actor’s ferocious, let’s-just-say-caffeinated energy. “IF WE START FROM A PLACE OF REASONABLE AND THEY START FROM A PLACE OF CRAZY, WHEN WE SETTLE, WE’LL BE SOMEWHERE BETWEEN REASONABLE AND CRAZY,” Jay tells his prospective client (he speaks in all caps, and deserves to be quoted as such). He is what opposing counsel Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) means when she says the system rewards bad behavior—the strutting, barking embodiment of the savagery incentivized by litigating one’s emotions. When Liotta, not the avuncular Alan Alda, shows up to an L.A. courthouse, his power-walk alone is enough to tell us exactly what’s about to go down. The verbal boxing match with Dern that follows is vicious, hilarious, and not without some sexual tension—exactly what you hope for when introducing a chaos agent like Liotta into a scene. Dern may have won the Oscar, but she couldn’t have done it without him. —Alison Herman

Observe and Report

Liotta will rightfully be remembered for his roles in ultraviolent mob movies and crime dramas, but he also had impeccable comedic timing. Take, for example, his turn as an assholish detective in director Jody Hill’s cult favorite Observe and Report—which, by the way, is even more nihilistic than Goodfellas. Liotta’s Detective Harrison spends most of his time on screen messing with Seth Rogen’s character Ronnie, a mall security guard/wannabe cop whose quest to join the force is understandably doomed. (After a ride along, Harrison purposely leaves Ronnie in a rough neighborhood to get beat up.) Like usual, Liotta’s performance blends gleeful rage, cruelty, and a tiny pinch of sympathy, but for once, he’s one of the least unhinged parts of a film. It makes me wish he did a few more of these. —Alan Siegel

The 1800 Tequila Ads

Can we talk about the tequila ads? Would that be disrespectful? Obviously in the big-picture view of Ray Liotta’s artistry, the commercials he shot for 1800 Tequila a few years back are an afterthought.

However. A decade or so back there was this catastrophically misguided era of 1800 Tequila commercials that used to run nonstop during sports broadcasts. As best I can make out, the idea of the campaign was to make tequila seem hyper-masculine. The ads’ specific tactic for making tequila appear hyper-masculine involved hiring actors best known for playing mobsters—what?—and having them exude hyper-masculinity in a wildly unfocused and aggressive and confounding way. “If we make people terribly uncomfortable for no reason, maybe they’ll want a margarita”—that seemed to be the logic. Michael Imperioli did a bunch of these ads. I need Michael Imperioli to explain masculinity to me like I need a mosquito to explain Pilates, but there he was, in a black suit with no tie, grousing about men who use GPS. Just a bewildering phenomenon.

The Ray Liotta ads were something else, though. I mean, they were all of that—if anything, they were more bewildering, because they tended to have plots, and the plots made no sense. But they were also fascinating, and in a strange way, beautiful.

There’s this one I remember. Hot day. Traffic jam. Everyone’s trapped in sweltering cars. Everyone’s mad. Ray, I guess, gets out of his car and goes into a bar? The sequence is impressionistic. Anyway, he’s got a very aging-assassin vibe. You can tell he’s done some shit. Suit with no tie, as I recall. Probably used to wear a tie but had to take it off to strangle someone and never went back. He goes up to the bartender. Little older guy. A look passes between them. A look that says, I need a tequila immediately. Ray’s energy—how do you describe his energy at this moment? It’s clear that he’s going to beat this man to death with his bare hands if he pours the wrong tequila. At the same time, there’s a fragility to it. You don’t implicitly threaten to murder a stranger over an exaggerated sense of tequila brand loyalty unless you’re already pretty near the end of your rope. So he’s threatening, but he’s also a vibrating column of raw need. But it turns out the bartender is pouring from a bottle of 1800. Thank God. And Ray, spared the effort of bloodshed for at least another few minutes, relaxes. He gives a little laugh. One of the better laughs, I think, in the history of liquor commercials. It’s like: heh-heh.

Ray Liotta did not have to use his role as a tequila pitchman to open a window directly into the contemporary American male psyche, but he did. He always did. He was an actor of such polished, confident surfaces, but the act of admiring the surfaces always led you into unexpected depths. That little throwaway heh, that itchy fusion of violence and entitlement and anxiety and pleasure, said more about Obama-Trump-era manhood than an Atlantic essay that was actually trying to talk about those things. I don’t think I’ve ever tried 1800 Tequila. But sometimes what a good actor teaches you isn’t quite what their employers had in mind. —Brian Phillips