On May 26th, Ray Liotta died in his sleep. He was filming his role in Dangerous Waters, which will be one of five posthumous films released. Known best for his role in Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas, Liotta excelled in both action (Killing Them Softly, The Many Saints of Newark) and dramatic features (Field of Dreams, Marriage Story), leaving his mark on cinema ever since the 80s. In this month’s Retrospective Roundtable, we celebrate a few of our favorite performances from the late actor.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Fields of Dreams is an unusual film. It is a ghost film, but without fright, eeriness, or paranoia. Rather, Field of Dreams is an ode to nostalgia, providing cathartic release for Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) who never reconciled with his father before his father’s death. When Ray was a child, he would regularly play catch with his dad.
In the present day, Ray lives with his wife and daughter on their farm in Dyersville, Iowa. One day when farming, he hears the words “if you build it, he will come”. He envisions a baseball diamond on his land with his childhood idol “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) standing on the field. The phrase repeats itself and never leaves Ray’s thoughts until he determines he must prop up a baseball field on his farmland. His destruction of his own crops seems ludicrous until, of course, Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. He has come. Ray is starstruck, but the two quickly form a bond and Jackson is joined by the Black Sox (the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 resulted in the ban of eight Chicago White Sox players, including Jackson, from professional baseball upon the accusation that the White Sox were bribed to throw the World Series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds).
What follows is not only Ray’s journey to come to terms with his past, but also a retrospective on the 20th century and the love of baseball. Field of Dreams’ lofty premise is grandiose, but the introspection brought upon by Liotta and the supporting cast anchors the film, for both Ray and for us. Liotta performs his role to perfection, selling but not over-selling the baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson within Iowa’s field of dreams. – Alex Sitaras
Goodfellas is often designated as a gangster movie rather than a movie about gangsters. A gangster movie connotes a sense of admiration towards its subject, a voyeuristic fascination. A movie about gangsters connotes a degree of objectivity, in which the subject is held to the harsh light of criticism. Goodfellas manages to be both a gangster movie and a movie about gangsters certainly because of the immense talents of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Thelma Schoonmaker and others, but its success really hinges on Ray Liotta.
Goodfellas is dominated by Liotta’s voiceover, which often works at an oblique angle to what goes on visually. Liotta’s Henry Hill is selfish and foolish yet also charming and charismatic in his voiceover. Screenwriter Nicolas Pileggi interviewed the real-life Hill extensively for Goodfellas’ script, so one could presume that the narrative comes straight from those interviews. Yet Liotta’s Hill often comes off fake, weak and foolish when we actually see him onscreen. Note Liotta’s laugh for Hill. It’s a big, boisterous laugh that seems almost forced, as if Hill is constantly struggling to prove he is masculine enough to thrive in this overwhelmingly patriarchal world he’s grown up in. Later, we see Hill gagging while having to bury a man he has helped kill, part of the constant undermining of his gangster persona.
In contrast, we see Lorraine Bracco taking over the voiceover and giving a very clear-eyed view of the strange world of Italian housewives with “bad skin and hair.” Her performance and perspective serve both as an excellent portrayal of a victim/participant in this world and as an illuminating counterpoint to Liotta’s own performance. Bracco’s character sees things as they are, while Liotta’s Hill is constantly filtering his world through a self-serving lens. Liotta also has a very strong grasp of his character’s arc. The stark contrast with the cool that Liotta projects towards the beginning of the program and the gradual breaking down of that cool is masterful work, and so many actors could have gotten either the cool aspect or the broken aspect down, but not necessarily both in equal measure. Many have imitated Liotta’s performance and failed because they couldn’t see beyond the swagger and tough guy talk and embody the tense fragility that he so effortlessly projects. – Eugene Kang
Unlawful Entry (1992)
Unlawful Entry is not well-remembered today for somewhat good reason. Erotic and police thrillers were a dime a dozen during the ‘90s and the lackluster direction and the basic conceit of a policeman (Liotta) insinuating himself into the life of a married couple (Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe) in order to end up with the wife wasn’t original even 30 years ago. But Liotta as the psychotic policeman is incredible.
Liotta’s character acts in ways that are completely devoid of reason and even just common sense. It’s hard to buy someone this erratic and obsessive as a real person, but somehow Liotta manages it, perhaps because he plays his conviction that he is meant to be with this married woman with a fierce earnestness that believably unravels into a whole slew of criminal behavior. Liotta also pulls off the monstrousness of his character, even though his behavior is so inconsistent. One minute, he’s able to pull off a crime and blame it on someone else with the precision of clockwork. In another moment, he’s so driven by lust that he lets Stowe’s character get the upper hand for a little bit. A lesser actor wouldn’t have convinced us that the same character could act at such extremes, but Liotta has enough focus that he’s able to pull it off brilliantly. – Eugene Kang
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Ray Liotta doesn’t have a huge part in Killing Them Softly, but his uniquely apt ability at playing the slimiest, most pathetic and reprehensible characters you’ve ever seen is in no small part a major reason why the film is able to work so effectively. Based on the George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to his revisionist Western masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford tracks a Coen-esque “crime gone horribly wrong” scenario, wherein three criminals (played by Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, and The Sopranos’ Vincent Curatola) plot to rob a card game hosted by Liotta’s Markie Trattman. The trio hope to escape the blame for their crime by pinning suspicion on Trattman, whom we learn previously robbed his own card game and later bragged about it with no repercussions. Their plan initially works, until the mob bosses who were robbed send in Brad Pitt’s astute hitman Jackie Cogan, who almost immediately discerns the real conspiracy but opts to assassinate Trattman regardless to preserve his employers’ street reputation.
Like many of Liotta’s smaller roles, he absolutely chews up every minute he’s on screen. During the robbery itself, he maintains an outwardly calm composure, speaking softly and rationally to the thieves, only betraying his true panic through his sweaty face and darting wide eyes. His later beating by mob enforcers is decidedly less dignified, marked by continued pleading and pained vomiting between the incessant blows and kicks from his attackers. He realizes there’s little to nothing he can do at that point, that his unwise past has caught up with him, but he goes through the self-abasing motions of trying to save his skin regardless. Killing Them Softly is a film so blunt and terse that without the likes of dedicated slimeballs like Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, and Ben Mendelsohn filling in its pages with life and personality it wouldn’t be half as memorable and terrific as it ultimately is. – Ben McDonald