Raging Bull Redux

By Robert Ecksel on April 27, 2011
Raging Bull Redux
“There was something about it," De Niro said, "a portrait of a man without complications."

Raging Bull is about more than boxing. It’s about the crises of masculinity, the limitations of will, and the ambiguity of redemption…

There’s not much harder than being a man, unless one is a woman. If you don’t believe me, take it from former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, the subject of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

“Let me tell ya a little story,” says LaMotta in the Special Features section of the 2-DVD boxed set of Raging Bull. “When it came out it was down the block here, a movie, two blocks here in my neighborhood right here where I live now. And I went with my ex-wife Vickie. And we get there, we watched the movie. And when I saw the movie I was a little depressed. I said to her, ‘Was I really like that?’ You know what she said to me? ‘You were worse.’”

Boxing is a sport, but boxing is no game, and the life and death struggles of its participants, in and out of the ring, suit cinema when inspiration is the purpose, or a walk on the wild side is the intent.

Filmdom’s fascination with boxing began with Thomas Edison, who filmed a sparring session between heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett and Peter Courtney in 1894, and over the years there have been several fine flicks about the fights: Body and Soul (1939); Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1954); Champion (1949) starring Kirk Douglas; the Jack Palance TV version of Requiem for a Heavyweight (l956); The Harder They Fall (1956); and John Huston’s Fat City (1972).

At one end of the spectrum is the quintessential boxing fairytale, Rocky (1976), with its many offspring and endless revenue streams. At the other is Raging Bull.

Raging Bull, which the AFI lists as the fourth greatest American film of all time, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Robert De Niro as La Motta), Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci as Jake’s brother Joey), Best Supporting Actress (Cathy Moriarty as La Motta’s long-suffering spouse Vickie), Best Cinematography (Michael Chapman), Best Editing (Thelma Shoonmaker), and Best Sound (Frank Warner).

De Niro’s portrayal of LaMotta is a tour de force that is still on tour, and among his many accomplishments in Raging Bull, not least of which was learning how to box, was gaining 60 pounds to portray Jake as he ballooned out of contention.

De Niro told the authors of Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, “I can’t fake acting. I know movies are an illusion, and maybe the first rule is to fake it, but not for me. I’m too curious. I want to deal with all the facts of the character, thin or fat.” Putting on all that weight wasn’t easy. “You have to [eat] three times a day. You have to get up in the morning and just eat. Eat that breakfast, eat those pancakes, eat dinner, even if you’re not hungry. It’s murder.”

It may have been murder, but homicide isn’t to everyone’s taste. Pauline Kael, for example, wrote in The New Yorker on December 8, 1980, “What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable…what I found myself thinking about wasn’t La Motta or the movie but the metamorphosis of De Niro.”

The esteemed British author Peter Ackroyd agreed: “The man without a soul has nowhere to go but outward.”

Raging Bull was De Niro’s baby from the start. The film’s producer, Irwin Winkler, recalled, “I constantly saw Bob De Niro walking around with this shopworn-looking book, and he never told me what it was, but he always carried it around. And one day he came over to me and he said, ‘I want you to take a look at this book.’ And I looked at it and it was the book on which Raging Bull ultimately was based.”

“There was something about it,” De Niro told Fred Ferretti in “The Delicate Art of Creating a Brutal Film Hero” (New York Times, November 23, 1980), “a strong thrust, a portrait of a direct man without complications. Something at the center of it was very good for me. I felt I could evolve into the character.”

Scorsese didn’t want to make a film about boxing. When De Niro pressed him about turning LaMotta’s story into a film, Scorsese said, “A boxer? I don’t like boxing.” Scorsese told his biographer Mary Pat Kelly, “The only logical fight I ever saw was a Buster Keaton film. He’s in the ring with this big guy. The guy comes out swinging. Keaton goes to the corner and gets a chair and hits the guy with it. That was the only logical boxing scene I ever witnessed. The idea of ‘Let’s get two guys into the ring and let them hit each other’ was something I didn’t – couldn’t – grasp.”

But Raging Bull is about more than boxing. It’s about the crises of masculinity, family and faith, the limitations of will, and the ambiguity of redemption.

Raging Bull begins in 1941 when Jake is a young up-and-comer and follows his rise and fall with clinical precision. LaMotta is a body genius, but he’s an idiot savant, his mind a jumbled mass of confused impulses.

Jake first spots 15-year-old Vickie, the love of his life and future wife, at a public swimming pool. After a whirlwind courtship, where Jake is almost courtly, they marry. Jake gets what he wants. Vickie gets more than she bargained for.

With Jake’s rise in the rankings, the mob wants a piece of the action. Jake will never get his coveted shot at the middleweight crown without the mob’s help. Help, however, comes with conditions, and Jake, at his brother’s urging, agrees to take a dive, to go in the soup against a bum named Billy Fox.

Two years later, LaMotta fights for the middleweight title held by Marcel Cerdan. Jake forces Cerdan to quit on his stool and is crowned middleweight champion of the world.

Jake celebrates his success by eating himself out of his weight class. He’s also thinks his wife is sleeping around. Jake asks his brother, “Did you fuck Vickie?” Joey can’t believe his ears. “You really let this girl ruin your life,” he says. “Look at you. You’re killing yourself the way you eat, you fat fuck.” Jake asks, “You fuck my wife? Just tell me.” “I’m not gonna answer that. It’s stupid. You’re a sick bastard. You know what you should do? Try a little more fuckin’ and a little less eatin’. You won’t have troubles upstairs in your bedroom and you won’t take it out on everybody else.”

Jake gets himself back in shape and has a series of bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson. Their final bout, in Scorsese’s deft hands, is a grotesque pas de deux where LaMotta, no longer at the top of his game, can only show how tough he is by taking the beating of his life; albeit without going down.

A dozen fights later and Jake calls it quits. He fulfills a lifelong dream and opens a nightclub in Miami where he can play out his skewed ambitions as an overweight master of ceremonies spewing lame jokes (“I haven’t seen so many losers since my last fight at Madison Square Garden”) before a thankless crowd of celebrity gawkers.

LaMotta’s fall is as precipitous as his rise. Vickie leaves him. Then he gets busted for introducing a 14-year-old girl to some men at his club. Jake is convicted of pandering and thrown in the Dade County Stockade for a year.

“I lived a crazy lifestyle for a couple of years before this movie,” said Scorsese in Untouchable: A Biography of Robert De Niro, “which culminated in Raging Bull. The understanding of why I was doing it found its way into Jake’s character and I was able to deal with it on film…and got to the point where Jake was able to sit in front of the mirror and be kind to himself in the end. That was what the lesson of the film was for me.”

In the final scene of Raging Bull, bloated Jake LaMotta is sucking on a cigar in his dressing room. He looks at himself admiringly in the mirror and recites Budd Schulberg’s immortal words from On the Waterfront (1954), where Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando/Jake LaMotta/Robert De Niro) confronts his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger/Joey L Motta/Joe Pesci) in the backseat of a sedan.

“It wasn’t him, Charley. It was you. You remember that night at the Garden you came down in my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night; we’re going for the price on Wilson?’ Remember that? ‘This ain’t your night?’ My night. I could’ve taken Wilson apart that night. So what happens? He gets a title shot outdoors in the ballpark, and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. I was never no good after that night, Charley. It was like a peak you reach, and then it’s downhill. It was you, Charley. You was my brother. You should’ve looked out for me a little bit. You should’ve taken care of me just a little bit, instead of making me take them dives for the short-end money. You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it. It was you, Charley.”

Raging Bull is boxing movie as cultural touchstone. It may be the anti-Rocky, the dark side of a crimson parable, but it’s Scorsese’s finest work, a dream ménage of subject, object, and auteur.

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  1. Mike Domino 07:31am, 05/09/2013

    Hi Robert,

    I’ve been reading your stories . They are very good .
    I like this line -  “Boxing is a sport, but boxing is no game, and the life and death struggles of its participants, in and out of the ring, suit cinema when inspiration is the purpose, or a walk on the wild side is the intent. “

    Best , Mike

  2. mikecasey 07:01am, 10/24/2011

    DeNiro was magnificent in this movie - and in many others too. How I wish this greatly talented actor would get serious again.

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