Movie Hero of the Week – Ray Liotta*

My friend Jay sent me THIS GQ article on the making of my favorite movie, Goodfellas.  (My second favorite movie is What a Way To Go which, I feel, in combination with Goodfellas reveals nothing about my personality whatsoever.  Except maybe a love for a dance number, the color pink, with an undercurrent of gritty violence.  And Italian men.)  Anyway, Jay and I have been roundly obsessing over this article and our love for Goodfellas over the past few days.

Meanwhile, for just absolutely no reason at all in the world whatsoever, I have become recently interested in actors who hit their stride post-30.

Meet Ray Liotta.

Ray Liotta

He lobbied hard and got the role of Henry Hill in 1990’s Goodfellas at the age of 30.  There is nobody else like him in the pictures.  Imagine playing a role like Henry Hill, for all accounts a not good guy.  Not the WORST guy, of course.  That’s Tommy.  But a bad guy nonetheless, and you root for the dude.  Of course, this isn’t unprecendented.  Movies can make you do that. But with the wrong actor in that role, it would be pretty difficult.

There is a 95% chance that any interview or article you read with Ray Liotta as the subject is going to use the word “intense.”  Not inaccurate, but I think over-simplified.  He’s not just punching walls and looking sulky. He is intense without angst. I think that might be passion, but you really don’t see truly passionate work very often and think we find it disconcerting, particularly as an American movie goer. What is presented to us as passion is often just masturbatory emoting.  Not this guy. This guy is focused.  He listens. He’s confident without being cocky.

I’ll tell you something else I like about the guy.  Honesty.  He says he did Operation Dumbo Drop for the money.  Damn right he did, and you would too. It takes a hell of lot to stay afloat in show biz.  I would be lying my face right off if I said I wouldn’t do something like Operation Dumbo Drop.  The only thing I won’t do is kid shows and working at amusement parks.  God bless the people who do, but I prefer my desk job to that.  I wish I didn’t.  I wish I was a purer soul.  I also wish I had a hundred million dollars and a bucket of rubies and garnets.  And a chauffeur.  I’ve always wanted a chauffer.

I digress.

In the following scene, you see something that I think defines Ray Liotta.  Focus.  I mentioned how he listens.  Check out how…ugh…I hate to say it, but I can’t think of another phrase- how “in the moment” he is.  Look at his focus and his eye contact and his power in the scene with Morrie.  He is so specific.  (This clip also shows one of my fave De Niro/Scorcese moments of all time, but that’s just a bonus.)  Also, the video is called “My Favourite Scene From Goodfellas,” noting the British spelling,  obviously, I didn’t title the video.  And it’s not my favorite scene (although it’s a good one.)  It’s just very illustrative of my point.

Just for the record, THIS is my favorite scene from Goodfellas.  Of course, the best scene is THE shot.  You know…the steady cam…the Copa.  You know, I always admired that shot purely for the timing, not just by Scorcese by the umpteen gazillion actors and extras that breeze their way through it.  Recently, however, I just made the connection (because I’m a fool) that it’s about Karen. We feel like we are on Henry’s arm in Henry’s world.  It does something incredibly important.  It answers the question “Why would you stay with this man?” before you even think to ask it.

God, I love movies.

Anyway.

Have you seen Narc?  Interesting flick.  Liotta produced it alongside his then wife, if I remember correctly.  He stars alongside Jason Patric (an upcoming MHOTW).  It’s brutal.  It’s violent.  It’s harsh.  It’s good.  Really good.  Whereas you might root for Henry Hill, you don’t for Henry Oak.

Have you ever seen Corrina, Corrina?  It’s good.  And Liotta is really good in it.  I’m not sure how he does that wounded soldier thing without doing what all the other guys do.  He’s tortured by not tormented.  He’s hurt but he’ll survive.  He loves but he doesn’t gush.  This clip is long, but worth it.

Have you seen The Rat Pack?  Do.  If I’m nerdily blabbing about the difference between imitation and portrayal of real-life characters, I often bring up Liotta as Frank Sinatra.  He doesn’t look like the dude (minus those baby blues) and he doesn’t sound all that much like him, yet he nails it.  Ditto for all the performances in that movie (minus the woman who plays Marilyn).  I get why it wasn’t a big-screen movie, but I wish more people have seen it.  If I were to teach an acting class, I might use it.  It establishes fine lines and never dances over them, and Liotta is the leader of the group.  Not just because he plays Frank.  He establishes a presence that guides the movie.  Now.   That said.  When you do watch it, expect the Kennedy campaign song to the tune of “High Hopes” to run through your head for weeks….”K-E-DOUBLE N-E-D-Y…he’s our favorite kind of a guy…Everyone wants to BACK. JACK. JACK is on the right track…cuz he’s got HIGH HOPES…he’s got HIGH HOPES…”  See.  There I go.  Anyway, here is a clip:

I’m not a big Blow fan.  heh.  But they cast Liotta as Depp’s dad.  The dude is all of like, ten years older than my boy Johnny.  I guess it works because of the flashbacks.  But Liotta is really great.  Sweet, even.  I’ve never read if Depp and Liotta got along particularly well on set or not but there is a genuine fatherly affection there.   While playing age happens all the time on stage, it’s actually fairly rare in movies, at least to this extent.  I often wonder why casting worked out this way.  Still, a weird production decision works in Ray Liotta’s favor because he gets to show a really awesome side of his talent, he probably wouldn’t have otherwise.  Graceful age.  Not rickety wheezing and overuse of the word “whippersnapper.”  On a dorky movie nerd note, allegedly Johnny Depp’s character in BLOW was responsible for 85% of the coke trafficked in the US between the 70’s and 80’s.  Therefore, there is an 85% chance that that character provided Henry Hill, Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas, with his coke.  Small world, man. I guess that’s more of a dorky stoner note, now that I think about it.

Hey look!  Ray Liotta on Martha Stewart:

That’s funny to me.  It amuses me.  I also love a man in an apron.

I’m not a huge Field of Dreams fan, either.  I’ve been told that’s because I’m a girl.  I think it’s because the movie is cheesy and Amy Madigan (love her in Uncle Buck) is irritating and an odd pairing for Costner.  (Also, I would never tell someone they don’t get a movie because they are a man.  Sure, that seems like something I would say, but I wouldn’t.  Because movies are universal experiences.  I played catch with my Dad, too.   We have tickets for Wrigley in May.  They are in my desk right now.)  But that’s not the point.  An article I read recently in so many words says Liotta is more intense, and better than he has to be as Shoeless Joe Jackson.  The phrase “better than it has to be” is very depressing, but often apt.  The world of the American movie is world that embraces, if not encourages mediocrity.  In fact, that’s sort of what my Movie Heroes are about.  They COULD have just phoned it in.  They didn’t.  And I look to them for inspiration and encouragement through their work which is conveniently available via DVD.

In all his films, something simmers beneath Liotta’s exterior.  In Henry Hill, it finds its way out.  In many other characters he plays, like Shoeless Joe, it never does.  It’s a deep sense of humanity.  Even loss.  It’s profound.  And it’s beautiful.  I’m also a Pisces and am incredibly susceptible to this state of being.  I married an intense simmerer.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Aloofness is my kryptonite.  I want to hand it my phone number written on my panties.  I can’t help it.   Complicated emotion bubbling underneath a brooding exterior is the bucket of water to my Wicked Witch of the West.

What a worlllld.....what a worlllld...

Have you seen Observe and Report?  It’s, hmmm, I’ll say it’s disjointed.  But I love when dudes in movies wear those over the shoulder cop holster things.

I’ve always sort of thought of Cop Land as a nod toward the wish that you could see Goodfellas again for the first time.  You can’t.  Still, it’s decent cop movie.  Gritty.  Liotta and De Niro.  You could easily do worse on a Tuesday night.  Alright look, I’ll be honest.  I really don’t remember much about it.  I saw Copland when I was 16 and it was on the new release shelf and I was going through my De Niro phase.   Other than the fact that I am a straight woman, my movie-related coming of age was decidedly male adolescent.  If I had found a Scarface poster, it would have been on my wall.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) I lived on a farm in Northwestern Ohio and those posters weren’t easy to find.  I did manage to snag a Brad Pitt one from Legends of the Fall at the Kmart in Defiance, Ohio.  That and the Dirty Words one I got at the George Carlin concert I saw.  And the Wayne’s World one I got in my “Wayne’s World Extreme Closeup” book (I still own it.)  Jesus, I was weird.  This doesn’t include the glut of Eddie Vedder (see “intense simmering”)  pics I had collected, all pre-Internet mind you.  That took dedication.

Again, I digress.

Looking at his filmography, one thing is clear:  Liotta is a working actor and his work is refreshingly absent of ego.  Certainly I’ve never met the guy, but you get the distinct impression people like him.  They like to work with him.  Repeatedly.  That is something that benefits an acting career.  He also seems to have followed his nose and done what was right for him.  That is really really hard to do as an actor.  You often find yourself following other people’s paths, other people’s ambition.  There is so little guidance for artists (which is both a good and a bad thing) that you feel completely blind sometimes making the decision whether to do a project or not.  Which city should I move to?  Film or theatre?  Agent or no?  Union or no?  I’m too old.  I’m not old enough.  There is something confident, decisive and steady about Liotta’s resume and I admire that.  And what do you  know, he got to be in one of the greatest movies ever made along the way.  Plus, he’s really fun to watch.

*What is a movie hero? An un or under-sung member of the film making community who deserves more of the spotlight. And yet lack of such a spotlight often adds to their charm.

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