Yesterday’s Salad Salutes: Ray Liotta
May 27, 2007
A long time ago, when the Justice League and Superfriends were hot-hot-hot, Power Records released “Songs and Stories of the Justice League.” In addition to songs about Wonder Woman and The Flesh, the record bizarrely included a song for Metamorpho, the Element Man (this despite the fact that Metamorpho had refused induction in said social club). Leaving aside questions of Metamorpho’s standing, the Metamorpho number is the standout track on an otherwise worthless album. The song has a quasi-religious feel, having been constructed to sound like an upbeat version of that old spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” Here’s a lyrical example (mp3 here):
This is the story of the element man [Metamorpho, Metamorpho]
Starts out in old Egypt land [Metamorpho, Metamorpho]
Rex mason was his real name [Metamorpho, Metamorpho]
A soldier of fortune didn’t care about fame [Metamorpho, Metamorpho]
It occurred to me the other day, rewatching Field of Dreams with Nate, the Earl of Enemclaw, that Ray Liotta would have made a good Metamorpho. He’s a semi-tragic figure, never quite as appreciated as he perhaps should have been; a terrific performer when handled by the right creators, yet someone who just seems like he’s mailing it in the rest of the time. Feel free to apply that sentence to Liotta, or Metamorpho.
The truth is Ray Liotta probably never had a chance as a serious leading man in Hollywood. As a young man there was something magically grizzled about him. He was handsome and terrifying at the same time. His Shoeless Joe was a scarred figure. Unlike D. B. Sweeney’s Shoeless Joe in Eight Men Out, Liotta’s Joe understands the magnitude of what he’s done. The rest of the characters white-wash Joe’s actions, but Liotta’s portrayal belies this simple rereading of history. Joe may have played well in the World Series, but he took the money. Liotta’s Joe doesn’t shy away from what has happened; he has come to the enormity of his actions. Perhaps he’s had his Nick Carroway moment.
“The idea staggered me. I remembered of course that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919 but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely HAPPENED, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people–with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
Ray Liotta also can’t shy away from his face. In Moneyball we learned all about the “Good Face”, a term scouts use when evaluating players on their physical attributes. Liotta had the “Good Face”, but a weathered one, a limiting one. His Shoeless Joe looked like someone who’d played for beer in the sticks after being banned from the majors; he couldn’t have given the spin Sweeney gave the character if he wanted to. His face makes him perfect for certain roles: mobster, cop, endless variations on the two. But after that the list dries up: soldier of fortune (like Metamorpho), sailor, longshoremen, mill worker, bartender, stevedore, teamster. His is a face that exudes tragedy, a look of fall as well as rise.
That this is, essentially, the plot of Goodfellas shouldn’t be discounted. His performance in that movie, which somehow managed to be both electric and stilted, defined him as an actor and set the tone for the film. Roger Ebert wrote that Liotta, “creates the emotional center for a movie that is not about the experience of being a Mafioso, but about the feeling.” His performance, like the movie itself, is about the detachment of witnessing but not belonging. It was this quality that would come to hurt him in Hollywood.
Liotta never got the roles he deserved. He succumbed to imitating (Frank Sinatra) and failed in his romantic comedy moments (Heartbreakers). The world rediscovered him in Narc, but it almost didn’t matter anymore. Liotta muscled a decade of being jilted by Hollywood into a powerful performance of a man at the brink, a man who has let down, an actor who has been let down. But the portrayal sizzled in part because we knew it was unlikely to come again.
Liotta’s best performances capture and express the essence of the movie. Earlier I wrote that Elliot Gould’s greatest performances are marked by his dialogue with the director (usually Altman) and his ability to serve as a mouthpiece for the film’s themes. Liotta’s best roles take a different quality. His best characters are metonyms, his best performances inhabit the movie’s essence rather than reflect it. If his career reads like a letdown perhaps that’s only because he’s never had that magical, defining director-actor relationship. Peter Bogdanovich says that some movies’ “authors” are the writer and others the director, that the force of personalities determines that relationship. An actor can never be the film’s author. But Liotta at his best makes you forget that: the acting becomes so defining that it writes the movie.