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Remembering Ray Liotta: The Actor Was More Than ‘Goodfellas’

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Freedmen was always destined to be the first film mentioned in Ray Liotta’s obituaries, and it was when the actor died suddenly, in his sleep, aged 67 this week. His performance as Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic is one for the ages. Close your eyes and you’ll be able to hear his voiceover, that distinctive, almost sour chant that says, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” As Hill, in those striped knit shirts, he was seductive and dangerous, luring you into his life of crime just as he lures his hesitant girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco). When, in the last act, he becomes tense and nervous – paranoid over the coke and his impending downfall – Liotta’s piercing blue eyes bear the brunt of that anxiety.

Henry Hill made Liotta an icon, but he was an actor who was always so much more than his most famous role.

Even before Freedmen was released in 1990, Liotta offered performances that could completely turn a movie upside down, bending the narrative to its will. In Jonathan Demme’s kind of romantic comedy something wild, he appears halfway through as Ray, the abusive and unstable husband of heroine Lulu, played by Melanie Griffith. Lulu begins the film as an unstable force for the audience. She traps nervous yuppie and courtier Charlie (Jeff Daniels) in her car and under her spell, driving him back to his hometown to attend his high school reunion. That’s where Ray comes in, hijacking Charlie and Lulu’s night by taking them on a low-stakes heist. Liotta is arguably the most physically beautiful, but he uses that beauty to terrifying effect. Menacing energy radiates from him, even when he laughs, a cackle that can chill your spine, his mouth gaping as if to devour the Charlie out of his depths.

Liotta was so good at playing off-balance that you could forget how sensitive he can be. Just a year before Goodfellas, he had the small but pivotal role of Shoeless Joe Jackson in field of dreams, who comes out of a cornfield years after being banned from baseball for rigging the World Series. It’s commonplace to say that a performance is “haunted”, but Liotta’s is. In just a few scenes, you see the weight of a man’s unfulfilled wishes as he is unstuck in time. It’s ghostly but charming. “Dude, I loved this game” – the way his eyes search as he whispers those words will break your heart.

More recently, Liotta had done some great work that was expected. He was hilarious as a bullish divorce lawyer in Marriage storysparring with Laura Dern in her Oscar-winning performance, and once again downright scary as an abusive mob boss in Steven Soderbergh No sudden movement. In the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, he gave dual performances as twin brothers, representing both sides of Mafia life. And it has more performance on the way, including cocaine beardirected by Elizabeth Banks, and a comedy directed by Charlie Day starring Kate Beckinsale, Jason Sudeikis and Edie Falco.

So even though no one can blame you if you get on fire Freedmen to commemorate Liotta – he’s the best, after all – remember he was so good at so many things.