I wanted to be champ, dreamed it, wished it, believed it. It came true.
Jake La Motta, 1973
He is as tough as nails in 1941, a real comer on the boxing scene. But no one wants to fight him. Jake La Motta. The Bronx Bull. His brother Joey serves as his manager, bearing his insults, moods, and rages. The Mob wants a piece of the action but La Motta insists on being his own man. He is consumed by the idea of becoming the middleweight champion of the world. The Bull snorts. The Mob perseveres. La Motta throws a fight in order to get a shot at the championship. The Mob is happy. In 1948, The Bronx Bull is crowned middleweight champion of the world.
I look for a thematic idea running through my movies, and I see that it is the outsider struggling for recognition.
In the ring he takes punishment and then gives it back twofold. A cruel fighter, they call him. His first wife can't take his violence. La Motta falls in love with Vikkie, a blonde beauty other men lust over in their hearts and speak of in hushed tones. They are married. Have a family. Oh, the power to be seen with a classy beautiful woman. But recognition is not enough. La Motta is obsessed with jealousy. He batters her with verbal inquisitions and then with his fists. She must be sleeping around. Joey tries to reason with him, and Jake turns against his brother, destroying their relationship with their anger.
One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.
Anger is a fury that is hard to extinguish once it is loose. Jealousy is a worm that eats away at the innards. Raging Bull is more than a screen biography of Jake La Motta, more than as searing look at the sport of boxing, more than a sociological examination of the Italian Catholic milieu of the Bronx. The screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin is about grand passions the complex, wild, crazy ones which drive human beings to discover the worst that it is in them.
Once La Motta gets on top, he blows it. Sugar Ray Robinson, his fancy opponent and nemesis, beats him decisively. La Motta buries himself in a tomb of flab. He manages a sleazy nightclub in Miami. Vickie finally leaves him. La Motta is thrown in jail on a morals charge. The Raging Bull is penned at last, deserted by everyone. Face-to-face with his own self-destructive self, he beats his head against the wall and cries, "Why? Why? I'm not an animal!"
Jake gets himself reborn, transcending his demise. He markets the Raging Bull as a show business personality. In a closing scene, the animal is philosopher king, preparing for a 1964 appearance at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel Theatre in which he does excerpts from Chayefsky, Schulberg, Shakespeare, and others.
Raging Bull is not a pretty film to watch with its bloody fight sequences, gritty marital spats, and downbeat environments. Nor does it lift the heart as easily as Rocky did. But Robert De Niro's intense and poignant performance is Academy Award material. This actor digs deep into the elemental vitality of an unlikable character and carries us at last to a grudging respect for the man's indomitable spirit. Scorsese has drawn out another award winning caliber performance from Joe Pesci as La Motta's long-suffering brother. And the director also deserves credit for making Cathy Moriarty's acting debut as Vickie such an auspicious one. Raging Bull is one of the best films of 1980.