The specific fears of white men have rarely been mapped more clearly than they were in the Reagan era. 1985 saw the release of two crazy-night-on-the-town movies, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’s Into the Night, in which straitlaced yuppies—played by Griffin Dunne and Jeff Goldblum, respectively—stumble through the big wide world just outside their offices. The following year, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild nabbed its straitlaced yuppie, Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels), in broad daylight and dragged him out of the city altogether.
Charles has fallen in with Lulu, who turns out to be Audrey (Melanie Griffith), and she takes him to her high school reunion, where he’s introduced to, as David Thompson wrote in 2011, “another culture shock—her husband, Ray Sinclair, fresh out of prison. Ray is as much of a revelation to the bewildered Charles as he was to audiences on the film’s release; Ray Liotta, in his first major role, fires up the screen with slippery sadism and dangerous charm.”
When the shocking news broke on Thursday that Liotta had passed away in his sleep in the Dominican Republic, where John Barr is shooting Dangerous Waters, critic Mike D’Angelo thought immediately of Something Wild and the way Liotta just showed up “from out of nowhere.” D’Angelo can “still feel that terrifying rush,” he tweeted, and is still in awe of “the way he single-handedly wrested the film’s tone in a radically different direction.”
Liotta went on to appear in well over a hundred films and television shows, and contributors to the Los Angeles Times, the Ringer, and Vulture have been writing about some of their favorite performances: Shoeless Joe Jackson in Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams (1989); Manny Singer, the widower who falls for his housekeeper (Whoopi Goldberg) in Jessie Nelson’s Corrina, Corrina (1994); Henry Oak, the crooked cop in Joe Carnahan’s Narc (2002); Detective Harrison Jones in Jody Hill’s Observe and Report (2009); and Jay Marotta, the tough divorce lawyer facing off against Laura Dern in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019). High on everyone’s list, of course, is Henry Hill, the real-life wiseguy narrating his story in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990).
There must be a dozen or more outstanding only-Liotta moments in Goodfellas. There’s that signature gape-mouthed laugh just before Joe Pesci asks him, “Funny how?,” or the way those smoky yet piercing blue eyes go glassy when Hill, coked up and running errands, keeps glancing skyward to hovering helicopters. The one Peter Bradshaw chooses to dwell on in the Guardian is Hill’s first date with Karen (Lorraine Bracco). He takes her to the Copacabana, and the scene is justifiably famous for Larry McConkey’s floating Steadicam, but it’s Liotta who carries it from beginning to end.
“There is something almost Gene Kelly-ish in Liotta’s assurance as he glides through the scuzzy corridors and impresses Karen by handing out money and exchanging badinage with the staff,” writes Bradshaw. “I always love it when he teases a smooching couple: ‘Every time I come here! Every time you two!’ Liotta’s Henry is in love: in love with Karen, in love with himself, in love with his princeling mob status, in love with a world in which he gets special treatment at this wonderful place, in love with life itself.”
Glenn Kenny, the author of Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, points out in the New York Times that Liotta “concocted all the bits of charming business a guy like Henry would use: tip a doorman here, shout out to a cook there, steer your date by the elbow lightly, act like it’s just what you’re due when the waiter flies out from the wings and sets a personal table at the side of the stage. Liotta got suggestions from Hill himself . . . But the research Liotta did into Hill’s world, and the inner work he did, was crucial.”
Liotta grew up in Union, New Jersey, as the adopted son of a couple that ran an auto parts business. He never intended to become an actor. “To be honest with you,” he told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman last year, “I thought I’d be in construction.” Accounts differ as to how he wound up in the drama department at the University of Miami, but in the late 1970s, he landed a recurring role on the soap opera Another World. In the New York Times,Neil Genzlinger pulls a quote from a 1994 interview: “I loved the soap,” said Liotta. “I had an opportunity to make dialogue that wasn’t good seem bearable. The acting challenge was greater than if I was doing Tennessee Williams.”
Looking back on her own interview today, Hadley Freeman notes that it’s “very rare to interview an actor who doesn’t bullshit you a little. After all, they’re trained to perform, to be liked, to get applause. Liotta was utterly uninterested in any of that to an occasionally comical extent.” She also spoke at the time with actors who had worked with Liotta, including Alessandro Nivola, who costarred with him in David Chase and director Alan Taylor’s Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. Nivola told Freeman that “of all the scary legends I’ve worked with—De Niro, Christopher Walken, Joaquin Phoenix, Shirley MacLaine—Ray is the one I was most intimidated by. Not because he’s mean—he’s not—but because he’s so intensely committed to the art of acting.”
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