Ray Liotta did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
Now even though his narration is always present, except for few scenes where Henry's wife Karen takes over, Liotta's performance is not always front and center even though he's definitely lead. The film gives great detail to the whole world he's in with even some minor oddball crooks getting a bit of time to themselves. Liotta though is a constant as he best personifies kinda a criminal with a lack of a different element to him. He's not the boss like Paulie (Paul Sorvino), a criminal mastermind like Jimmy (Robert De Niro), nor is a psychopath like Tommy (Joe Pesci). Henry very simply is a man in it for the life of the wiseguy. Liotta is terrific in realizing simply the allure of the life through his performance. As he gets to be the toughest guy not in the mob, is allowed to have essentially an endless supply of cash as well as getting to basically act as though he is above everyone else who's not in the life, Liotta brings the enthusiasm of these moments in his performance. In his face you find the joy of living the life, with all the thrills coming from it. Of course Goodfellas is not a glorification of the mob by any means, and it does not shy away from the darker elements of what comes with that life in the least.
This is where one of the challenges come in with his performance in that Henry is not a good guy by any means. In addition Liotta does not compromise in this respect as he portrays rather bluntly just how uncouth and uncaring Henry can be at times towards the people in his life particularly his wife. Liotta's performance works though in the way he shows how a man of the lifestyle would be actually. There's that certain natural cruelty that Liotta brings that feels particularly genuine when Henry basically brushes off some of his more harmful behavior that just comes with his life. Henry's not necessarily pure evil though so to speak as he obviously is not like Tommy or even Jimmy in terms of his personal nature. As with Martin Scorsese's pseudo re-make of Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, Liotta, like Leonardo DiCaprio would in the later film, helps to present the straight forward depiction of a man who loves being a criminal. A funny thing is that Liotta brings much, well heart I suppose, to his portrayal of the "low class" criminal than DiCaprio would bring as a "high class" criminal. That's not a dig at that later performance, but it's rather just interesting to note that little bit of depth of the mobsters opposed to the pure vapid nature of the Wall Street crooks.
This is a notable difference as it becomes one of the most remarkable elements in Ray Liotta's performance. One thing that's a constant in the world of the mob, that's not in the world of the broker, is death. With this one thing comes Liotta's performance as he does give a measure of humanity to Henry. Liotta is excellent in being the reactionary man with any sense of the value of life in the scene where either Jimmy and especially Tommy get into a violent rage. Liotta plays this scenes especially well in that in one part he often acts as kinda the good cop so to speak as he tries to act as the calm person to talk to when ruffing someone up. Not every case of it is business though particularly with Tommy will become violent from the slightest perceived insult. Liotta is terrific in these scenes by showing that even to someone like Henry, who's in no way opposed to twisting or breaking a few arms, is actually a bit repulsed by the extreme violence and reflects the fear associated with being around Tommy's intensity. Liotta effectively brings a gravity in these scenes as well as establishes that Henry isn't fully comfortable with every aspect of the mob life.
Liotta performance works well within the scenes that may highlight De Niro's or Pesci's performances, as he always knows how to work around them in forming the certain group dynamic they have. In addition though when the film's last act almost squarely focuses upon Henry, Liotta does not falter in the spotlight. Throughout the film Liotta is particularly good in portraying the slow decay in Henry as the tension of the life grows which is only compounded when he becomes a cocaine addict. Liotta is outstanding in portraying the mental paranoia as he there is a pervasiveness nervousness in him, and in addition to that Liotta shows in such detail just how physically spent Henry is. Every twitch and shaken mannerism of Liotta's feels absolutely genuine and realizes so well the toll the drugs have on him. The final act then is basically putting the nails into the coffin of Henry's well being. In this way Liotta is just about flawless as he loses that joyful enthusiasm of the past and presents just what happens to the criminal when the vices of his life finally close in on him. He presents very naturally Henry coming to grips with his situation well seeing what his life has been worth, and I really love his silent reaction of understanding the moment he knows that it is either become a witness or die. Then to top it all off though Liotta's very brief, though very important, last scene as Liotta shows a defeated Henry not because he turned in his friends, rather because he can only go back and remember when he lived the dream.