Ray Liotta delivered one of cinema’s greatest breakout performances

Ray Liotta delivered one of cinema’s greatest breakout performances

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“Hi baby. Surprise.”

Those were the first words most people heard Ray Liotta utter, in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 road trip comedy “Something Wild.” At least it was a road trip comedy up until then.

In the previous hour, Lulu, played by Melanie Griffith, and Charlie (Jeff Daniels) seemed to be embarking on an eccentric picaresque about mismatched lovers taking a wacky car ride from Manhattan through Pennsylvania. When the character of Liotta – Lulu’s ex-husband, coincidentally named Ray – showed up, the emotional time changed in an instant. Staring at Lulu and Charlie with ice blue eyes, his muscles bulging alarmingly under a black t-shirt, Ray injected genuine menace into an eccentric romance that turned murderously ugly the moment he appeared onscreen.

“Who is this guy?” viewers immediately wondered about Liotta, who died this week at age 67 in the Dominican Republic, where he was filming a movie. (The cause is still being investigated.)

‘Something Wild’ wasn’t Liotta’s first film – he already had a film credit and starred in the long-running soap opera ‘Another World’. But as the violent, abusive, and ultimately psychotic Ray Sinclair, he burst into public consciousness in what is still considered one of the most stunning performances in generational memory: Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” Eddie Murphy in “48 Hours”. Ray Liotta in “Something Wild” deserves a place in this pantheon, heralding the kind of raw talent and native charisma that can’t be manufactured or marketed.

Liotta starred in two touching dramas shortly after “Something Wild,” playing against type as a medical student in “Dominick & Eugene” (1988) and as Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams” ( 1989). But he couldn’t escape his core power as a performer – the sense of threat, through his physical size, slightly scarred face, catlike grin and those Javelin missile eyes, which he exuded just by standing there. By all accounts, Liotta was a charming man in person. On screen, there was no one scarier, and that quivering quality – the quintessential “dangerous personality” – is why audiences couldn’t take their eyes off him. No matter how big the frame or how big the role, once Liotta was on screen, he owned it through the force of intimidation.

Critics, fans and colleagues react to Ray Liotta’s death at 67

This combination of intimidation and attraction defined Liotta’s career performance as mobster Henry Hill in 1990s “Goodfellas”, where he directed the film and stood out with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Paul Sorvino. He went from fresh-faced Irish American child-to-informant coked with convincing dissolution, his eyes darting away in coal-black specks as his character’s moral core shrivelled. Between those two extremes, he played the role’s glamor with equally believable cool: when his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) explains apologetically in a voiceover that watching him beat the daylight of a bullying neighbor excited her, viewers could be forgiven for feeling the same unsettling combination of revulsion and fascination.

Liotta went on to do dozens of other films – he delivered a particularly impressive turn in 1997’s ‘Cop Land’ and played a believable Frank Sinatra in the TV movie ‘The Rat Pack’ (1998) – but most observers agree that he did not have the career he deserved. It was gratifying to see him more often in recent years, sometimes poking fun at his own creepy personality, other times playing it with grace and traces of self-aware humor. His portrayal of a ruthless divorce lawyer (what else?) in Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’ (2019) was a beautiful comeback and a tantalizing promise of what Liotta might be heading for in the final chapters of his career.

No matter what Liotta has done — a guest star on a sitcom, an appearance on a pulpy action thriller, a supporting role in a well-heeled indie — he’s never lost the ability to surprise, by his mere presence. . That initial thrill of menace and volatility gave way to fun (“Ah, it’s Ray Liotta!”), but it was still a jolt nonetheless. Hollywood’s star-making machinery may do its best, but no one can fake what Ray Liotta had: the ability to come out of nowhere, capture our attention, and win our emotional allegiance, not by How? ‘Or’ What he acted but by whom he continued to be when he acted.

“Hi baby. Surprise.”

Ray Liotta never ceased to surprise, until he left the stage far too soon.

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