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The impact of Ray Liotta's career-defining role in 'Goodfellas'


“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill muses off-screen in the iconic introduction to Martin Scorsese’s influential gangster classic. A little less rugged than his weathered criminal compadres, played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Scorsese’s intricate character drama explores whether Henry is up to the challenge of becoming as ruthless as his mafia idols or if he is indeed a boy out of his depth. 

Lured into the lifestyle by the stylish suits, flashy jewellery and sleek black Cadillacs, for a young Henry, the gangster identity seems like a good decision, particularly when at home his father beats him for merely spending too much time at his part-time job at a cab stand. Seizing the chance to take total control of his own life, whilst gaining the power to control others too, Liotta’s character decides to become the force of power he’d always desired to be. 

“I was living in a fantasy,” Henry admits as his life descends under the control of the mafia, awarded all the suits and style of the identity without any of the actual agency. From this moment, Goodfellas does not become a glitzy gangster thriller. Instead, it thrusts ahead as a coming of age tragedy, with Liotta’s character going down the adolescent path each and every viewer fantasises about going down in their most cinematic daydreams.

Amid the electric intensity of mafia life, Henry is swept up in the drama, hypnotised by the power that such gangsters hold over the citizens of Italian-American Brooklyn, allowing them through the backdoors of nightclubs and accommodating their arrival at a restaurant no matter how busy. The journey of Liotta’s character reflects an innate desire to belong, to be in control of one’s own destiny and to selfishly gain everything one wants in life.

Reflected in the nuance of Ray Liotta’s career-defining performance, Henry’s life is part tragedy, as despite all the control he believes he holds, he is forever in the mercy of his volatile partners, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Though his character has grown up from the adolescent pale face we see at the start of the movie, you can’t help thinking that he never truly grows out of this fantastical youthful naivety. 

A mere pawn in the mission of the mafia mob, the film tracks Henry’s steady realisation of this fact as his control slowly slips on his debaucherous life. As if he is constantly treading on eggshells, no scene represents the protagonist’s fragility better than the moment when he finds himself laughing hysterically at a story from Pesci’s DeVito in a dark underground bar, before the tone of the room switches on a dime.

“Funny how, how am I funny?” Pesci threatens, lurching toward Liota’s character like an eager dagger with Henry awkwardly placed in an impeccable white suit, surrounded by black fitted costumes. Snapping the tension by claiming he was merely joking, Liotta twitches in his seat, squirming like a fish out of water before hysterically laughing along with the rest of the mafia hyenas, wishing to maintain control in fear of losing it altogether. 

Though he has become part of something bigger, Henry has lost total control of his life in the kinetic acceleration of life in the mafia, and indeed the electric pace of 1970s America that was developing to become ever-more connected. As lost and confused as his adolescent self, Scorsese does well to place the viewer within the mind of the stray gangster, utilising several documentary methods such as voiceovers and freeze frames to make it feel as if we’re experiencing the real-life decisions of a man clambering to maintain supremacy in an ever-evolving environment. 

Wishing to prove himself on the most masculine and powerful stage available to him, the story of Ray Liotta’s protagonist is one that reflects the innate need for personal authority. Wild, unhinged and morally corrupt, it’s interesting to consider whether Henry even wanted to be a gangster in the first place, or whether his opening statement was merely the fantastical musings of a young boy toying with the reverie of power.