Ray Liotta will undoubtedly be remembered first for his iconic performance as Henry Hill in Goodfellas. But I will always associate him with Field of Dreams, which came out the year before Goodfellas and in which Liotta had a much smaller role, and it’s his performance in that movie that I will always appreciate above all others.
I’m 34 years old now, and I don’t need anyone to explain to me that Field of Dreams is almost unbearably mawkish in its depiction of Core American Values. Even when I was a kid, and would watch the damn movie dozens of times a year on basic cable, I think I understood that everyone was, at the very least, overdoing it a little bit. The whole movie is just a series of alternately booming and watery monologues, each one attempting not so much to tug on your heart strings but punch them into submission. I don’t think anyone has ever made it through James Earl Jones’s climactic speech about What Baseball Really Means without rolling their eyes at least once. But Jones and Kevin Costner and Burt Lancaster were never the ones who really held the movie up in the first place, and I wouldn’t still return to it from time to time if it only had their performances to offer. The guy who was always the center of that movie, the one who really held it all together, was Ray Liotta, who was given the task of playing Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ghost.
The second Liotta arrives on screen, the whole tenor of the movie shifts. There is suddenly an icy, mysterious presence cutting against all that warm sunshine and those scenic golden fields of corn. It’s Liotta’s commitment to leaning into that tension, to existing within the film while vibrating at such a different frequency than his co-stars, that holds the whole thing together. Liotta gets a few speeches of his own, and I’ve often thought about how bad the movie would have been if he’d done what everyone else on set did with those scenes, and dialed up the eye-watering and voice-quivering to 11. That wasn’t ever really Liotta’s style, though, and so instead he brought the same kind of edge to his lines that he would later bring to Goodfellas, which may be the single film most unlike Field Of Dreams in existence. It’s hard for any actor to do much with a line as treacly as “I’d have played for food money,” but Liotta makes it snap. Where others might have relished the chance to play a wise and ethereal ghost, Liotta turned Shoeless Joe into something a little bit angrier and more authentic.
In some alternate universe there is a much worse version of this movie, in which, I don’t know, Richard Gere got cast as Shoeless Joe and filled up the screen with a whole new set of big, meaningful moments. Thank God our version was graced by Liotta, a guy who knew exactly how to cut through the sentimentality and append a perfect gangster’s cackle to the line, “Even Ty Cobb wanted to play, but none of us could stand the son of a bitch when we were alive so we told him to stick it!”
Liotta died this week, according to a report from Deadline, at the age of 67.