in memoriam

10 Essential Ray Liotta Performances

Photo: Universal/Gordon/Kobal/Shutterstock

“A mesmerizing newcomer.” That’s what Roger Ebert called Ray Liotta after seeing him in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, and even though that was in fact Liotta’s first movie, it seems bizarre to ever think of him as a “newcomer,” doesn’t it? Ray Liotta was a live wire in movies for so long that it feels like he was always there, providing an electric jolt every time he came onscreen. It’s strange to think of movies without him.

In the wake of Liotta’s death on Thursday at the age of 67, here’s a look at his ten most essential performances.

Something Wild (1986)

Ray Sinclair is fresh out of jail, violent, angry, and wants his wife back. He shows up just as we’ve fallen in love both with Melanie Griffith’s Lulu and Jeff Daniels’s Charlie and with the two of them together. It’s as if their insane, incredible attraction needed an equal and opposite reaction in the person of Ray, who will kill them both, or himself, or really anyone. Liotta’s Ray is absolutely magnetic — he was nominated for a Golden Globe for the debut performance — and audiences couldn’t help but wonder, watching it, who the heck was this guy? (Owen Gleiberman said it was like seeing James Dean’s evil twin.) Liotta would become a familiar face on our movie screens soon enough. But here it was as if Jonathan Demme had discovered some primal, feral force. He has given great performances since then, but there never was anything quite like Ray Sinclair again.

Something Wild is streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Field of Dreams (1989)

The actual Shoeless Joe Jackson was the illiterate son of a South Carolina sharecropper, but in the popular imagination, he’ll always look and talk like Ray Liotta thanks to Liotta’s sensitive, almost fragile performance as the baseball legend. It’s one thing to see how amazed Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella is when long-dead baseball players show up in his cornfield; it’s quite another to see how flabbergasted — and, most important, how overjoyed — the actual players are to be there. Liotta understandably had a reputation for playing tough guys, but his Shoeless Joe is wistful, plaintive, and, above all, grateful. Liotta makes you feel how much Shoeless Joe missed baseball … and how thankful he is to have it back.

Field of Dreams is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Goodfellas (1990)

Scorsese had to fight to cast Liotta, who was still mostly unknown — and, for that matter, in his mid-30s — and thought too green to stand alongside Scorsese titans like Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. But that’s, of course, what’s so great about Liotta’s performance: Sure, he’s a mobster and dangerous, but he’s also hardly one of the heavy hitters. If anything, he’s more a witness to the principal players than he is the driver of the action. He’s a mid-level goon who shows us just what being a mid-level goon is … and he’s just screwed up enough to think that’s better than living the rest of his life like a schnook. Liotta never worked with Scorsese again after this movie — to his frustration, reportedly — but what’s special about Henry Hill is that he isn’t special. He’s not a big-time gangster. He is just a schnook. That’s what makes him most terrifying — and most human.

Goodfellas is streaming on HBO Max.

Unlawful Entry (1992)

Liotta’s villains were so often complicated and human that it’s weirdly powerful to see him just play a full-on psychopath. He plays Officer Pete Davis, an unbalanced cop who, after being called in to investigate a break-in at the house of a married couple (Kurt Russell and Madeline Stowe), becomes obsessed with the wife and attempts to destroy the husband’s life. The movie isn’t subtle enough to have much new to say about the abuse of police power, but it does have a maniacal Liotta wreaking havoc. Is there anything scarier than being interrupted in bed with your spouse by Ray Liotta in the room saying, “I wanted to check if everything’s okay?” I would argue that there is not.

Unlawful Entry is available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video.

Hannibal (2001)

This lurid, over-the-top, “very much against the spirit of Silence of the Lambs but also fun in its own way” Hannibal Lecter sequel features Liotta as Paul Krendler, a corrupt prosecutor who serves as Clarice Starling’s primary nemesis. Krendler appears briefly in the original but comes alive when Liotta plays him, giving him a slimy loathsomeness that you find yourself wanting to see punished almost as much as you want to see all the serial killers punished. You get the opportunity, vividly, when Lecter feeds Krendler … his own brains. What a way to go. He’s even a jerk while he’s eating his own brain.

Hannibal is streaming on Starz.

Narc (2002)

Perhaps Liotta’s most underrated performance is that of Oak, the sort of soulless, morally drained cop we’ve seen in countless movies with palpable desperation and loss that is as heartbreaking as it is truly dangerous. Liotta is bulky and bearded here and plays Oak as a man weighed down with all the burdens of the world, none of which hurt him more than the burdens of his own making. Oak is not a good man, but he’s not one without values either. He’s someone who, in his own way, is trying to do the right thing. Not that it does him, or anyone else, any good.

Narc is streaming on Showtime.

Observe and Report (2009)

Liotta didn’t do a lot of comedy — looking the way he did, you almost felt scared and sad just glancing at him sometimes — but when he did, it unleashed a certain silliness you could tell was buried down there somewhere. He gets his biggest laughs — in a “comedy” that’s so dark that it doesn’t have a lot of laughs to get — as a police officer called to investigate crimes at a mall who is immediately confronted by Seth Rogen’s mall cop Ronnie. The movie itself is uneasy and often on some pretty problematic footing — Rogen would get better at balancing comedy and sometimes-scary obsession — but Liotta is a riot as a “real” cop who can’t believe this idiotic mall cop keeps showing up and getting in his way.

Observe and Report is available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video.

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Andrew Dominik’s financial crisis–set crime drama polarized audiences — it famously got an F from CinemaScore — features a lot of musings on capitalism and an occasional scene of gunfire. Liotta plays Markie, a mid-level mob player who, basically, just gets beaten and shot in a very dramatic fashion to set the movie into motion. Liotta, for all his presence, could occupy these sorts of second-tier gangsters perfectly: He had enough gravitas to take them seriously but enough derangement to make you realize why they’d never reach the top. And ha, wow, this death scene.

Killing Them Softly is streaming on Netflix.

Marriage Story (2019)

Liotta called Noah Baumbach’s script “one of the best he’d ever read,” and it’s a credit to Baumbach that he would even consider Liotta as Jay, Adam Driver’s Charlie’s second divorce lawyer, the absolute killer that Charlie said he didn’t want but ultimately felt like he had no choice but to hire. Liotta is sharp and biting in the role but also funny and light in his own way. He has the look of a guy who has been fighting divorce cases for 30 years. It has taken its toll. Hey, it’s a living.

Marriage Story is streaming on Netflix.

The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

David Chase’s prequel to The Sopranos has its moments but is ultimately a bit of unnecessary backstory at best and some awkward, sort of sad cosplay at worst. (Why do we need to see John Magaro impersonating Steven Van Zandt again?) But of all the new characters, it’s Liotta who makes the best impression, in a double role no less. He’s terrifying as Hollywood Dick, the father Dickie Moltisanti confronts during the Newark race riots, but he’s even better as his twin brother, Sally, who has spent his life in prison and knows just what crime can do to a man’s soul. Sally is the most powerful character in The Many Saints of Newark, and the movie only really comes to life when he’s onscreen.

The Many Saints of Newark is streaming on HBO Max.

10 Essential Ray Liotta Performances