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Ray Liotta delivered one of cinema’s greatest breakout performances

Liotta, who died unexpectedly at 67, never stopped delivering his signature jolt of menace and fascination

Ray Liotta in “Something Wild.” (Orion/Kobal/Shutterstock)
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“Hi, baby. Surprise.”

Those were the first words most people heard Ray Liotta speak, in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 road trip comedy “Something Wild.” At least, it was a road trip comedy until that moment.

During the preceding hour, Lulu, played by Melanie Griffith, and Charlie (Jeff Daniels) seemed to be embarking on an eccentric picaresque about mismatched lovers taking a zany car ride from Manhattan through Pennsylvania. When Liotta’s character — Lulu’s ex-husband, coincidentally named Ray — showed up, the emotional weather changed in an instant. Staring down Lulu and Charlie with ice-blue eyes, his muscles bulging alarmingly under a black T-shirt, Ray injected real menace into a quirky romance that turned murderously ugly the moment he appeared on screen.

“Who is that guy?” viewers immediately wondered about Liotta, who died this week at age 67 in the Dominican Republic, where he was filming a movie. (The cause is still being investigated.)

The Real Ray Liotta

“Something Wild” wasn’t Liotta’s screen debut — he already had one movie credit, and had starred in the long-running soap opera “Another World.” But as the violent, abusive, ultimately psychotic Ray Sinclair, he burst into public consciousness in what still qualifies as one of the most astonishing breakout performances in generational memory: Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” Eddie Murphy in “48 Hrs.” Ray Liotta in “Something Wild” deserves a place in that pantheon, announcing the kind of raw talent and native charisma that can’t be manufactured or marketed.

Hollywood took notice.

Liotta starred in two affecting dramas shortly after “Something Wild,” playing against type as a medical student in “Dominick & Eugene” (1988) and as Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams” (1989). But he couldn’t escape his core power as a performer — the sense of menace, by way of physical size, a slightly scarred-looking face, a feline smile and those Javelin-missile eyes, that he exuded just by standing there. By all accounts, Liotta was a lovely man in person. On-screen, there was no one scarier, and that simmering quality — the quintessential “dangerous personality” — accounts for why audiences couldn’t take their eyes off him. No matter what size the frame or how big the role, once Liotta was on screen, he owned it by sheer force of intimidation.

Critics, fans and colleagues react to Ray Liotta's death at 67

That combination of intimidation and attraction defined Liotta’s career-making performance as gangster Henry Hill in 1990’s “Goodfellas,” where he carried the movie and held his own with the likes of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Paul Sorvino. He went from fresh-faced Irish American kid to coked-out informer with convincing dissolution, his eyes receding to coal-black points as his character’s moral core shriveled. In between those two extremes, he played the glamour of the role with equally believable cool: When his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) apologetically explains in a voice-over that watching him beat the daylights out of a bullying neighbor turned her on, viewers could be forgiven for feeling the same unsettling combination of revulsion and fascination.

Liotta went on to make dozens more movies — he delivered a particularly impressive turn in 1997’s “Cop Land,” and played a credible Frank Sinatra in the TV movie “The Rat Pack” (1998) — but most observers agree that he didn’t have the career he deserved. It was gratifying to see him more often in recent years, sometimes making fun of his own frightening persona, other times playing into it with grace and traces of self-aware humor. His portrayal of a ruthless (what else?) divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (2019) was a fine return to form, and a tantalizing promise of what Liotta might be heading toward in the last few chapters of his career.

No matter what Liotta did — a guest shot on a sitcom, a cameo in a pulpy action thriller, a supporting role in a well-heeled indie — he never lost the ability to startle, by his presence alone. That initial frisson of threat and volatility would give way to delight (“Ah, it’s Ray Liotta!”), but it was always a jolt nonetheless. The starmaking machinery of Hollywood can try as hard as it can, but no one can fake what Ray Liotta had: the ability to come out of nowhere, seize our attention and earn our emotional allegiance, not by how he acted but by who he continued to be when he acted.

“Hi, baby. Surprise.”

Ray Liotta never stopped surprising, right up until he left the stage much too soon.