Vanity Fare

As far as he can remember, he always wanted to be an actor. To him, being an actor was better than being president of the United States. Even before he first wandered into the high school auditorium for an after-school audition, he wanted to be one of them. It was there he belonged. To him it meant being a somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies. Actors werent like anyone else. They did whatever they wanted. Theyd wear tights and nobody would ever give them any trouble. In the summer when they did Cabaret and West Side Story all night, nobody would ever call the principal. He was the luckiest kid in the world.

Far as hes concerned, he still is. No matter how many bombs he detonates, no matter how many good roles they hand off to some blond kid instead of him, they wont be able to take away from him what hes already done. His dad would remind him of it, tell the boy hes got two immortals to his credit, what else does he want. Ones called Field of Dreams, in which he played a friendly ghost in black socks. Others called GoodFellas, in which he got to play gangster dress-up with De Niro and Pesci, who wanted to know if he thought he was funny. They'll live forever, his dad would say. Everything else puts food on the table, so whats the problem? Like his old man told him: "At the end of the day, its a fucking movie. What ya complaining about?"

A lot, actually. You cant blame him; you cant stop him. And hes not doing it just to bitch, just to make noise. Ray Liottas always worked, ever since he was at the University of Miami doing Sound of Music in the mid-70s, dancing and singing as one of those kids who couldnt keep their Von Trapps shut. He was Joey Perrini on Another World for three years, 1978 to 1981. He made TV pilots after that, did a movie with Pia Zadora called The Lonely Lady. That was 20 years ago. Going downhill would be uphill after that. No wonder he doesnt mind talking about Muppets in Space, in which he got to sing with Miss Piggy. Hell, hes the one who brings it up.

See, everybody knows who Ray Liotta is. They just dont seem to care all that much. He possesses a reputable filmography, especially the early stuff, but hes no Brad Pitt, no Tom Cruise, no Tom Hanks, no Mel Gibson. He'd like to be--who wouldnt?--but never had the chance and never gets the shot. He lit the screen ablaze in his first major role, as dangerously nuts ex-hubby Ray Sinclair in Jonathan Demmes 1986 Something Wild. He laced up as Shoeless Joe three years later, went to work for Marty Scorsese the next year, then found the fire had turned to smoke had turned to soot. Of the 14 movies Liotta made in the 1990s and into 2000, maybe you heard of, oh, two. Counting Operation Dumbo Drop.

"The only thing that I want to prove is them wrong for not casting me in bigger and better movies," Liottas saying now, sitting in a Dallas hotel room. He sits almost perfectly still, but his voice moves all over the place; one minute hes speaking in a near-whisper, the next a pleasant bark. At the end of the day, I want to work with the best people. I want to be up on the list where I get the opportunity. "Now, I dont necessarily want to be Brad Pitt or one of those guys; I just want to prove that I dont like losing. I hate to be up for something and to lose it, not to Owen Wilson per se--nothing against anybody--but youve got to, you know..."

Hold up for a sec. Back up the tape to a moment earlier in the conversation. First off, the reason were in this hotel room is so Liotta can promote his new movie Narc, in which he and Jason Patric play--what else?--ratty drug cops looking to catch a cop killer, or so the plot synopsis goes till all hell breaks loose in the twisty third act. Liottas awfully proud of the low-budget picture, directed by a guy, Joe Carnahan, whose first movie was so awful its name cannot be spoken in polite company. Liotta produced Narc. He took a chance on Carnahan when smarter people than he would have passed, given his sketchy history. Nice, meaty role in a gritty 70s-styled cop crime movie? Smells like a Rush of a comeback, marinated in Serpico and served with a side of Denzel. Already hes been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as best supporting male; hes not coy enough to deny hed like bigger, shinier prizes.

"Narc has given me my profile back again, and Im getting further up the list," he says, grinning. "Im getting back in the movies that were more successful. The heat that were getting on this is really great; were getting mentioned right now for end-of-the-year stuff and, you know, with the predictions. Not that that matters, but it helps with the profile."

But Liotta pretty much had to take a chance on a $3 million movie. He was down in the valley, he'll tell you--"never below the surface," he says, but just out of eye level. His luck improved in the new millennium--H"annibal, Heartbreakers, Blow and John Q gave him proud paychecks--but still, he was a bit player in those movies, fourth or fifth or sixth on the bill, a glorified cameo in old-man makeup or a bad guy without half a brain after Tony Hopkins got through eating it. Hed been at the top, then started the slow slide to the middle that happens to all talented actors not possessing pretty faces and blank stares. Its often been said of Liotta hes too intense for his own good; hell, even his Shoeless Joe looked like the kind of guy Kevin Costner shouldnt have left alone with his wife when he went looking for James Earl Jones. So he got typecast as crazy cops and psycho killers, and nobody took him seriously when he tried to play softies. Bad things just happen when youre a butchers blade in a drawer full of butter knives.

About Owen Wilson, then. Turns out Liotta now loses parts to guys like Owen Wilson. Happened just recently: Theres a script floating around in which an FBI agent poses as a movie producer to catch a bad guy infatuated with the movies. Its a comedy, of course, and Liotta and Wilson were up for the part of the agent. Guess who the studio wanted. "But who knows after I Spy, since that wasnt too good," Liotta says, chuckling.

What irks Liotta, among other things, is that most of whats been written about Narc doesnt have much to do with Liotta. Its been turned into a business story, that of the little indie that became a major-studio release after Tom Cruise saw it and decided to lend his name to it as exec producer and get it a wider release than Lions Gate could muster. Its now a Paramount movie, this $3 mil indie, celebrated not for its performances but for the, ahem, risk Cruise took by lending his name to someone elses finished product. Its a better story that way: Like the writer said in the New York Times Magazine not long ago, its not like Liottas exactly Vanity Fair cover material. Not like Cruise.

"Yeah, that pissed me off," Liotta says. Pause. But its true. Vanity Fair, what they do is, they need to sell magazines. I would think its more interesting to read about somebody that you dont know about than have the usual suspects that just rotate covers. Its the same people, but the nature of the business is thats how they think, and theyre not going to take a chance. Everybody, they spend too fuckin much, they want too big of a piece of the pie, so what they do is they compromise their magazine and they compromise movies because its the same, its the usual suspects. Well, ha, look at what I Spy did. So, you know what, it serves you right because you fucking went with the usual suspects. Good for Owen, because hes the new guy in town, but they went for the usual fucking suspects.

Now, if Narc does well and we get nominated for stuff and it does a lot of money, then thats going to change, and then someones going to be saying, Oh, fucking Liotta, of course, you know, why not me? And then theyll hate me. I can't wait to be hated. "Because that just means success is kicking in."

Ray Liottas the kind of actor you want to root for; for too long hes been the underdog, the punch line, the superstar rendered character actor by studios and filmmakers who have no idea how to harness his force. Hes failed nobly (Article 99, a dramedy set in a VA hospital, ranks high on the list of great Liotta performances seen only by viewers of late-night cable), turned down the chance to cash in on cultural phenomena (he refused a part on The Sopranos, "because why the fuck would I want to be in The Sopranos after having done GoodFellas?" and gone out of his way to prove himself adept at being goofy when everyone else wants him to play crazy. It was his idea to play himself on NBCs Just Shoot Me, in an episode in which Liotta is too much in love with Christmas. He did it once more, and he'd do it again and again and again just to prove to a studio boss or a director or just other actors that he's capable of doing anything. The veteran will still try out for a spot on the team. All the bastards have to do is ask.

"Its based on the ball and the bat that they have: If you make money, youre going to get the better parts or whatnot," he says. "Its kind of like a Fuck you, I'll show you. You dont give me this? You dont think I can be funny? Monthly, that stuff comes along and you do it. If its a $30 or $40 million movie and its the lead, Im probably not going to get it. But in a sense, its kind of like, you know, I'll show you, I still have that, I still have as much passion and as much fuck you to them as I always have. But right now, its like that whole Pia Zadora thing: As long as theyre talking about you, thats whats good. There will be an interest."

Uh, Pia Zadora?

"You know, you remember Pia Zadora."

Sure. Uh, werent you in a Pia Zadora film?

"Yeah, yeah," he says, "flashing that crazy grin. Raped her with a hose. Somebody had to."


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