Why The Place Beyond The Pines Director Derek Cianfrances Called Ray Liotta An 'American Treasure'

With the shattering news of legendary actor Ray Liotta's death, we must take the time to reflect on the myriad accomplishments that defined his impressive career. While his passing is deeply sorrowful, there's comfort in knowing that Liotta's collaborators were vocal about their unyielding admiration for the actor's talents while he was still alive. Right now, we're going to focus on the praises of director Derek Cianfrances, whose 2012 film "The Place Beyond the Pines" featured Liotta as a brutally crooked cop up in Schenectady, New York.

The ambitious film follows three distinct narratives. One centers around Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt driver who learns he's a father to a one-year-old boy and who turns to bank robberies to support his son. The other concerns rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), who finds that the rest of the police department (most notably Liotta's character Detective Peter Deluca) is horribly corrupt. The third storyline occurs 15 years after a deadly encounter between Luke and Avery, involving their now-teenage sons discovering the consequences of their fathers' actions.

As always, Liotta imbues a fierce emotional dimension to the film. Though his role takes a back seat to Gosling and Cooper's dynamic, the actor radiates a menacing aura that heightens the film's stakes — and its overall anxiety — in a manner that only Liotta can so seamlessly accomplish. As it turns out, the filmmakers who have been privileged enough to work with Liotta are just as awe-struck by his commanding force as the fans who've followed his career for just shy of 40 years.

Derek Cianfances' existing adoration of Goodfellas

Perhaps predictably for a director who made a film concerning American masculinity and its intersection with crime and corruption, Cianfances has long been a fan of "Goodfellas." Martin Scorsese's epic biographical drama follows the exploits of Henry Hill (Liotta), charting the rise and fall of his New York mafia star. As such, Cianfances made it a career goal to cast Liotta in one of his own films. In a 2013 interview with GQ ahead of the film's wide release, the director explained his affinity for the actor's work — and his opinion concerning Liotta's status as an outright national treasure.

"My favorite movie — and the favorite movie of my co-writer, Ben Coccio — is 'Goodfellas.' On the first day we met, we agreed to write a role for Ray Liotta. Flash forward five years and I'm sitting in a room with Ray and he's actually considering the movie. To me he's an American treasure — I feel like someday they're going to carve his face in mountaintops."

While the prospect of having Liotta's striking profile carved into stone certainly seems fitting, the actor has effectively crafted a monument to himself merely through emitting a palpable power within all of his roles.

The power of Liotta's sheer presence

As the GQ interviewer noted, Liotta has the distinction of bringing a "sense of menace" to his character in "The Place Beyond the Pines," but also managed to maintain an air of charisma. Walking this line proves incredibly difficult—how can he be so scary, yet still draw you right into his clutches? As it turns out, Liotta's real-life persona exuded a similar energy. Though he never embodied characteristics of being cruel or uncaring, the actor merely possessed an imposing air that was often overwhelming for those who interacted with him. Cianfances further expands on this in the same interview, noting the effect that Liotta had on the director's own family:

"When he agreed to do the movie, he came over to my house for dinner and I introduced him to my four-year-old son. Within 30 seconds Ray had my kid in tears, crying. He's like a human knife, and all I could think about was what he was going to do to Bradley Cooper at the dinner table. Ray has a real ability to unnerve and throw you off your center. He's actually one of the most beautiful people in the world — gentle, charismatic, and just good — but he has an edge to him that was palpable enough for a four-year-old to pick up on real quickly. It was a gift to work with him."

With the knowledge that a few more of the actor's projects will be released posthumously, viewers can at least take solace in the idea of seeing Liotta's face on screen again at least a few more times. In the interim, now is the perfect opportunity to catch up with the Hollywood legend's existing filmography.