Ray Liotta, who died Thursday at 67, was a great actor who was second to none when it came to playing hoodlums, scoundrels, rotters, psychopaths, and cool jerks. To put it that way sounds reductive, of course, since that was far from the only thing he could do. Just think of his beloved performance in “Field of Dreams,” where he played Shoeless Joe Jackson as the impish ghost of baseball past. But when he would pop up in a movie like “Killing Them Softly” or “Cop Land” or “Unlawful Entry” or “Blow” or the recent “No Sudden Move” and play one of his hellbent strong-arm types, you could always feel the charge he brought to it. Liotta laced the threat of violence with a tingle of intelligence, his mind working to suss out the double-crossing signifiers of any criminal situation. And no one could match the delight he took in making straight characters squirm.
I’ll never forget the way he leapt off screen the first time I saw him — it was one of those “Who the hell is that actor?” moments. The movie was “Something Wild” (1986), Jonathan Demme’s down-the-rabbit-hole screwball underworld thriller, which seemed, for a while, to be an outré light comedy — at least until Jeff Daniels, as a finance geek who’s been spirited away from the city by Melanie Griffith, as a kewpie-doll fatale, heads over to the dark side. The dark side, in this case, is named Ray, and he’s an overgrown delinquent played by the 31-year-old, lean-and-mean Ray Liotta. The reason the character was also named Ray is that…well, how could he be anything other than Ray?
The name sounded like it belonged to the past — to the switchblade ’50s or ’60s. Liotta made him a debauched James Dean, looking sleeker than you could have believed in his black T-shirt and matching hair. He had a presence that was shockingly handsome, or sexy, or something. It was leading-man stuff. (He was a better-looking shark than Jeff Daniels.) Yet something you couldn’t quite put your finger on was off about him. It was the combination of his fast gleam of a smile, which was so “friendly” you didn’t buy it for a second, and the piercing eyes, which could see right through you but still looked a little dead. It was also the sand-blasted acne scars that gave him a special glow of corruption.
The street criminal — not the corny Hollywood version but the real thing — has a different relationship to the physical world than the rest of us do, because danger doesn’t scare him. He is the danger. That’s how Liotta played Ray: as a greaser existentialist who gets off on tormenting the weaklings around him. Yet this psycho is charming — oh, is he charming. He’s the Lothario of the soda shop who never grew up. It was Liotta who raised the movie’s stakes, and there are days I still think it’s my favorite performance of his.
Of course, it’s safe to say that most of the world’s favorite Liotta performance is in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” It was, and always would be, Liotta’s defining role — his “Mean Streets,” his “Godfather,” his iconic statement as an actor. And the fascination of it is that the movie, for all its hypnotic gangland escapades, was powered by a teasing question: Was Henry Hill, the real-life mobster portrayed by Liotta, a sociopath just like that other Ray? He certainly threatened and toyed with and murdered people. Yet the film also presented Hill, in his way, as an ordinary bloke, a guy from the neighborhood who “wanted to be a gangster,” who decided to be a gangster. And the brilliance of Liotta’s acting is that he put that twinge of middle-class humanity right at the center of the character. The performance starts off on a note of bravura and then descends into treachery, drug mania, and fear. But he was showing us what a gangster really is. By the end you’d have to be a sociopath yourself to envy him.
Liotta didn’t necessarily want to be typecast as goons, and for a while he had a go at making nice, in movies like “Article 99” and “Corrina, Corrina.” He wasn’t bad at it; he was too skilled an actor to fail. Yet despite the memory of Shoeless Joe Jackson, after “Goodfellas” audiences shied away from him in those roles. And maybe that’s because Liotta had an anger he could never totally hide. It came out even in his heart-tugging movies, in that slightly overemphatic way he spoke.
He did so much genre work that people came to think of him as a genre-movie actor. When he showed up in “The Many Saints of Newark” as Dickie Moltisanti’s scurrilous father, he was more purely malevolent than he had ever been, yet by now we all just rolled with the mob-monster outrageousness.
Yet three years before, Liotta gave a performance that transcended all that — that showed, once more, what he could be when in the hands of a world-class filmmaker. In Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” he played Jay Moratta, a high-priced divorce lawyer, wearing a bejeweled pinky ring, who promises to bring the firepower to Adam Driver’s beleaguered estranged husband, who’s desperate to hold onto his children. Liotta played the character as obscenely, casually expensive (as if it was an immutable law of nature that you’ll have to spend $800 an hour to get custody of your kids). He also made him a great lawyer who can spin his client out of anything. And he made him a parasite — one who reveals that his “war” with Laura Dern’s attorney is all for show (it’s mostly show for her, too), since they’ll both profit from the case. Most of all, though, Liotta played this gravel-voiced legal lizard with mesmerizing, three-steps-ahead-of-the-room style. It was a performance he should have won an award for, a performance, like all his greatest work, too delectable in its sinister playfulness to forget.