September 26, 2022
Critic's Appreciation: Ray Liotta Was More Than Another Magnetic Screen Wise Guy

Sure, he played the occasional good guy over the course of his prolific but too-short career; and in the wake of his death late Wednesday night, former colleagues have testified to his off-screen warmth. But the dark energies that defined his persona were there from the start, in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 Something Wild. (He’d previously worked a few years on TV, then made his film debut in 1983’s forgotten Harold Robbins adaptation The Lonely Lady.)

There, playing a criminal determined to take his estranged wife (Melanie Griffith) back from the milquetoast guy (Jeff Daniels) she’s currently toying with, Liotta understood how to make false congeniality look just real enough to convince a gullible character (Daniels) while letting moviegoers see the menace beneath it. Pretending to be an old classmate who just wants to keep the fun of a high-school reunion going, Liotta’s Ray Sinclair muscles his way into the new lovers’ tryst and doesn’t let up until he shows the good guys they’re just as deceitful as he is. Stretched across a cheap motel bed with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, he looks briefly, genuinely happy.

In last year’s Steven Soderbergh crime pic No Sudden Move, another Liotta character finds the same kind of bitter satisfaction when proving that another wife (Julia Fox) has cuckolded him with another, much less innocent man (Benicio del Toro). Again playing a crook, Liotta’s looks have hardened. His red-lined eyes don’t look capable of opening as wide as they did when he chummed up to Daniels, which is fine: This man isn’t a hungry predator but a middle-management gangster, less interested in the betrayal than in the advantage it gives him in an underworld power play.

But the older Liotta didn’t need physical violence to embody horrors. In Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, he’s a top-dollar divorce attorney who terrifies us by being mercilessly clear-eyed about the many ways the legal system is about to ruin the life of a young father (Adam Driver). Here, the threats are all in the script, but Liotta’s delivery makes them visceral: Unsentimental with a client who doesn’t understand how bad things are going to get, Liotta doesn’t wait for him to get up to speed, but instead speaks as if addressing the sullied, compromised man he’ll be after months fighting for custody.

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