In Black Bird, an adaptation of a successful novel In With the Devil by James Keene, Ray Liotta is meditative and intense, the one emotion that captures his best work to perfection.
Actors live on, even after they die. Their work, forever alive onscreen, outlives death. Ray Liotta reminds one of this adage with a masterful final act in Black Bird, the true crime thriller on Apple TV +. Liotta died in May while shooting for a film, Dangerous Waters, in the Dominican Republic. Co-starring Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley, he passed away in his sleep at 67.
In Black Bird, an adaptation of a successful novel In With the Devil by James Keene, he is meditative and intense, the one emotion that captures his best work to perfection. So far he has had a brief appearance as father to Jimmy Keene, the protagonist of this film. He plays Big Jim Keene, a veteran police officer who has crossed the line of law to his advantage, now battling guilt and a sense of inadequacy while his son is imprisoned. Black Bird is written by Dennis Kehane, and is addictive slow burn that gradually leads up to the complex quagmire that can emerge when someone tries to grapple with the unfathomable thought process of a serial killer.
For an actor immortalized as the vulnerable and convincing Henry Hill in the Martin Scorsese classic Goodfellas, Black Bird makes for a fitting curtan call. Ray Liotta will always be one of those unsung heroes in cinema who has had to work for every inch of his success and has carved a unique professional career playing memorable character parts.
Liotta started acting in the Eighties, when a certain kind of film- about gangs, drugs, crime and cops- was the permanent flavour of Hollywood. Here he began looking out for work after having made a steady debut on TV shows. He pulled a favour by calling Melanie Griffith to land himself a part in Jonathan Demme’s underrated comedy drama, Something Wild. His character, appearing later than the film’s leads (Jeff Daniels and Griffith), kind of walks away with the film. Scorsese noticed Liotta in this part, and then both had to work through the tedious process of studio approvals and getting his producers on board to cast him as Henry Hill. Goodfellas (1990) is his most fondly remembered part because this fella is not a criminal. He is going along for the ride with a bunch of street smart efficient career criminals, who suck him into the whirlwind of fast money, fancy rides and the high life of a crime. Liotta fit the part for his eyes project vulnerability and his expressions switch from kind to cruel naturally. Before this, Liotta featured in an important part in the sports fantasy drama, Field of Dreams (1989). Liotta played the ghost of baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson in this acclaimed film, and made impact with his performances.
Liotta’s career did grow steadily since then, but it is a sad fact of Hollywood’s propensity to focus on profitable films, that he, like many other actors of his generation, had a limited high phase. Commercial films banked on the same stars repeatedly, which left room for actors like Liotta to tackle complex character parts and avoid getting typecast.
Liotta played a near unhinged cop, suspected to be a cocaine user in Copland (1997) alongside Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. A dark tale about the selfish and unlawful nature of New York City cops, Liotta stands out in this film. He worked through neo noir crime driven films, like The Place Beyond the Pines and Identity but his role as Johnny Depp’s father in Blow (2001) remains high on impact on recall. It’s the most crucial part other than that of Depp in this film, as the cocaine smuggler George Jung contrasts most of his actions to that of his father’s struggles in an understated manner here.
A regular face in guest parts on popular TV shows, Liotta played Frank Sinatra in Rob Cohen’s TV film The Rat Pack. Starring alongside Don Cheadle and Joe Mantegna, it is about Sinatra’s life as the most loved star of everyone in America, especially the Mafia mob. There are quite a few scenes with John F Kennedy written into this film too. Liotta was first approached by Sinatra’s daughters to make a mini series but he didn’t work with them for he felt working with the family directly would lead to creative compromise. When he did play Sinatra in this movie, the daughters sent him a fake horse head in the mail, like the scene in The Godfather.
Even though this veteran didn’t quite become a raging star, his consistent work actually features him in quality parts and better films and TV than stars of his times. You don’t see a film like Dirty Grandpa (featuring Robert DeNiro) associated with him. Which is why perhaps the OTT shift brought a slew of worthwhile parts for him.
Millenial audiences might recall him from Hanna, a web series and Shades of Blue, a cop TV series with Jennifer Lopez. Recently he acted in All Saints from Newark, a prequel to the Sopranos. Here he played twins. Once again this film was well received.
But Liotta’s most memorable part in recent times is in A Marriage Story (2019). He played a divorce lawyer who operates like a street fighter. He is direct, unsympathetic towards his client (Adam Driver) ask of a civil, mutually accommodative divorce, candid about the pain that a divorce brings in wily in the courtroom. Liotta is perfectly poised as the opposite to Laura Dern’s sophisticated, somewhat glamorous but equally sharp divorce lawyer batting for her client, Scarlett Johansson. Liotta and Dern play out the divorce scenes in the courtroom with adequate amounts of legalese laden drama and pure vitriol. His part, as that of a veteran of courts and family clashes, is both realistic and very cinematic. For younger audiences, this might be remembered as Liotta’s most iconic part.
Ray Liotta was working on three different projects when he died. Cinema and TV have lost a versatile performer and a much loved professional with his death. They don’t quite make likeable gangster like bad guys like him anymore.
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