Greatish Performances #54

#54 — Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair in Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986)

More than anything else, it’s the sense of calm that I remember. When Ray Liotta shows up on screen as Ray Sinclair, he slow plays the character’s intentions, slyly disguises his true self. He’s the spouse of Audrey Hankel (Melanie Griffith), the wild something who drives the plot of Something Wild, and he’s a violent man freshly sprung from prison. Audrey has taken the circumstance of his incarceration as her opportunity to move on, to be free of his destructive impulses. He disagrees that this is the way for their story to progress. He wants her back, and if she’s clinging to a nebbishy fellow (Jeff Daniels) she recently glommed onto, well, then that freshly dealt-in player in their ongoing poker match simply needs to have his chips swept off the table. Ray is the threat in the fiction, the figure who introduces real stakes to the flirty, frivolous fun Audrey and her new would-be paramour have been having. He’s trouble.

Liotta doesn’t play Ray’s danger the way a lot of other actors would. There’s no snarl, no pumped-up body language. There’s an ease to his menace. He’s comfortable, confident. He can take all the time he wants, present himself as charming and ingratiating, like a new friend to this guy who doesn’t know him yet, doesn’t know his past. The time will come when he can pivot, he can assert who he is. At that moment, there will be no doubt. And yet, Liotta also signal everything about Ray. It’s in the certainty and precision of his demeanor that suggests a coiled readiness. Most of all, it’s in his eyes, which blaze with a panther’s fury.

Martin Scorsese tells a story about when he met Liotta at the Venice Film Festival, where the director’s The Last Temptation of Christ was playing. Because of the controversy around the film, Scorsese was surrounded by a security detail. Liotta spotted Scorsese and decided to try to make his acquaintance.

“Ray approached me in the lobby and the bodyguards moved toward him, and he had an interesting way of reacting, which was he held his ground, but made them understand he was no threat,” Scorsese recalled to GQ a few years ago.

For Scorsese, Liotta’s calm, decisive response to this situation of escalating tension was a sign the actor could be an interesting casting choice for the lead role in a new gangster picture he would soon start filming. It’s also an interesting real-life manifestation of what Liotta brings to the role in Something Wild. He makes Ray someone who is clear thinking through situations, constantly casing spaces and evaluating potential adversaries. That whirring intellect is always contained. It’s for him, not for anyone else. That staid quality only makes it that much more terrifying and threatening when Ray does strike, because the fury also feels controlled, tactical. It feels impossible that anyone else would wrest control of the situation from him to restore a sense of safety, not if he didn’t allow it.

Something Wild is directed by Jonathan Demme, who routinely helped actors to incredible, career-best work. Those performances were often distinguished by their deep wells of humanity: Mary Steenburgen conveying an entire weary life in Melvin and Howard, Jodie Foster cutting through procedural mechanics with real emotion in The Silence of the Lambs, Anne Hathaway making self-destructive tendencies into convincing expressions of inner pain in Rachel Getting Married. On the surface, Liotta’s turn in Something Wild seems the opposite of that, a performance marked by coldness, almost sociopathy. If that were the case, though, Ray would be a mere movie villain, a convenience to coax along the turning of the acts. Instead, like all the best characters — and honestly a little more than the modernized screwball leads played by Griffith and Daniels — Ray feels like he walked onto the screen from out in the street. That it was a street any shrewd person would cross to steer clear of his is only one more piece of irrefutable evidence that Liotta’s performance is of the highest tier.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan
#49 — Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City
#50 — Lee Grant in The Landlord
#51 — Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut
#52 — Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus
#53 — Jenny Slate in The Obvious Child

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