Cult Movies: Ray Liotta's turn in Goodfellas shows he should have been an A-lister

Ray Liotta with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Goodfellas
Ralph McLean

WHEN the news broke last week that actor Ray Liotta had passed away at the age of 67, I felt an immediate compulsion to re-watch Goodfellas.

I'm grateful for that, because every moment spent with Martin Scorsese's 1990 mob masterpiece and in the company of Liotta's wild eyed gangster Henry Hill is always time well spent in my book.

Not that I needed to reacquaint myself with the film or Liotta's sublime performance in it, though. Goodfellas is one of those films that I watch on an almost monthly basis. When I see it as I flick aimlessly through late night TV schedules, I can't help but stop what I'm doing and spend a little quality time in that sordid but undeniably stylish world. I tell myself I'll just watch the next iconic moment or two before winding up glued to the screen for the entire duration. Again.

A massive part of that obsession lies deep in Ray Liotta's central performance. The actor's edgy glint in the eye is visible in many other big screen appearances of course – check him out in all his hair-trigger glory in Something Wild (1986) and more recent gems like The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) if you want proof of that – but with Goodfellas, he delivered his most perfectly rounded and deeply flawed, character.

His world view is perfectly set out in that timeless voiceover line: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster". Liotta nails that ambitious young hoodlum who makes his way up the ranks of the underworld beautifully.

Think of that famous face-off with Joe Pesci's crazed Tommy DeVito when Henry suggests the more senior mobster is a "funny guy" and the atmosphere sours sharpish: Tommy replies with a hard stare and the immortal line "Funny how?". Liotta plays the chilling turn of atmosphere for all it's worth and the relief when Tommy reveals he's only messing and Henry lets rip that manic laugh is almost too much to take.

Add to that the smooth, almost balletic grace with which the actor moves around the gangster scenarios he finds himself in, from swish nightclub to random acts of brutal violence, and it's easy to see why Liotta was acclaimed as a superstar from the moment Scorsese's American fable hit cinema screens.

Much more than a style-heavy performance that merely glorifies the gangster persona, his nuanced take on Henry Hill, with all his lust for wealth and excess at the expense of just about everything, is a dark and dangerous creation. Watch his gradual decline into drug-addled, paranoid foot soldier who eventually saves his own skin at the expense of his comrades and it's hard to see why the man never became the A-lister his skills so clearly deserved.

Maybe that wired onscreen persona was just a little too unhinged to see him ever fully embraced by the mainstream. There's a wildness in those magnetic eyes that draws you in and reminds you that Ray Liotta was a true one off.

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