“Let me tell ya a little story,” says Jake LaMotta in the recently released commemorative 2-DVD boxed set of Martin Scorsese’s 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.’”
It has been 25 years since Raging Bull, Scorsese’s film on the life of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, first hit the big screen. In celebration of its first quarter-century, the film was re-released in theaters and has appeared on DVD, making this the perfect time to revisit the best boxing movie.
Raging Bull was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Actor (Robert DeNiro), Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci), Best Supporting Actress (Cathy Moriarty), Best Cinematography (Michael Chapman), Best Editing (Thelma Shoonmaker) and Best Sound (Frank Warner). Raging Bull won statuettes from the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.
In other words, it’s one helluva film.
The curtain rises and the tremulous strains of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s verismo masterwork “Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Calvary”) caress the ears and tug at the heart. The opening credits pop onto the screen. Everything is in black and white, except for the words RAGING BULL in blood red.
We see a shimmering slow-mo figure shadowboxing in a smoky ring. His features are hidden by a hooded boxing robe, a robe with a leopard-skin print.
According to Scorsese, “One of the few formal questions I can ever recall DeNiro asking me – about anything really – he asked me, ‘Jake LaMotta’s character, if he was an animal, what would he be, in your mind?’ I said, ‘I guess a leopard.’ He said, ‘That’s funny. I see him more as a crab.’”
Scorsese’s Raging Bull is based on the book by Jake LaMotta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage. With a screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, and with Robert DeNiro as LaMotta in a tour de force that is still on tour, the film begins where the book ends.
It’s New York in 1964.
We see a fat ex-fighter named Jake LaMotta (DeNiro) in his dressing room before his showbiz act. DeNiro gained more than sixty pounds to portray this version of LaMotta, the first Jake we’re introduced to in Raging Bull, and by all appearances it was worth every calorie.
DeNiro 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 for DeNiro. “It’s very hard. 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 of you’re not hungry. It’s murder.”
According to the British critic Peter Ackroyd, regarding DeNiro’s weight gain to depict the latter-day LaMotta in Raging Bull, “The man without a soul has nowhere to go but outward.”
Robert DeNiro disappeared inside the character of Jake LaMotta, which is perhaps no surprise, since this project was DeNiro’s baby from the start. “There was something about it,” DeNiro told the New York Times in 1980, “a strong thrust, a portrait of a direct man without complications. Something at the center of it was very good for me. I could evolve into that character.”
The film’s producer, Irwin Winkler, remembers seeing “Bob DeNiro 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 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.”
“I never really understood sports, baseball, football, boxing,” Scorsese admits. When DeNiro pressed him about adapting the book into a film, the director 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.”
Although boxing ran contrary to Scorsese’s nature, he got the fundamentals down pat.
Jake LaMotta is backstage at the Barbizon Plaza bursting out of a tux and reciting poetry in front of a mirror. This isn’t LaMotta the middleweight champion of the world. It’s Jake the tubby troubadour in New York.
“I remember those cheers
They still ring in my ears
And for years they'll remain in my thoughts
Cuz one night I took off my robe
And what'd I do
I forgot to wear shorts.
I recall every fall, every hook, every jab
The worst way a guy could get rid of his flab
As you know, my life was a jab
Though I'd rather hear you cheer
When I delve into Shakespeare
‘A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdom for a Horse …’
I haven't had a winner in six months.
I know I'm no Olivier
But if he fought Sugar Ray
He would say
That the thing ain't the ring
It's the play.
So gimme a stage
Where this bull here can rage
And though I can fight
I'd much rather recite
Scorsese moves us back in time and we’re in the middle of the ring. The year is 1941. The place is Cleveland. A trim and fit up-and-coming middleweight named Jake LaMotta is putting the finishing touches on Jimmy Reeves – and Scorsese kicks his film into high gear. Flying fists and showers of sweat and the thud of punches assault the senses. The camera swoops and skitters around the ring … where Jake takes the fight to Reeves.
Don Dunphy, with his distinctive post-war sound and delivery, calls the action: “LaMotta fighting out of a half-crouch. Reeves is up against a tough fighter, a man who doesn’t know how to back up. LaMotta continues to bore in. LaMotta bobs and weaves and lands a left to the jaw and Reeves is down.” Reeves barely beats the count. “LaMotta lands a right, a left, another left, a hard hand to the jaw and Reeves is down again a second time. And LaMotta is making a great comeback here in the tenth round.”
Reeves staggers to his feet.
“Reeves is up again. LaMotta coming at him. A left to the jaw. Another left and a right to the body. Three more lefts to the mid-section. A hard right to the jaw. Two more lefts to the head. A right and a left to the jaw by LaMotta and Reeves goes down for the third time. And the referee is pulling LaMotta away. The ref picks up the count. The referee is counting over Reeves … And there is the bell. Reeves has been saved by the bell. But did LaMotta do it soon enough?”
Reeves’ cornermen drag their semiconscious fighter to the corner. The judges tabulate their scorecards and the decision goes to Reeves. He tries to rise and collapses on his stool. He can barely raise his hand in victory.
When the decision is announced the fans express their displeasure by throwing whatever they can get their hands on into the ring. A full-scale riot breaks out. A woman gets trampled underfoot and screams. The organist plays the national anthem to try to quell the crowd. It has no effect.
Jake LaMotta cannot get a break. He blames it on fate, a real possibility in a world like ours, but it’s also because he’s thickheaded and won’t sign with the mob. Jake’s younger brother Joey, played to razor-sharp perfection by Joe Pesci (“The effect Raging Bull had on my career – I mean, what’s to talk about?”) is friendly with the boys, but can't convince Jake that Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) and that crew were okay guys. Jake has his own thoughts about Salvy: “Big shot. Get him alone in the backroom and smack him around, no more big shot. Without his gun. Yeah,” Jake says with contempt, “real tough guys.”
In the next scene we visit Jake and his first wife in their cramped apartment in a lowdown section of the Bronx. Jake is wearing a sleeveless undershirt and boxer shorts in the sweltering summer heat. His face is nicked, bruised and swollen from the Reeves fight. And Jake and the wife are quarrelling about her lousy cooking as she fries a steak in a cast-iron pan.
“Don’t overcook it. You overcook it, it’s no good,” says Jake. “It defeats its own purpose.” His wife is stewing in her own juices, as she fries away on that steak. “What are ya doin’? I just said don’t overcook it. You’re overcooking it.”
“You want your steak?” she asks as she pokes the burned meat with a fork.
“Bring it over! Bring it OVER! It’s like a piece of charcoal! Bring it over here!”
“You want your steak?” she asks again.
“Yeah! Right now!”
She stomps toward her husband and dumps the blackened mass of beef onto his plate. “Happy?” she asks. “Happy?”
Jake up-ends the table and food flies in every direction. All hell breaks loose. Jake’s wife screams. Jake screams back, “You call those carrots? You call that food?”
His wife shrieks something incomprehensible.
Jake yells: “I got no choice! I got no choice!”
One of LaMotta’s neighbors starts howling up the air shaft: “What’s the matter with you up there, ya [bleeping] animals.”
“That [SOB] called me an animal,” Jake says to his brother Joey. “Hey you,” Jake bellows out the window, “I’m gonna get hold of your dog and eat it for lunch. Ya hear me, Larry?”
“You crazy animals!”
“You’ll find your dog dead tomorrow in the hallway, ya bum.”
Weary of being a good neighbor, Jake calls to his wife, who is smashing things in the bedroom, “Come on, honey. Let’s be friends.”
You get the picture. Home sweet home it ain’t.
Joey shakes his head at the mayhem. Joey and Jake sit at the kitchen table. Jake looks at Joey and complains that he will never be “the best there is” because he has “girl's hands.” “Your hands?” asks Joey. “What about 'em?” “I got these small hands,” Jake says.” I got a little girl's hands.” “I got 'em too. What's the difference?” “You know what that means? No matter how big I get, no matter who I fight, no matter what I do, I ain't never gonna fight Joe Louis.” “Yeah, that's right. He's a heavyweight. You're a middleweight. What of it?” “I ain't ever gonna get a chance to fight the best there is. And you know somethin'? I'm better than him. I ain't never gonna get a chance.”
Jake asks Joey to punch him in the face as hard as he can. When Joey resists, Jake taunts him: “Come on, don't be a little faggot. Come on. Hit me.” Joey relents and wraps a dishtowel around his hand and starts punching Jake in the face. “Come on. Harder.” Joey hits Jake harder. “Harder.” Joey hits Jake harder again. “HARDER.” Joey removes the towel covering his knuckles. When Joey hesitates, Jake starts slapping his brother to get him to react. Joey hits Jake several times with his bare fist and the Jake's cuts start opening up.
“What are you tryin' to prove?” Joey asks. “What does it prove?”
Jake smiles and pinches Joey’s cheek.
Courtesy of Scorsese and Raging Bull, we get to join Jake when he first lays eyes on the love of his life, a curvaceous blonde bombshell named Vickie (Moriarty). Jake sees her at the open-air public swimming pool and she’s the sum total of shimmering pubescence: hair like spun cotton, rose petal lips, a figure to die for, and all of 15.
Jake is smitten, and he’s obsessive-compulsive, so he can’t stop thinking about Vickie. He asks Joey “Where’s she from?” “She’s from the neighborhood. She’s a neighborhood girl.” Jake wants to know if she goes out with anybody. “She don’t go out with nobody. She’s 15 years old. Where’s she gonna go? Where you gonna take her? The Copacabana? … She ain’t the kinda girl you just [bleep] and forget about.”
Jake wants to know if Joey did her. Joey denies it. Jake asks again. Joey says no. Jake rags his kid brother. Joey denies he got in Vickie’s pants. Jake says: “She knew better. She knew you were an animal.”
Jake and Joey go out for a night of fun at a club. Jake sees Vickie and Cupid’s arrows pierce his Italian-American flesh.
In the next scene we see Jake and Joey in a fancy convertible, with Jake behind the wheel, drive up to the swimming pool. Joey jumps out of the passenger side and runs to the cyclone fence. “Hey, Vickie!” Joey shouts. “Vickie! Vickie! Vickie!”
Vickie, in a bathing suit, walks saucily toward Joey. They exchange greetings. She asks about the car. Joey says it’s his brother’s and asks if she’d like to meet Jake. “He’s gonna be the next champ.” Vickie nods her head.
Jake jumps out of the car, moves toward Vickie, and he is charm personified. Jake likes Vickie. Vickie likes Jake. She also likes his wheels. “Nice car,” she says. Vickie agrees to go for a ride with Jake LaMotta.
They go for a spin on the open road and Jake’s on top of the world. They stop and play a game of miniature golf. The golf ball gets stuck under the miniature chapel. Vickie asks, “What does that mean?” Jake says, “It means the game is over.”
Jake brings Vickie to his father’s apartment for some hoped-for hanky-panky. In this series of scenes Scorsese the director becomes Marty the tender lover with a drawn-out, beautifully composed series of tableaus and silent negotiations pregnant with meaningful hesitancies. This may be one of the longest seduction scenes in film history, but it is one of the most graceful, as Jake makes his move on Vickie in the kitchen.
“Wanna see the rest of the place?” he asks her.
She purses her lips and says “All right.”
They start walking through the apartment. “I bought it for my father,” Jake tells her. “I bought the building.”
“Oh, yeah? From fightin’?”
“Yeah. What else?”
Jake leads Vickie out of the kitchen toward the bedroom. Passing through the dining room, Jake points to a birdcage and says, “That’s a bird. It was a bird. It’s dead now, I think.”
They finally make it to the bedroom. Jake sits on the bed and tells Vickie to sit next to him. Vickie sits. Jake puts his hand around her waist. Vickie stands and moves away. Jake follows Vickie. Jake kisses Vickie. Vickie kisses back.
(END OF ACT 1)