Ray Liotta — RIP

A obit referred to him as ruggedly handsome as if they had never seen photos of feral rats. That bland parapluie participle “striking” is a better fit. Blessed with piercing blue eyes, a jaw flaunted like a knife in a street brawl, and the sort of nicotine-stained voice that earned him Chantix sponsorships a few years ago, Ray Liotta was incapable of sympathy; he lived on the balls of his feet in search of dangers only he could sense.

I was too young in 1986 to know his impact on Something Wild‘s second act — Liotta was already the Goodfellas lead by the time I rented in the mid ’90s Jonathan Demme’s best film; but to observe him, as I did for the fifth or sixth time at the height of the pandemic, as Ray Sinclair, the ex-con and ex-lover of Melanie Griffith’s Audrey/Lulu, it was clear the cigarette he wielded made better sense stuck in someone’s eye than in his mouth. Listening to Jeff Daniels’ Charlie recount his and Audrey’s wild weekend infuriates Riotta so deeply that his smiles get bigger, his sense of life’s unfairness deepens, thus the inevitability of his paroxysm of anger. Audrey as a person interests him not at all: he wants her to understand he was right, that this Charlie’s a loser. A classic slowburn of a performance, in its way a palliative.

Liotta should’ve earned an Oscar nomination for Something Wild, but his work got noticed anyway. He and Tom Hulce have never struck me as uh brothers, but in Dominick and Eugene he got cast as the exasperated sibling dealing with Hulce’s intellectual disability; at times he looks at Hulce like Ray did Charlie in Something Wild . That nightmarish post-Reagan touchstone Field of Dreams, an assistant living facility for ex-hippies set amid rows of corn, uses him as a blandly legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Inhabiting blankness was his metier. Perhaps this made him rogue casting. It worked in Goodfellas, where as Henry Hill, forever on the make, those sinister peepers scan the room for women, coke, anything to wipe out the essential fact that he is, as he admits before the end credits, an average nobody. The laugh he fired in Something Wild — closer to a bray — devolved into a court jester’s obsequiousness.

An actor who didn’t mind work when the star parts dried up, Liotta earned a list of credits which got distressingly long after the late ’90s. If memory serves he pops up as the dad in Corrina, Corrina (1994), one of those helpless things that people who didn’t live through the ’80s and ’90s think Hollywood should still green light. He returned to meatballism in Copland (1997) and John Q (2002).

Passivity suited him — look at Henry Hill. That’s a way of mentioning his part in Hannibal (2001), his own brains served as an entree (avoid coke, kids). He pulled off a late-career triumph in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story as the carnivorous attorney with a shark’s grin; he could be Henry Hill twenty years later after a stint with egg noodles and ketchup convinced him to try law school. One of his upcoming posthumous releases is titled Cocaine Bear (“In a Georgia forest, an American black bear goes on a murderous rampage after ingesting a staggering amount of cocaine.”). I pray it lives up to the sequences I’ve played in my head.

4 thoughts on “Ray Liotta — RIP

  1. ¡Madre de dios! I was old enough to have experienced his impact on the 2nd and third acts of “Something Wild!” That film is singed into my cranium and it cemebted Jonathan Demme as a director who I had nothing but time for in the 80s, though as you [correctly] point out, this was his best film. There’s nothing quite like that journey the first time you take it, but it doesn’t diminish the finesse displayed on repeated viewings.

    Imagine, if you can, a month where the two main films in the cinema that we just had to see were “Something Wild” and “Blue Velvet.” And as much impact as “Blue Velvet” had, my friend and I never got around to seeing it a 2nd time like we intended to, as we ended up going to “Something Wild” repeatedly, all month long, with various friends in tow to see the reaction.

    Memorably, one of them regarded Ray and said “oh my god…that’s my father!! I met said father once the first [and only] time I went to my friend’s home after high school. This man was the most threatening person I’d ever met and needless to say, we did not see him again until that friend’s barely post-high school wedding where this man was attending with mirrored aviators on at all times.

    I’ve not seen or cared about too many other Ray Liotta movies. If you can believe it, I’ve never seen “Goodfellas!” But I was such a fan of Scorsese’s outliers in the 80s! “King Of Comedy” was great, and “After Hours” was another film we saw in theaters repeatedly and I just couldn’t gin up any enthusiasm for Scorsese, mobsters, and machismo by that point.

  2. I loved him in Copland; as Johnny Depp’s father in Blow; he stole The Saints of Newark; he’s the only reason to watch that film IMHO. & almost everything else he ever made … he’s one of those guys who makes you LOOK at him when he’s on the screen. & that voice. He had that voice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: