(Introduction by Charles Jay, Editor-in-Chief, The Sweet Science)
Some time after the movie “Million Dollar Baby” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, I released an essay detailing my thoughts on it. The review I gave was not a positive one; nothing against the acting or the writing, but the plotline just didn't appear, well, realistic, at least not in line with my own perception of what the boxing world was really like. In the piece, I made reference to Roger Ebert's review in the Chicago Sun-Times, which, in pertinent part, read:
“Clint Eastwood's 'Million Dollar Baby' is a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true. It tells the story of an aging fight trainer and a hillbilly girl who thinks she can be a boxer. It is narrated by a former boxer who is the trainer's best friend. But it's not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year.”
My counterpoint, no doubt fueled by myopia, was that there were logistical flaws that ruined the whole thing for me, but at the same time I conceded that:
“There should be some kind of law against people intimately acquainted with the boxing industry watching a boxing movie. It's just too easy to be distracted by all the discrepancies. I think if I were to watch “Rocky” for the first time in 2005 rather than 1976, I'd probably be wondering how Rocky Balboa ever got a title shot with twenty losses on his record, and which sanctioning body could have possibly rated him in the Top 10 without the benefit of any political connections. The chicken-chasing scenes may have given me a problem as well.”
Undoubtedly the best film critic (for my money anyway) in America had one of those “Google Alerts” which let him know when and where his name was being mentioned on the internet, because no more than three hours after this story was posted at The Sweet Science, I received a rather unexpected e-mail:
Dear Charles Jay,
Your paragraph below (referencing the aforementioned quote from my story) is quite true and applies to “every” movie. An expert on the subject of the movie invariably is too distracted by inaccuracies to enjoy it. This finally boils down to an observation once made by Francois Truffaut: “You cannot enjoy a film shot on location in the house where you were born, because you can think of nothing but what they have done to the wallpaper.”
Of course, he's absolutely right.
But then I wandered across this story written by the great historian Hank Kaplan, shortly after “Raging Bull” was released 25 years ago, and I realized that while I may be somewhat shortsighted, I'm not in bad company.
Take it away Hank …
THEY set me up. All week long I had been getting phone calls telling me how great the movie was. “The acting is terrific.” “See the fight scenes……the best you ever saw……go see it……just see it.” I was hyped so I visited the neighborhood theater and took time out for “Raging Bull.”
This is no critique but just my impression of a movie which I was led to believe was a motion picture about a famous boxer and boxing. A lingering question as I exited the theater was why Robert DeNiro, a great actor, to be sure, studied for so long the boxing style and technique of Jake LaMotta, only to depict a boxer so unlike the Bronx Bull that to identify him would be impossible; furthermore, why the fight scenes, as they were interspersed with a suddenness to make your popcorn flutter, for the most part told no part of the story.
DeNiro had it within his grasp to illustrate a style of boxing so unique it was one of a kind in LaMotta's time. One day boxing historians will hallmark him as an important link in the evolution of one important American style of boxing. Jake was a proponent of the inside school of boxing. He belonged to a developing group who believed you were less vulnerable to damage at the center of the flame than on the edge of it. It is not every man's kind of guts that will put you up close to Bob Satterfield's brand of fireworks and Jimmy Reeves' and Sugar Ray Robinson's.
Sure, “Hammerin” Henry Armstrong was around. He stayed on top of his opposition and punched incessantly. With eyes focused on his opponent's feet, Henry aimed for a head he knew was inevitably there. He introduced his own kind of instincts to boxing and a durability the world had never seen before. His attack had an even greater intensity than Harry Greb used to dish out. Jake was another fighter who gave his opponent few breathing spells, but he did it with cleverness; he was a bobbing and weaving whirling dervish at close range who robbed his opposition of the space needed to load up. In the ring he was no “Raging Bull.” He was tactical, abiding and tenacious. Nobody ever shook him off or eliminated him until Danny Nardico caught him as an old man with thirteen years experience in the ring.
The movie told a story of a man tormented by jealousies. It failed to tell the story of a boxer unique to his profession who reached the highest rung of the professional ladder or how he got there. In a passing moment the film offered a clue on the 5'8″ LaMotta's dream of becoming heavyweight champion of the world. It missed the opportunity to show how he reached out for the bigger and stronger guys like Lloyd Marshall, Lorenzo Strickland, Jimmy Reeves and the devastating Satterfield. It fell short on telling the story of his fearlessness or his rush to hit the jackpot. His twenty times to the post in his first ten months as a pro told of a 20-year-old ready to prove his worth. Nor did it show the point in his career when he was stalemated around his native city of New York, which forced his invasion of other formidable areas. And there was always the presence of real competition in the opposite corner of any LaMotta bout. No matter the eminence of his opponents, he remained on his feet with over a hundred fighters who tried to take him down.
What made Jake run? What made him so durable? So determined? This is the story of Jake LaMotta. Not his domestic affairs and family squabbles. That kind of stuff can be found set aside as fillers on any small town city desk. I wouldn't drop a rerun of “Sanford and Son” for George Bernard Shaw in a wife beating scene.
DeNiro and company dwelled on the throwing of a fight with “Blackjack” Billy Fox in 1947 in order to trade for a shot at the title during those sordid days of boxing. There is no erasing this misdeed, but LaMotta will never be viewed as an evader or quitter. He tossed gloves against the greatest fighters of his time and moviegoers without record books missed that all the way. He committed a sin but he fought back to redemption. He did not stumble over unambitious stiffs in his quest for the title. Instead, he clawed his way through the hungriest carnivores in a jungle thick with them. Recall the names of Joe Basora, Ossie “Bulldog” Harris, Bert Lytell, Holman Williams, Nate Bolden, Tommy Bell and dozens more, including his scorchers against Ray Robinson. Nobody can ever deny his honesty as he faced the greatest ringmen of his time.
As with the latter-day Joey Giardello, despite their transgressions, boxing would have been guilty of abandonment if Jake LaMotta had not enjoyed a time, however brief, to sit on the middleweight throne. Like Philadelphia Joey, the Bronx Bull never sidestepped anybody. He lost to some but came back on a second chance proving his cleverness, pluck and determination. He proved the Bull can be tricky as well as the matador, but this was not demonstrated in the film.
The boxing clips were integrated as incidental sojourns into the movie. Except for DeNiro tripping out, one could hardly justify their inclusion. It contributed little to the assessment of LaMotta as a boxer. The flick may win the Oscar at year's end for its social scenes in a struggling Bronx tenement district, but it is no boxing account. It missed the point all the way.