Ray Liotta is scary as hell, and that’s why I cried when he walked out of the cornfield in Field of Dreams as disgraced White Sox legend “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Not because he was volatile, brutal, atavistic Ray Sinclair in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, but that the tenderness and grief of a man mean more when we can better imagine all the reasons he has to be sorry. There’s something particularly and profoundly touching about broken people working to be the best versions of themselves, and not a lot of actors were better at playing bad, dangerous men doing their best than Ray Liotta.
As New York transit cop Figgsy in James Mangold’s Cop Land, he’s the only friend of more dead than alive sheriff Freddy (Sylvester Stallone), introducing himself shaggy in a jogging suit in the middle of a late night conversation at the “4 Aces” honky tonk where all the cops hang out: “We’re all backwards, Berta. Our machines are all modern and shit, but our minds? Our minds are primitive. Our minds are primitive, Berta.” This is Liotta on the one side: sleek and terrifying, a perfect machine simmering in place, ever in danger of blowing up and boiling over even when he’s having a good time; even when he’s just sitting there and looking at you like a shark looks at a seal. But Liotta, on the other side, is Gino in Robert Young’s Dominick & Eugene, a doctor-in-residence and the caregiver for his disabled brother, Nicky, who tells the story of their birth to him when he can’t sleep. Maybe he tells it so well, so soothingly, that it works like a lullabye, because Liotta’s own parentage was a mystery to him. Maybe he was drawn to acting after believing his whole life he’d end up in the construction business because it was there he could pretend to be whatever he wanted.
I met Liotta twenty years ago when the first film he produced, Joe Carnahan’s Narc, was gaining some momentum as a gritty, throwback crime picture. He starred in it, too ,as a grizzled narco detective whose long-time partner has just been murdered, saddled with a younger cop played by Jason Patric who’s spent a year on suspension after accidentally shooting a pregnant woman. I interviewed him at Denver’s historic Brown Palace hotel. I sat myself facing where I thought he’d be coming down from his room and he surprised me by coming up behind me. He has a reputation for being a tough interview, not given to a lot of introspection, but like a lot of oft-interviewed personalities I’ve gotten this warning about, what I found instead was someone tired of answering the same questions for sometimes decades and weary of fools and the things they write to manufacture an angle. He was unfailingly polite but indisputably intense. He held my eye and he listened to every question like it was important. We talked about Field of Dreams and I’ve never forgotten what he said about how he thought the script was ridiculous, how he didn’t understand it at all, but he saw the talent attached to it and “I figured that there must be something to it that I didn’t understand about the script and I was willing to accept that and go with it.” That’s extraordinary humility in any pursuit, much less this one. He knew what he didn’t know, he respected others, he listened. The most disarming thing about Liotto, someone with his presence, the almost-overwhelming force of his charisma, is how willing he was to take on a supporting role or to throw in his lot with a young director; how willing he was to be wrong.
Liotta will always be known of course for Goodfellas, something he’d come to terms with even though the choices he made to avoid gangster flicks after it – really, his aversion throughout his career to typecasting of any kind, suggest the lengths he’d gone to be known as more than just Henry Hill. Look at his turn in Heartbreakers as a small-time hood sucked into an elaborate long-con by a mother/daughter pair of hustlers, blue-balled on his wedding night and doing his best to be a gentleman about it, but this close to drenching his suddenly-sleeping wife with a bucket of ice water before dumping it in his pants.
Liotta had extraordinary timing. A fact that should’ve been obvious given his dramatic roles, but comes into stark relief in the comedies. His brief cameo in Muppets From Space as a very enthusiastic (post-drugging), guard at a top secret base declaring the muppets to be “such a handsome family” kills me every time. He had a sense of humor, too. He had a sense of humor about himself.
His performance in Goodfellas, though, is everything. It’s stunning he got the role, even more stunning he held his own with powerhouses like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. That potential energy, the pressure-cooker with a broken release valve suspense of him, expressed like a steam whistle whenever his emetic, machine-gun cackle erupted – and then on the other side, his defense of his wife, his courting of her through the kitchens and back alleys of the nightclubs where everyone knows his name. It’s one of the great performances in a career of great performances running the gamut from psycho/stalker cop in Unlawful Entry to caller “Bob” on a third season episode of “Frasier” to a grieving coroner engaged in a kind of necromancy to try to clear himself of a murder in Unforgettable (and don’t forget Identity… and hapless Markie in Killing Them Softly, oh, and Dick Moltisanti in The Many Saints of Newark). I don’t know that he could do everything, but the things he did do, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
The movie I went back to first, though, after hearing of his passing, was his second film (what many, including Liotta, would like you to believe was his first), Something Wild. One of Demme’s typically emotionally-meticulous pieces, aware of its setting and deeply-empathetic to its characters, it begins as a sexy, whirlwind romantic comedy between workaday schlub Charlie (Jeff Daniels) and free-spirit firebrand Audrey (Melanie Griffith, who got Liotta this role) until a little less than an hour in when Liotta’s Ray shows up in black leather suit-jacket over black t-shirt, an emissary from a completely different movie who, through force of will and presence, jerks the entire thing into a dark, violent place all by himself. A jealous psychopath with a rose tattoo, when Ray’s taught a hard lesson about his mortality at the end of his own knife, Demme gives him an incredible close-up in the vanity of a bathroom mirror. Ray tries to slick his hair back to look real cool, a denial of the shape he’s in, but his hand is covered in his own blood. Liotta communicates a hundred things in a moment. It’s goddamn Shakespeare. You think the title of the film refers to the amour fou of two people who fall into lust at first sight until Ray shows up and it’s clear the “something wild” is him. That something is Ray Liotta, incomparable, instantly compelling, utterly irreplaceable. We lost a big one this week.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available for pre-order. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.