Earlier this week, actor Ray Liotta passed away in his sleep while he was in the Dominican Republic for a film shoot. Although Liotta was never a true box-office sensation, he headlined Goodfellas, one of the greatest crime movies ever made. Time after time, Liotta delivered riveting performances that made the viewer stand up and notice. That alone makes Liotta’s roles the envy of any other performer. He took on eclectic characters and added something special through his performances. That’s a legacy that will last as long as there are films.
To celebrate the life and career of Liotta, Digital Trends is highlighting 10 of his best big-screen performances. These are the movies we’ll remember when we think about Ray Liotta.
In only his second role on the big screen, Liotta really stole the show in Something Wild. While Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) was romancing a firecracker of a young lady named Audrey Hankel (Melanie Griffith), Audrey’s ex-boyfriend, Ray Sinclair (Liotta), was willing to do anything to get her back. Ray is ostensibly the bad guy and he is even threatening at points. But Liotta is just so funny in the role that it’s easy to overlook the darker side of Ray’s personality.
Before Liotta firmly established his menacing presence in the movies, he had a more soulful performance as Shoeless Joe Jackson in the baseball fantasy Field of Dreams. Because of his part in the 1919 Black Sox cheating scandal, the real Shoeless Joe was banned from the game of baseball for life. Farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) gives Joe and other former, long-dead players a second chance when he hears a mysterious voice that tells him to create a baseball diamond in his cornfield. Joe is one of the key figures in that story, and Liotta infused the legend with a lot of heart.
Goodfellas is arguably Liotta’s best movie and it came fairly early in his career. It’s a Martin Scorsese crime epic for the ages based on the true story of Henry Hill (Liotta), who works his way into the mafia and seduces his future wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), with his extravagant lifestyle. Liotta absolutely exudes charisma, even alongside his co-stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. It has to be said that Henry is an absolute scumbag. Regardless, it’s almost impossible not to root for him to come out on top. Now that’s the power of Ray Liotta.
For pure menace, nothing tops Liotta’s turn as Officer Pete Davis in Unlawful Entry. At first, Pete seems like a good guy when he helps a couple, Michael (Kurt Russell) and Karen Carr (Madeleine Stowe), after they are attacked in their own home. However, Pete’s obsession with Karen quickly makes him a bigger threat, and a truly imposing figure throughout the film. How do you stop a criminal with a badge? Liotta makes it seem hopeless to confront Pete because of the power of his position and his absolutely unhinged rage.
Liotta didn’t have a lot of chances to be a romantic lead, but he did in Corrina, Corrina. In this ’50s period film, Liotta plays Manny Singer, a recently widowed man whose daughter, Molly (Tina Majorino), stops speaking after her mother’s death. Corrina Washington (Whoopi Goldberg) is hired to be Molly’s caretaker, but she and Manny eventually discover that they have feelings for each other. However, Manny first has to deal with his own inner turmoil, as well as the not-so-casual racism in the town’s response to his newfound love interest.
In theory, Cop Land was supposed to be Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar moment. And Stallone is quite good as Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a small town with a heavy cop population. But once again, this is a movie where Liotta shines as a dirty cop named Gary “Figgsy” Figgis. After a scandal nearly exposes the town’s corruption, Figgsy suddenly finds himself out of favor with Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) and his fellow crooked police officers. In order to survive, Figgsy has to turn to the morally conflicted Freddy. The brilliant part is that Figgsy is never really that remorseful for his actions. Yet he’s still more sympathetic than the cops who are out for his blood.
Even when Liotta is one of the “good guys,” he still carries a lot of darkness with him. Such was the case in Narc, where he plays Lieutenant Henry Oak, an officer under a cloud of suspicion. Detective Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) teams up with Oak to get to the truth about what happened to Oak’s late partner, Detective Michael Calvess (Alan van Sprang). Liotta and Patric really carry the film together, all the way through its powerful ending.
Identity is a thriller whose twist deserves to be protected even two decades after its release. So rather than give away the game, we’ll simply praise Liotta for his turn as Samuel Rhodes, a correctional officer who is far more dangerous than he appears to be. Samuel is soon joined by Ed Dakota (John Cusack), Paris Nevada (Amanda Peet), Ginny Isiana (Clea DuVall), and other strangers who inexplicably share the same birthday. Liotta’s menacing performance is so good that you may miss the clues about what’s really happening in this film.
Truthfully, Liotta is barely in Date Night, and he’s trading upon his previous gangster personas in the role of Joe Milletto. But that’s what makes it so great! When a hapless married couple, Phil (Steve Carell) and Claire Foster (Tina Fey), come into possession of Joe’s blackmail material, he becomes the largely unseen villain of the film. When Joe finally does appear, Liotta is just threatening enough to be taken seriously and yet not out of place in this action comedy.
Considering the influence that Goodfellas clearly had on The Sopranos, it’s fitting that one of Liotta’s last major films was The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to the acclaimed HBO series. Liotta had a dual role as “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and his twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti. Hollywood Dick had a contentious relationship with his son, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), shortly before Dickie killed him. It’s easy to understand why Dickie did it, since Hollywood DIck was such an unrepentant jerk. That’s also why Liotta’s turn as Sally is so remarkable. He’s a hardened criminal who is stuck behind bars, and yet Sally has the humanity and wisdom that his brother lacked. Sally also becomes Dickie’s unexpected confidant following his brother’s death.
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