Ray Liotta Gave Cinema Its Greatest Voiceover Performance Ever In Goodfellas

One of the first things a screenwriter learns is that voiceovers are evil. They are a crutch for lazy storytellers who lack the ability to relate their tale in a visual manner. For the most part, this is true. If you need your protagonist to dump a load of exposition and character motivation on your audience, you have failed abjectly as a storyteller. But sometimes, particularly when you're writing about a secretive subculture like the mob, you're presented with a thicket of detail and background that must be explained verbally by a person steeped in its arcane traditions. And you will never encounter a more entertainingly informative voiceover than the two-and-a-half-hour ramble spoken into garrulous existence by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese's gangland classic, "Goodfellas."

Liotta, who passed away unexpectedly on May 26, 2022, was a character actor with a movie-star veneer. He sent shockwaves through the industry in 1986 with his explosive portrayal of the psychopathic Ray Sinclair in Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild," but he'd yet to carry a film. If you've read Glenn Kenny's superb making-of book "Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas" or GQ's oral history of the film's production, you know that there was tremendous resistance to his casting. But once he was in, he was every inch the character of real-life mobster Henry Hill. And this was vital because Scorsese had committed to a voiceover-heavy take on Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction tome, "Wiseguys."

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster

Speaking with GQ in 2010, Pileggi said: 

"Voiceover, I think, is the key to that movie. Marty said, 'When he slams the car trunk down, and he's looking out, I'm going to freeze-frame, and then: 'As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster...' It's very unusual to have a voiceover on a dead screen, except for the guy's face. But it works. A lot of movies go to voiceover almost as a crutch, after the fact. Voiceover doesn't work unless you have really great voices over, with the nuance and flavor of the character. I would talk to Henry Hill all the time when we were writing the movie, and all that dialogue is almost verbatim stuff."

Liotta concurred. From the same GQ article: 

"Nick Pileggi gave me I don't know how many hours of cassettes of himself interviewing Henry Hill, and I would listen to them continuously. Henry would be telling what happened, and it was so casual: 'Oh, yeah, and then this one got whacked.' The whole time he's eating potato chips, talking with food in his mouth."

And then it was over

If you ever heard Hill call into "The Howard Stern Show," you know that he was the furthest thing from charming. He was a scatterbrained bozo with a serious substance abuse problem. Liotta's Hill is the guy Hill wanted to be: He's a suave operator palming off twenties to the staff of the Copa as he glides through the club's side entrance. If we'd had the real Hill in our ear for two-and-a-half hours, we would've fled the theater in the first twenty minutes because of how he speaks. Liotta? He had a velvet voice and dangerous sex appeal for days. Whether he's reminiscing about the regulars at the Bamboo Lounge, Jimmy Conway's systematic execution of every single participant in the Lufthansa heist or breaking the fourth wall during his trial, we never want him to stop talking. It's behind-the-curtain gold. 

Filmmakers have been trying to replicate this magic for decades, but it ain't happening because Hill was a one-of-a-kind heel, and Liotta was a sui generis portrayer of rakes. We were blessed to have the latter.