As an actor, Ray Liotta could look into the eyes of the most coldblooded sociopath and find the glimmer of mirth needed to transmit a familiar character to the screen. Someone the audience can identify with, cheer on even as he does the most vile things, for the least redeemable reasons. Liotta will go down in motion picture history as one of the great character actors because he found fully realized people inside the most damaged goods.
Liotta played bad cops and good robbers, sympathetic psychos and friendly ghosts. He is at his best when he is at his worst, and he takes you along with him. If his character is annoyed, the audience gets mad. When his character gets angry, the audience wants blood. Liotta can accommodate without even pulling a trigger. In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), Henry Hill learns at one point his girlfriend, and future wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) has been molested by a neighborhood boy. He uses the blunt end of the pistol to make sure it never, ever, happens again.
Before he does, however, Henry makes sure Karen is safe inside the house, recovering from her recent trauma. We see true concern in Liotta’s eyes, and it is focused equally on two causes. He is looking for assurances that she is both on the mend and out of the way of further trauma, because when he beats the guy who made her cry, it’s not going to be pretty. He really doesn’t want her to see it. But Liotta lets the audience see it. We make all the connections, and that makes it alright. It’s even better when Karen admits she was a little turned on by it.
This is as far from Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams (1989) as you can get, but you would want him on your team too. That’s why Hill works so well in Scorsese’s mob drama. He comes across as the most loyal team player on the block. Until he’s not and rats out his friends to skip a rap he was too coked out to avoid. But even then we feel for Hill, because Liotta is the one who invited us into his world with an honest confession.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Liotta’s voice tells us at the opening of the film, and we want to join his gang. We can easily see how Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), based on Lucchese crime family capo Paul Vario, picked Henry out as a kid and made him a runner out of the Euclid Avenue Taxicab and Limo Service. Hill was raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He got connected by the time he was 11. Liotta makes us feel Henry’s intoxication in finding his mob. He brings that full history into his performance. We grew up with this guy.
This is the opposite reaction we get from Joe Pesci’s Tommy Devito. Seeing him ask if he’s funny on the big screen with popcorn in your lap is entertaining. If you were at a restaurant at the next booth enjoying the house special, however, you’d be on the next train out. None of the mugs in Goodfellas are conventionally likable. Unlike 1972’s The Godfather, the characters in Goodfellas don’t have as strong a code of ethical boundaries. They hit made guys, screw around on made wives, and take low-grade lives. Tommy shoots Spider (Michael Imperioli), ultimately, for forgetting to freshen his drink, and most people wouldn’t take a leisurely stroll in the fashion district alone with Robert De Niro’s James Conway. He’s not the gent his nickname implies, But Liotta’s Henry remains approachable, even as he repeatedly and specifically demands: “Fuck you, pay me.”
Liotta’s good-natured magnetism is most apparent when Bracco’s Karen is pointing a gun at her cheating husband’s lying eyes. His reasoned assurances never breach the perilous boundaries of confession, conflation, or condescension. Of course he would never screw around on his wife, it isn’t preposterous, it simply would never enter his mind. The gun is unnecessary. The verbal dance he does while confined to a pillow, with only his eyes free to move, is as accomplished a move as the Gene Kelly choreography Henry used to glide the victimized Karen from the phone booth to the safety of his ride. But the second she puts the pistol down, he is the street animal who does what he wants when it pleases him.
Henry appears blindly loyal, changing his tune to fall in step with his friends Jimmy and Tommy when they sound a charge, justified or not, sanctioned or not. He is not only the guy you call on when you have to bury a body; he can be relied on to dig that same body up again and rebury it when the heat’s on. Scorsese doesn’t soften his wise guys. Goodfellas is just as much about violence as it is about loyalty. Liotta keeps our faith.
But when Scorsese spends the day with Henry, from coke deal to family dinner, and off to make amends with his gumah, Liotta tests the bonds of friendship and makes it stick. His eyes dart for helicopters, his rearview mirror also functions as an FBI detector. We see on his face the walls close in. The paranoia takes over. The glove compartment decompartmentalizes, and in the end, we’re sorry he had to dump all his coke.
We shouldn’t care that Henry Hill has to watch his back for the rest of his life. He went into witness protection. The real Hill fucked that up as well, getting popped even in his anonymous life in the sticks without a good place to eat for miles.
In Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, the real-life Hill never regretted his demise.
“I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook,” he told Pileggi. The average reader does not sympathize. Most people just see him as a criminal who got less than he deserved.
Liotta’s Henry subtly contradicts that, subverting the anti-criminal bias through the sheer good will of common ground. He is the audience’s moral compass. He wants what we all want. He’s a blue-collar guy who needs to make real extra money, even if he has to go out and cut a few corners. When he’s caught, he has no real guilt, only anger at not being able to get out of it. There is no redemption. He fell. We want him to get up.
Liotta pirouettes to these opposing rhythms in a number of his films. He goes even further in Unlawful Entry (1992), and the audience cheers when he stays down. His patrolman Pete Davis goes from handsome leading man hero to slasher film psycho killer the first time a woman commits the crime of resisting an officer. He says he does it for love, an obsessive one, to be sure, but it’s a mad and exhilarating careen off the tracks. Liotta does it with such manic charisma that we can’t help but admire the narcissist in the cracked mirror.
We even like Liotta’s Ray Sinclair when he breaks Charlie’s (Jeff Daniels) nose in Jonathan Demme’s classic dark comedy, Something Wild (1986), and Daniels is one of the most affable actors around. “I’m only starting to like you Charlie,” Ray explains, and we know why he got off so easily.
Ray Liotta found something to like in the worst of characters, and something to fear in the best. His entire repertoire expands beyond these poles, of course, as he has a vast and varied motion picture legacy. But we like that about him.