Critics Choice TV Awards spotlight: Ray Liotta deserves posthumous win for heartbreaking performance in ‘Black Bird’

The Critics Choice Association, which will host the 28th annual Critics Choice Awards on January 15, 2023, unveiled its TV nominations on December 7. The organization’s sagacity can be better appreciated in light of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which announced its own nominations on December 12, failing to recognize Ray Liotta for his outstanding work in the six-episode Apple TV+ limited series, “Black Bird.”

The late actor plays ex-cop Jim Keene, father to the show’s imprisoned protagonist, Jimmy (Taron Egerton), who gambles for his freedom by transferring to a maximum-security penitentiary in order to befriend a fellow inmate (Paul Walter Hauser) and extract a confession.

SEE Critics Choice TV Awards nominations: Complete list of contenders

Keene, Sr.’s health crisis motivates Jimmy’s actions and gives the show its emotional stakes, as “Black Bird” is ultimately about a man trying to make it back to his dad before it’s too late. Since the HFPA made the puzzling decision to leave Liotta off their Best TV Movie/Limited Supporting Actor shortlist— Egerton, Hauser, and the series itself were nominated—it’s incumbent upon Critics Choice voters to seriously consider him for the win. His fellow nominees are Domhnall Gleeson (“The Patient”), Shea Wigham (“Gaslit”), MurrayBartlett (“Welcome to Chippendales”) and “Black Bird” co-star, Hauser.

Very few actors rise to Liotta’s level of cultural prominence on the strength of just one role. The greats—Robert De NiroAl PacinoCate BlanchettDenzel WashingtonMeryl Streep, etc.—have large filmographies, over the course of which they mold screen personalities and forge durable bonds with viewers. Immensely charismatic and expressive, Liotta achieved that with his singular work in Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas.”

SEE ‘Black Bird’ cinematographer Natalie Kingston reveals her inspiration for the look of the show’s prisons [Exclusive Video Interview]

“Black Bird” doesn’t just have the finest TV acting of the year; it’s 2022’s best-performed piece of visual storytelling. Liotta brings a wariness and palpable sense of regret to the Apple TV+ drama, which starts out feeling like a generic procedural but becomes a profound meditation on formative trauma. In one of Liotta’s, and the show’s, best scenes, Keene, Sr. pays Jimmy a visit in prison. Eager to make his son feel safe—to still be the hero Jimmy used to call Big Jim Keene—he assures him that the COs will look out for the child of a police officer. But this declaration has the opposite of its intended effect. “I’m not supposed to have a family—you just outed me as a cop’s kid,” Jimmy replies gravely, knowing he’s now vulnerable to blackmail.

The sudden wave of realization, frustration, and self-loathing that settles over Liotta’s face is almost too authentic. “I forgot,” he trembles with tears in his eyes. “It’s my mind. The parts…they’re not connecting.” Whether it’s in moments like this or lighthearted ones of him skeeving pistachio ice cream, Liotta is heartbreakingly naturalistic.

The actor’s passing this year renders scenes that would otherwise simply be brilliant practically unbearable. Try watching him suffer a stroke in the finale without breaking down in tears. The ethical question of seeing the man deteriorate on screen while knowing the real-life fate he would soon meet aside, the performance would be no less noteworthy were Liotta still with us.

It’s understandable to exercise caution in cases where opportunistic sensationalism or cynical intent might be alleged, but his work in “Black Bird” is just too good to ignore. He deserves for the industry that turned him into a one-hit wonder by typecasting him to remind audiences that the actor didn’t spend the rest of his career after “GoodFellas” eating egg noodles and ketchup like a schnook.

The 28th annual Critics Choice Awards will air live on January 15, 2023 on The CW. Liotta can next be seen opposite Keri Russell in Elizabeth Banks‘ “Cocaine Bear.”

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