Though there is praise for Marty and Thelma, De Niro, Pesci and Bracco, I doubt you’ll find anyone who would not agree that the glue that holds “GoodFellas” together is Ray Liotta. It was a purpose he served on more than one movie, and he was very good at it. So, today is a sad day. While on location shooting a film in the Dominican Republic, Ray Liotta passed away. He was 67 years old.
When I heard of news, my first thought wasn’t “GoodFellas.” My mind doesn’t work that way. The first thing that popped in my head was Liotta, completely out of his mind with rage, singing “Buffalo girls, won’t you come out tonight!” while he set Lauren Holly’s plane on fire in 1997’s “Turbulence.” This is not a good movie by any measure—it may be the worst thing Liotta did—but that scene stuck in my head all these years for its sheer, malevolent ridiculousness. Here was an actor, who had proven his gift for menace several times over by this point, taking a page from Nicolas Cage and shamelessly embracing his inner wacko. After singing and setting the fire, Liotta sits in his plane seat and mutters “they said this was a non-smoking flight!” Sue me, but my trash-loving heart wants what it wants.
Ray Liotta was a master of entrances. I know that sounds dopey–every player has their entrances and their exits, as per the Bard—but Liotta crafted some unforgettable ways into a scene. Think about Henry and Karen’s visit to the Copacabana, with Scorsese’s camera following Liotta as he seduces Karen while simultaneously being seduced by the criminal life. Or his first line in that same film, the beginnings of perhaps the greatest feat of cinematic narration ever recorded: “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” The way he sells that pitch-black punchline sets the film’s tone.
Kevin Costner, the man who would become persona non grata amongst the “GoodFellas” faithful in terms of the 1991 Oscars, facilitated Liotta’s entrance in 1989 by building that mythical baseball diamond in a corn field in “Field of Dreams.” Liotta played Shoeless Joe Jackson, the shamed Chicago White Sox player who shows up to play baseball and make grown men cry in the theater. It seems that everyone involved knew they were in a ripe ol’ piece of corn except Liotta, who refuses any sentiment, delicately balancing things out in the process. Look at the scene near the end of the film, where he tells Costner’s Ray Kinsella that he’s not invited to go with him and the other players. “You’re not invited, Ray,” he says, and you can hear the stern intimidation in his voice. A few beats later, he responds to James Earl Jones’s comic line with a knowing, charm-filled smirk. It’s one of my favorite images of Liotta, proof that he could switch between menace and charm with ease.