When I think of Ray Liotta, who died overnight in his sleep at the age of 67, the image that pops into my head is of him laughing so hard he has to wipe away a tear. Just roaring with laughter while a buddy is telling a story of great violence and just after the same buddy has gotten through with scaring him half to death with the threat of more such violence, great big gusts of it. I remember someone saying once that that must have been a great set; an actor can’t really mimic laughter that hard.
It’s that laughter—and the smile Liotta shares at the end of the picture or the awkward chuckle he utters at that buddy’s mother’s house while a mortally wounded villain languishes in the trunk of his car—that helped make Liotta’s Henry Hill so endearingly real in Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic. Hill is by no means a good guy but he is the audience surrogate, an initiate into a strange and troubling world, and those various shades of nearly involuntary good humor help us empathize with him.
When you’ve willingly surrounded yourself with killers, what is there to do but laugh?
Liotta is sometimes described as having a late-career resurgence thanks to scene-stealing roles in Marriage Story, where he plays an aggressive divorce lawyer, or The Many Saints of Newark, where he had dual roles as the id and the superego of the Sopranos crime family. But he was often an undervalued asset in underappreciated movies, often highlighting the scum and scuz just underneath the surface.
The casual cruelty of his Detective Harrison in 2009’s Observe and Report as he (justifiably) destroys the dreams of a mall security guard who wants to join the force, for instance. I don’t know that we the audience enjoyed watching Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) make Liotta’s Paul Krendler eat his own brain, exactly, but we’d be hard-pressed to say he didn’t have it coming at least a little. Or think of the scumbag criminal who knocks over his own illegal card game in Killing Them Softly, a not-so-subtle metaphor for the ways in which the financial collapse of 2008 was rigged in favor of the bankers who collected payouts while the average stiff lost it all. Ray Liotta had a good face to represent the public’s loss in confidence of the whole financial system; there’s a constant sense of scheming just behind the eyes.
And while those eyes could undoubtedly do sad—there’s a despair in them during a particularly tough stretch of Blow, in which he realizes his son has learned years too late the lessons about money he tried to impart—humor and rage were more natural to them. I’ve always loved Liotta’s work in Joe Carnahan’s Narc, in which he plays a detective who hides a scheme with something close to pure rage, just whaling on crooks and cops alike, doing his best to protect his family from the revelation of a dark truth.
As dearly as I love so much of Liotta’s work—No Escape is underrated as far as mid-’90s high-concept action movies go, just a big dumb studio movie doing big dumb things on a fairly big, clearly dumb budget; Turbulence isn’t exactly high art, but it was a basic-cable classic for many years for good reason—Goodfellas remains the thing for which he will always be best remembered. And as far as being remembered goes, you could do worse than be remembered as the star of the one of the 20 greatest American films ever made, I suppose.
In an interview collected in Scorsese on Scorsese, the director says “I knew it would make a fascinating film if we just could keep the same sense of a way of life that Nick [Pileggi] had in the book—what Henry Hill had given him—and still have an audience care about these characters as human beings: to be as close to the truth as possible in a fiction film, without whitewashing the characters or creating a phony sympathy for them.”
Liotta made people care so much for Henry Hill that it wound up being a real problem for some less sophisticated viewers, the sort who can’t separate depiction and endorsement. That Scorsese very clearly lays out the two ways in which a life this sort can end—either as a schnook rat eating egg noodles with ketchup or gunned down by a fellow mobster—didn’t outweigh, for some, the exuberantly lived-in quality of Liotta’s performance.
Again: there are worse ways to be remembered. And no one who’s seen Goodfellas will ever forget Ray Liotta.