Tuesday, November 23, 2010

RAGING BULL (1980): Jake La Motta

About the time that he wrote his book I Never Played the Game, Howard Cosell made the statement that he despised boxing while still maintaining his respect for the fighters who participated in the sport.  Though self-delusional, Cosell was probably only being slightly hypocritical in saying such a thing.  Cosell made millions off of announcing professional fights, and he continued to enhance his earnings by doing play-by-play for amateur fights while confessing to having a "loathing" for the sweet science.  And Cosell did highly praise fighters Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard (both media darlings), though he had little good to say about many great but less colorful fighters like Marvin Hagler.  But in principle I think Cosell was being honest.  He’d been around long enough to know the lasting impact all of the blows had upon many fighters.  He also was familiar with the extreme poverty that fighters were raised in, and their great determination to better their position.  It’s a fair statement to suggest that fighters probably chose their profession because there were not a lot of professional opportunities out there for them to pursue.  Cosell understood that and probably wished that many fighters could have stayed away from the game completely.  I’m not sure what he would have made out of the movie, Raging Bull.  In Raging Bull, we neither see any respect for the fight nor for the fighter.
At the beginning of Raging Bull, we see Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) shadowboxing to Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s classical composition, Cavalleria Rusticana.  Thus, from the outset we should understand that Raging Bull is not so much a realistic depiction of boxing as it is an Operato about the fight game.  To be frank, this may be the only scene in the entire movie where De Niro actually resembles an authentic fighter.  We then go to La Motta’s Bronx’ apartment where he is in an argument with his first wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax) over the way his steak is being cooked.  We then meet Jake’s brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), who is only slightly less insane than his older brother.  Joey is about as close to a fight manager as Jake will ever have.  Jake prefers to train on his own and this does not please Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto), the Mafioso leader that controls who does and who does not get a shot at the welterweight and middleweight championship belts.  Now Tommy knows that Jake has the talent to be a champion.  He’s been watching Jake fight since he was a kid.  Jake's championship caliber becomes especially obvious when Jake becomes the first fighter ever to defeat the great Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) in 1943.  Unfortunately for Jake, the welterweight championship is reserved for others and he is going to have to move up in weight if he hopes to fight for the title.
Jake’s marriage to Irma does not last.  Jake is a tad bit abusive.  And at the same time that he is married to Irma, Jake casts his eyes upon a fifteen-year old neighborhood girl by the name of Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).  The two become involved in an affair and are married a couple of years later after Jake is granted a divorce from Irma.  Anyway, Vickie is a just too good looking for someone with the temperament of Jake.  Jake suspects her almost from the beginning of having affairs with other men.  When Vickie makes a comment that one of Jake’s future opponents, Tony Janiro (Kevin Mahon), was supposed to be good looking, Jake is on the verge of punching her in the face and probably would have if Joey did not also happen to be present.  Joey, himself, aware of Jake’s possessiveness of his wife, assaults Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent), a smooth talking Italian from the neighborhood who engages Vickie in a conversation.  Anyway, Jake fights Tony Janiro and, as the fight comes to a close, Tommy Como comments that Janiro “ain’t pretty no more.”  (Just for the record, Janiro actually did go the distance with La Motta, which you could never tell from watching this film.)  In late 1947, Jake would throw a fight with Billy Fox (played by former light-heavyweight champion, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad) in order to get a shot at the middleweight championship.  It was so obvious that Jake was throwing the fight that Jake’s license to fight was temporarily suspended.  (Incidentally, the real Billy Fox did go on to fight for the light-heavyweight championship only to get knocked out in the first round.)  In any event, Jake did finally get his chance to fight for the middleweight title and made the most of it by defeating Marcel Cerdan (Louis Raftis).  Jake has a brief moment of joy, though of course it doesn’t last. 
Jake’s jealousy erupts shortly after winning the championship and he badly beats Joey up (and Vickie) because he’s convinced that Joey has been sleeping with Vickie.  And a year-and-a-half after winning the title, he loses it to his nemesis, Sugar Ray Robinson, in the infamous 13th round where Jake is badly beaten.  Shortly after this, Jake retires, buys himself a bar down in Florida and is arrested for serving liquor to two minor girls.  Vickie separates from Jake and eventually divorces him.  Since Jake is unable to raise the money for bail, he is sent to the hole in a Florida prison where he punches and head-butts the concrete wall until he is covered in blood.  Eventually, he gets out, moves back to New York, and after a couple of unsuccessful tries finds a bit of success by running a night club and by reciting lines from Marlon Brando’s role in On the Waterfront
What makes Raging Bull a borderline great movie is the fact that Scorsese tries to do so much with the story that he is given.  Raging Bull is not only a character study of an unappealing individual, it is also an indictment of a society that made such a character possible.  Whatever draws a viewer in to see a violent movie, few can watch this film and feel that it in anyway affirms a violent sport.  Almost everyone behind the scenes is corrupt and the movie shows that fight fans are themselves responsible for the bloody spectacle.  When La Motta’s face is cut-up by a combination of punches from Robinson, the resulting blood is sprayed across the fight fans in the first row that paid big money for their seats.  The very intensity of the fight scenes makes boxing seem like a vicious and dangerous sport.  We are never sure if La Motta endures the fights he participates in because of his great personal courage or because of his own inner rage that drives him into insanity.
Jake La Motta consulted in the making of Raging Bull, but he was not entirely satisfied with the results.  Few film biographies in history have painted the lead character so unredeemably bad as does Raging Bull.  Yet La Motta did admit that he was almost as much of a bastard as is portrayed in the movie.  Probably he made such a confession in part because Scorsese’s movie about him once again made him famous (if not notorious).  (It also made his wife, Vickie, famous, and it gave her an opportunity to pose nude for Playboy magazine.)  Director Martin Scorsese occasionally does attempt to soften the portrait, though this is mostly unnoticeable.  For example, both Jake and Joey can be extremely funny in an obscene sort of way.  And Jake and Joey did seem to actually care for each other when Jake wasn’t besieged by jealousy.  Jake and Vickie could be extremely passionate towards each other as evidenced by the hilarious scene early on in the movie when Jake is trying to resist the seduction of Vickie and stick to his training regimen.  Scorsese attempts in part to psychoanalyze Jake and explain away some of his bad behavior by trying to make us understand that Jake was punishing himself for his past actions.  Indeed, Jake seemed willing to take on an incredible amount of pain that was inflicted upon him by other fighters.  And Jake at times seems genuinely remorseful for the pain he has inflicted upon Joey and Vickie.  Like in the movie Rocky, imagery abounds including crucifixes and religious paintings.  However, unlike in the earlier movie, religion holds no lasting influence upon La Motta save the constant reminder that he is a sinner beyond redemption.
A little more complexity and less one-sided negativity may very well have turned Raging Bull into one of the greatest movies ever filmed.  I read some interviews of Jake La Motta years ago and was surprised at how he came across as a fairly intelligent man.  Obviously, he was not Harvard educated.  Still, he showed a great deal of insight into himself in these interviews, which almost never comes across in the film.  (I once spoke to a boxing referee who evidenced the same kind of surprise when he discovered that Mike Tyson displayed to him a similar intelligence.  Supposing what the referee said was true, there would have to be a great disconnect between what goes on in Tyson’s brain versus the way he actually behaves outside and sometimes inside of the ring.)  At the same time you have a fighter like George Foreman, known mostly as a thug in his pre-fighting days, that has now seemingly developed a sweet disposition.  Maybe boxers are more complicated than either the positive Rocky Balboa or the negative Jake La Motta of movie fame would make us believe.  (Let the viewer remember that the fight scenes from Rocky and from Raging Bull were choreographed almost identically.) 
Unfortunately, La Motta’s admissions notwithstanding, Raging Bull is in many ways an exaggeration of the truth.  There is virtually no realistic depiction of any actual boxing matches going on here.  If the fight scenes in Raging Bull were realistic then boxing should be relegated to history the same as gladiator combat.  The real Jake La Motta was a light puncher by championship standards and managed to knock out less than thirty percent of his opponents.  Though he was able to take a punch, he also won his championship by boxing technique.  La Motta had a very good left jab, but from watching the movie I don’t think that Robert De Niro even knew what a left jab was (though he is very good at flailing away at opponents who don’t seem to know how to fight back).  If anyone is under the impression that the fight scenes are believable, they should just go to the Internet and watch some of the actual fights involving Jake La Motta.  Even the “St. Valentines Massacre” on February 14, 1951 where Robinson stopped La Motta in the 13th round will come across much more sedate than anything that is shown in the movie.  The reason many movie reviewers refer to Raging Bull as realism is quite simple: in their spare time when not attending movie theatres or writing movie reviews, they spend their time watching Broadway plays like the stage production (versus the movie version) of Mamma Mia.  Any athletic endeavor they could have participated in has been replaced by popcorn and soft drinks from the concession stand and so they know little about any sport.
Without question, Raging Bull contains some of the best acting ever put on film.  It isn’t simply because De Niro put on fifty pounds during the filming turning him from a trim and muscular looking young man to a fat slob.  That’s not giving De Niro enough credit.  I could quibble and say that Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are basically playing the same parts that they have performed in other movies when they were teamed up together.  Yet whatever shortcomings there may be concerning other aspects of this movie, the rage that is elicited from the two actors seems believable in every scene.  And the remainder of the cast is as good as the two leads.  I read one critic refer to the acting of Cathy Moriarty as being flat.  I disagree.  She comes across as many such women from close neighborhoods that remain emotionally guarded because they understandably want something better.  Moriarty kept her emotion in check, which was probably more difficult to do than if she became slobbering and sentimental.
As it is, viewing Raging Bull amounts to 132 minutes of an unrelenting wrenching of the gut.  It is almost too much to watch.  Even so, it still was superior to almost every other film made during the 1980s, and it certainly was more deserving in 1980 of a best picture award than Ordinary People.  (Just as Raging Bull is considered a realistic depiction of boxing, Ordinary People is considered a realistic depiction of marriage because: (1) the two spouses hate each other, and (2) they have a suicidal son.  I guess anything shown in the worst possible vein is considered realism.)  It’s impossible to watch Raging Bull and feel bored.  We talk down the movie by only discussing its film technique or its black and white photography.  Whatever his limitations, the Jake La Motta of the movie does seem frighteningly human.  Joey and Vickie also seem genuine in their own sad way in that they cannot seem to escape the neighborhood in which they grew up.  Thus one has to conclude: If the final truth about man is that he can never truly escape the environment in which he was formed, then Raging Bull is a work of genius.  The film portrays a human train wreck molded by a violent and negative culture almost perfectly.  If we feel that mankind is capable of more than this and can rise above his surroundings, we must still hope for another and better film.
July 22, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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