Something Wild: Ray Liotta 1954-2022

10 good reasons to remember a great movie wiseguy

Something Wild: Ray Liotta 1954-2022

One of the most terrifying moments in 1980s cinema comes exactly 51 minutes and 15 seconds into Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” (1986) when Audrey, the manic pixie dream girl played by Melanie Griffith, is dancing at her high school reunion with Jeff Daniels’ Charlie Driggs, a tight-ass office worker she’s essentially kidnapped for the weekend. The movie’s tone up to this point has been anarchic but light – a screwball romp with an unerringly curated soundtrack. The reunion band is played by The Feelies, the missing link between the Velvets and R.E.M., and as Audrey and Charlie settle in for a dance floor kiss, the opening strums of “Loveless Love” chime out, a blissful sliver of stopped time.

And then another couple comes wheeling around from the background, the song kicks into overdrive, and a slim, lethal man named Ray Sinclair is whispering, “Hi, baby…” into Audrey’s ear, his ice-blue eyes slicing through the love scene like a pair of stilettoes. At that moment, you almost physically feel the bottom drop out of “Something Wild,” an implacable sense of menace as the film pirouettes from lightness into the dark. And you sense, correctly, that the story won’t be the same from this point forward, and neither will Audrey and Charlie, and neither, maybe, will the movies. Ray Liotta has arrived.

Yesterday, Ray Liotta left, unexpectedly, at the age of 67. He was on a film set in the Dominican Republic and simply passed away in his sleep, according to reports. Too soon, too soon; after a couple of decades in the wilderness of B-movies, Liotta’s career had been on an upswing in the past few years, with juicy roles in “Marriage Story” and “The Many Saints of Newark.” He had become an industry elder, well-loved and well-respected, the most dangerous man on the screen and the nicest guy off it. As soon as you saw him in a movie, you knew you were in good hands, even if the Liotta vibe – the reptilian stare, the sandpaper cheeks, a stillness that promised the violence to come – could scare the bejesus out of you. Everyone will be talking about “Goodfellas,” obviously, and Liotta’s contribution to the crime movies of the last four decades is immeasurable, but he was capable of many things, including a gentleness that the movies could have tapped a lot more than they did. Here are ten movies I think of when I think of Ray Liotta. Maybe watch one this weekend and hoist a glass of crème de menthe in his honor.

“Something Wild” (1986, streaming on Hoopla, Criterion Channel; for rent on Apple TV, YouTube) – See above. It wasn’t Liotta’s first film – he had a small role in the Pia Zadora camp classic “The Lonely Lady” (1983) – but, in a sense, it was very much his debut. In 1986, it was a toss-up as to who was the scariest person in the movies, Liotta here or Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet.”

“Dominic & Eugene” (1988, on DVD, unavailable for streaming) – An early sign that Ray Liotta was more than Ray Sinclair. A heart-tugger about twin brothers from Pittsburgh, the intellectually disabled Nicky (Tom Hulce) and the would-be doctor Gene (Liotta), who wants to get on with his life but is wracked with guilt about leaving his brother behind. It’s dated in many ways, particularly in Hulce’s performance, but Liotta has never been more tender.

“Field of Dreams” (1989, streaming on Prime Video, for rent elsewhere) – Maybe he’s not the first actor to spring to mind when you think of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced White Sox player who comes back from the dead in this classic male weepie, but Liotta makes the part his own and gets to put the pieces of the mystery together in the final scene. “No, Ray – it was you.” Excuse me, I have something in my eye.

“Goodfellas” (1990, streaming on HBO Max, for rent elsewhere) Henry Hill: The classic Ray Liotta role, full of swagger and smarts, banked violence, and coked-up paranoia. The star’s voice on the soundtrack promises unholy pleasures and comeuppance, and his laugh is vicious, foul, and contagious. What he’ll be remembered for.

“Unlawful Entry” (1992, for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, and elsewhere) — One of the great Evil Ray Liotta roles, as Officer Pete Davis, an L.A. cop who gets called in when an upscale couple (Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe) is victimized in a home invasion and then becomes obsessed with the wife. The scene where he appears in their  bedroom while they’re having sex — “just to make sure everything’s okay” — is a jolter. No one could do psychopathic class resentment like this man.

“Corrina, Corrina” (1994, available for rent on Apple TV, Amazon, YouTube, and elsewhere) – An unlikely fusion of elements (family comedy, drama, interracial romance) that works on the strengths of Liotta as a bereft widower songwriter, Tina Majorino as his tongue-tied daughter, and Whoopi Goldberg as the nanny who becomes the father’s love interest. Again, gentle Liotta is fascinating Liotta.

“Killing Them Softly” (2012, streaming on Netflix and Hulu, for rent elsewhere) – I referenced this movie recently as only the second movie to be adapted from a George V. Higgins novel (the first being “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”). Liotta has a supporting role as the mobbed-up proprietor of a poker game that gets ripped off early in the film, and his truculent, weary, pitch-perfect performance served notice that he was still standing after decades of sub-par crime thrillers. Although not after this scene. (Warning: Graphic violence)

“Marriage Story” (2019, streaming on Netflix) When Liotta shows up halfway through as Adam Driver’s divorce attorney – replacing an addled Alan Alda – this rueful human comedy gets an infusion of sleazy adrenaline. His courtroom scenes with his opposite number Laura Dern are delicious.

“No Sudden Move” (2021, streaming on HBO Max, for rent elsewhere) – A mid-level mobster with a tootsie wife (Julia Fox) who’s smarter than he is. It’s another character part in a movie bristling with antsy, gun-toting men, but Steven Soderbergh directs it like it’s a lost adaptation of Elmore Leonard, and Liotta by now can seem legendary in only a few scenes.

“The Many Saints of Newark” (2021, streaming on HBO and HBO Max, for rent on Apple TV) – Liotta has six movies in the can awaiting release – truly a long goodbye – but it may be best to remember him for his dual roles as twins in last year’s “Sopranos” prequel. “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti is as vile as they come, a violent, foulmouthed man who gets what’s coming to him, while brother Salvatore, a former hitman serving life in prison, has become a bookish Zen convert with a thing for Miles Davis records. Finally the two sides of Ray Liotta, the profane and the sacred, are represented in the same film. It’s a fine send-off for the wisest of wiseguys.

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