DeciderThere's something particularly and profoundly touching about broken people working to be the best versions of themselves. | DeciderThere's something particularly and profoundly touching about broken people working to be the best versions of themselves.
Ray Liotta's scary, terrifying personality is why I wept when he left the Field of Dreams cornfield as a disgraced White Sox legend Joe Jackson. He was not violent, atavistic, and brutal in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. But because the tenderness, grief, and pain of a man are more meaningful when we better understand all his reasons for being sorry. It's incredibly touching to see broken people trying to become the best version of themselves. Ray Liotta was better than most actors at portraying dangerous, bad men doing their best.
New York Transit cop Figgsy is in James Mangold’s Cop Land. He's Freddy's only friend and he introduces himself as shaggy wearing a jogging outfit in the middle of a conversation at the 4 Aces' honky-tonk: 'We are all backwards Berta. While our machines may be modern and useful, what about our brains? Our minds are primitive. Berta, our minds are primitive. Berta.' On the opposite side is Liotta. He's Gino, Robert Young's Dominick and Eugene's doctor-in residence, and caretaker for Nicky's disabled brother. Perhaps he is so good at telling it, and so calmly that it feels like a soothing lullabye. Liotta was never clear about his own parents. Perhaps he found acting appealing after believing that he would end up in construction because he could be anything he desired.
Twenty years ago, I first met Liotta when Joe Carnahan’s Nac was making some progress as a throwback, gritty crime movie. It was also starring him as a gritty narco detective who has just lost his long-time partner. He is now paired with Jason Patric, a younger cop, who spent one year in suspension for accidentally shooting a pregnant lady. He was interviewed at Denver's Brown Palace Hotel. He surprised me when he walked up to me from where I was expecting him. Although he is known for being tough, not prone to introspection, I was surprised to find that he came up behind me. He had been answering the same questions for decades, and was tired of making excuses for themselves and writing lies to make an angle. Although he was polite, he was intense. He kept my attention and was attentive to all of the questions. He talked to me about Field of Dreams. I will never forget what he said. This is extraordinary humility, even in this pursuit. Liotto knew everything, respected everyone, and listened. One of the most striking things about Liotto is his willingness to accept a role as a support or even to work with a new director.
Liotta is best known for Goodfellas. This was something that he had come to terms. His aversion to typecasting throughout his career, and his willingness to go to any lengths to make it known, are evidence of the extent to which he wanted to be more than Henry Hill. Take a look at Liotta's role in Heartbreakers. A small-time hood, he was entangled in a long-con organized by mother and daughter hustlers.
Liotta was a master of timing. This is a fact you should have known given his roles in dramatic films, but it comes out of the comedy. I am always shocked by his brief appearance in Muppets From Space, where he was a post-drugging guard who declared the muppets to have'such handsome families'. His sense of humor was also a strength. He was also a good-natured person who had humor about .
However, his performance in Goodfellas is extraordinary. He was astonished to be given the part, and even more impressive that he competed with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. He was a pressure cooker with an unreleased valve of suspense, and his steam whistle when he exuded his machine gun cackle. On the other side, he defended his wife and courted her in the back streets and kitchens of nightclubs, where everybody knows him by 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). Although he couldn't do all the things, I can't help but admire his accomplishments.
After hearing about his death, the movie that I returned to was his second (which many including Liotta believe to be his first), Somewhat 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. Demme shows Ray a close-up of himself in a vanity mirror to show him how jealous and violent he is. Ray attempts to make his hair look cool by putting his hands in his mouth. Liotta can communicate a lot in just a few seconds. 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 — then it becomes clear that the 'something wild' isn't them at all. Ray Liotta is that something, irreplaceable, instantaneously compelling and incomparable. This week, we lost an important one.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. Pre-order his book about Walter Hill's films, which includes an introduction by James Ellroy. The monograph he wrote for MIRACLE MILE, the 1988 film, is now available.