In tandem with a full Scorsese retrospective, this beloved meatball opera is served up once more.
Let’s pour one out for Ray Liotta, the last man (barely) standing in Martin Scorsese’s roistering gangland firework display, Goodfellas. Looking over his impressive and colorful career within the film business, this iconic title rests a lofty if precarious peak. It’s akin to the moment where his twinkle eyed mafioso-in-waiting, Henry Hill, is ushered through to the bustling inner sanctum of an exclusive lounge club. A fiancé-to-be is hooked on his arm, and he is planted front and center by kind insistence of the toadying management and a silky-smooth extended tracking shot.
This is the moment where he gets the special favors, and all his peers are forced to look on as he sashays through the cigar smoke and right into their eye-line. With all respect to this one of a kind leading man, his career after Goodfellas found him drift on a gentle downward trajectory which, for a movie of this stature, is no big thing. But maybe this is the film that cursed him, that opened uninviting doorways to roles in quick fix, substance-neutral gangster flicks and VHS shelf-filling action craptaculars. When a minor role in a Guy Ritchie movie can be seen as a late career highlight, then we most definitely have an issue.
Goodfellas is a terrifying film because, like much of Scorsese’s best work, it is about the lives of avuncular psychopaths, and pretty-boy Liotta brilliantly encapsulates that fetid contradiction. Of all the murderous thugs on show, he is by far the kindest, the one you’d like to see looking down on you as he boots your face into a pulp. Here is a man whose first experience of true love is not from a stolen front-seat kiss, it’s the moment he cold-cocks a romantic rival in a suburban driveway, the victim’s effete pals looking on through arcs of blood.
To see Liotta in a movie now is like an alarming warning – he might originally come across as sweetness and light, but it’s only a matter of time before he begins screeching, sweating and staving skulls. That stigma is unhelpful. Unadorned kindness can never be part of his repertoire because of who he is and his past professional associations. He is the boy next door who kills people. That he has made a life from this eccentric set of talents is absolutely laudable, but perhaps he’s an actor whose best was revealed too early. Yet he is great in Goodfellas because of the wingmen who help him. It’s down to a well oiled and minutely balanced ensemble of actors. They draw the best from him.
Goodfellas is weird in the way that you believe Robert De Niro would be the movie’s main focus, but his Jimmy, a paranoiac charmer who only chuckles as others suffer, simmers in the wings without ever actually boiling over. It’s as if he knows he’s had his shot at the title with Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, et al, and he’s allowing the new kid a chance. De Niro’s performance is muted and unassuming, maybe even a little one-note (“Pay me my fuckin’ money!” etc, etc), but this could be considered an actorly gesture, allowing Liotta his long-awaited dues, understanding that while he is a facilitator for the drama, this is not his story.
Joe Pesci, at the same time, reignites the size doesn’t matter creedo from the time when James Cagney and Edward G Robinson waved the flag for diminutive badass-dom. His performance is extrovert and astounding, occasionally verging on the surreal. Whether it’s Pesci’s natural body movement or something adapted for the role, he provides a balletic quality to the usual beatings he administers.
There’s a sharp quickness to the way he unsheathes his firearm and shoots poor drink-forgetting lackey, Spider. And too, the way in which his short arms flails to help him keep balance as he’s beating Frank Vincent’s Billy Batts to death in a dive bar. Yet where Di Nero goes soft and Pesci goes hard, they part ways to allow Liotta that comfortable seat, right at the front and center. Maybe a great second act is yet to come, and some upstart maverick will pluck him from obscurity and grant him the role of a lifetime. As it stands, Liotta is in the unknown zone, a lost schnook holding his bowl of noodles and ketchup.