Ray Liotta Turned Living On the Edge Into Art

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About 15 minutes into Goodfellas, you get the full reveal, from the asphalt up: the alligator shoes, the suit that surely fell off the back of a truck, the lanky frame leaned against a Cadillac just so. This is Henry Hill, the mid-tier gangster we saw briefly at the film’s beginning, the one who just narrated his adolescence full of working class, ethnic white striving in 1950s Brooklyn. The younger version of Hill, played superbly by Christopher Serrone, was a coiled wire of cautious ambition. But Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill embodies everything Goodfellas is trying to capture—the careful study of bad habits, the illusion of impunity that brings. He takes a drag on a cigarette and checks his watch.

Today Hill is one of the most unforgettable movie characters of the past 50 years, that tension of ease and affect coursing through every one of his movements, his voiceover heartfelt even when it grows unreliable. It is impossible to imagine him being played by anyone else. But when the film was being set up in the late 1980s, that role’s casting was in constant flux. The producers wanted a star: maybe Al Pacino, maybe Sean Penn, maybe even Tom Cruise, who had just worked with Martin Scorsese on The Color of Money. But it was Liotta— who died this week at the age of 67 in the Dominican Republic, where he was filming a new movie— who sought out Scorsese in a Venice hotel to make his case personally.

“I was [at the Venice Film Festival] with The Last Temptation of Christ,” the director told GQ in 2010, “I had a lot of bodyguards around me. Ray approached me in the lobby and the bodyguards moved toward him, and he had an interesting way of reacting, which was he held his ground, but made them understand he was no threat. I liked his behavior at that moment, and I saw, ‘Oh, he understands that kind of situation. That’s something you wouldn’t have to explain to him.’”

Liotta had been working toward something like Henry Hill for more than half of his life. Abandoned as an orphan, he was adopted by Italian-American parents and raised in New Jersey. He studied acting at the University of Miami, where he performed mainly in musicals, then got cast in a soap opera in New York before moving to Los Angeles. His first major role was as the combustible ex-boyfriend of Melanie Griffith’s alluring con artist in the Jonathan Demme comedy Something Wild. Liotta plays that man, Ray, in a way that makes the viewer wonder if he’s a genuine thug or a dilettante pretending to be one—until he clears up this ambiguity in a still-unbelievable burst of violence. This was Liotta: able to play characters who were hyper aware of their appearance and reputation until what simmered underneath boiled to the surface.

That sort of implied edge kept his Shoeless Joe Jackson, from 1989’s Field of Dreams, from being TV-movie treacly; it elevated some direct-to-video fare (and the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, for which he voiced the lead mobster) to the level of art. He was able to ground manic characters, like his disheveled officer in James Mangold’s Cop Land, with a distinctly unactorly type of nervousness. He liked to foreground his characters’ inability or unwillingness to sell a particularly discursive rant—he was playing people who were unscrupulous and untrustworthy, and was determined to render them as such.

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