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Ring of Fire: On “Raging Bull” and the Masculinity of Jake LaMotta

Shortly after Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese began their career together with 1973’s Mean Streets, De Niro read Jake LaMotta’s autobiography and became obsessed with the boxer. He kept insisting to Scorsese that they should make this film together, but Scorsese couldn’t find his way into the text. Scorsese grew up as an asthmatic who locked himself away in movie houses and in the confines of his living room, where he would watch late night Italian neo-realist features. These were movies he didn’t even realize were hacked to bits in the editing process when they were prepared for television. He didn’t understand sports, but De Niro was persistent that they tell this story together. After a near fatal drug overdose and the critical and commercial failure of New York, New York (1977), Scorsese was on the rocks and decided to give Jake LaMotta another look. He went to some fights in New York City with fellow director Brian De Palma, and he still didn’t understand boxing, but an image stuck out to him that gave him a way into the story. The image was that of a wet sponge being squeezed onto the bloodied face of a boxer. The cutman took the wet, bloody rag and cleaned the fighter. The image was religious for Scorsese, Christ-like, and he knew that if he could turn Jake LaMotta into a martyr then he could tell a story that had a philosophy for him as a filmmaker. For De Niro, his interest in LaMotta rose up out of thinking of the man as a victim of his own negligence, an underdog who just kept fighting everyone, including himself. Playing LaMotta would give De Niro the chance to radically alter his body and see how far into a character he could go as an actor. De Niro wasn’t method in the sense that he behaved like La Motta. De Niro was even described by those who worked on the film as patient, and gentle to Marty’s vision, but he was method in his approach to becoming like Jake LaMotta in body. With these two masters, Raging Bull (1980) becomes what it is: a deeply American story of a man who fights to live, and fights to die.

When I recently rewatched Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) one line of dialogue stuck with me and echoed into every single scene that came after, revealing the psyche of the boxer. Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) isn’t content with being a middleweight. He feels it’s a failure on his part as a man that he can’t get in there with the best of the very best and see if he can knock them down. He complains about this in deep confidence to his brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Jake hates that he has “girl hands”. Those are the exact words he uses to describe how his hands look. There are certain expectations of masculinity when you’ve grown up in a world that is dominated by violent men. You have to be strong at all costs, and anything else is a failure of self. Today, more liberal minded people refer to that relationship with gender as “toxic masculinity”, but for many it’s normal—just how things are. Jake’s hands are the first crack in his armour and the initial indication that the insecurities he has about his abilities would ultimately be his undoing.  

Jake punches, because it’s all he’s ever known. Scorsese takes some stylistic liberties in the boxing sequences that are not at all realistic, but emphasize the way Jake fights and turns his dogged pursuit into something blisteringly violent. In boxing you have to take a few punches before you can punch back. The science of the sport comes in the counter and the strategy that comes with it, but Jake LaMotta doesn’t fight that way. If you go back and watch his matches with Sugar Ray Robinson (many are available on youtube) the differences between the two fighters are clear. Robinson is the better fighter, because he knows when to step back. LaMotta doesn’t have that in him. He’s always moving forward and throwing punches. He takes an ungodly amount of damage, but often doesn’t use that information to formulate a strategy. As a boxer LaMotta is a survivor who strikes until the other guy falls down, and it’s all he knows. LaMotta made a career out of never being knocked to the mat, and he’s probably prouder of that than his Middleweight World title that he won in 1949 in a bout against Marcet Cerdan: a fighter who never lived to see his rematch due to a plane crash that took his life shortly afterwards.  

I knocked him down. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do”

Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) after losing a decision to Sugar Ray Robinson

In Raging Bull Scorsese characterizes LaMotta’s instincts as a fighter into an opera of horrific staggering fights, that shows an audience sprayed with crimson and the ropes dripping with blood. Scorsese storyboarded all of these fights meticulously as if they were music. Punches were like a functional dance for Scorsese, but there’s nothing balletic about the form. There had been hundreds of boxing movies about people like Jake LaMotta before Raging Bull, but Scorsese’s picture differentiates itself, because it doesn’t hold the sport in high regard. It’s closest companion is likely The Harder They Fall (1956), whose bloody final encounter is close in spirit to Scorsese’s take on Boxing as a form gladiator violence. To this day Scorsese still doesn’t like boxing. He considers it barbaric, and that comes through in the way he presents Jake LaMotta’s fights. De Niro trained for months and months with LaMotta himself, and looks great in these battles. He epitomizes LaMotta’s forward momentum and punchers chance mentality with the realism he wanted to bring the role in having actually trained. LaMotta is quoted in the documentary that covered the making of the movie that if De Niro wanted he could have likely been able to enter into the world of professional boxing in 1980 after the training he endured. He was beyond prepared. But even with Scorsese’s disrespect for the sport he finds a truth in LaMotta that would have been missed by someone who revered him or the sport. In Scorsese’s film LaMotta is a man who is trying desperately to coexist with his animal instincts.  

Jake LaMotta’s turning point as a fighter came when he was asked by the mafia to throw a fight against Billy Fox. If he did that he’d get a contender’s match and have his chance at the Middleweight Title in the future, but even in agreeing to do business he still wouldn’t fall. He’d quit inbetween rounds and in the locker room he’s sobbing. For LaMotta this is the greatest humiliation. It all ties back into the comment about his hands. If LaMotta quits then what sort of man is he? He can’t handle it and this man who holds everything inside and keeps adding pressure to himself like a bow and arrow stretched back to a breaking point falls apart in a violent, emotional outburst.  

For LaMotta there’s little to no distance between the man he is in the ring and the man he is at home. The first time we see Jake LaMotta at home he’s waiting on a steak that’s being prepared by his wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax). When he thinks she’s cooking it too long he tips over a table and a verbal altercation ensues. Irma stands right there with him and doesn’t back down (something seen frequently with Scorsese’s women), but she seems tired of putting up with Jake and his hair trigger. Scorsese, jokingly states on the commentary track that for him this was a normal Saturday evening in his household, and less informed by LaMotta’s own personal life. Raging Bull is autobiographical for Scorsese up to a point, because he sees Jake’s philosophy of taking punches and standing tall to be a mirror into how his own life was unravelling at the time. Scorsese also introduces a lot of details on the fringes that are taken directly from his childhood, like the domestic squabbling of couples that can be heard through windows or a the drifting sounds of a neighbor playing music.  

LaMotta’s relationships with women are putrid, and much of the film is devoted to his relationship with his second wife Vicki LaMotta (Cathy Moriarty) and how her husband’s territorial pissing contests with other men over her agency turns violent. Cathy Moriarty was an amateur actor when she got the role of Vicki LaMotta and her inexperience informed her decision-making. Robert De Niro looks back fondly on his time with Moriarty and believes that because she was new she wasn’t burdened with an elaborate process to understand her character. He thinks what she did was pure, and built upon instinct, because in every moment she was listening and reacting organically. Raging Bull is certainly Robert De Niro’s movie; there is no question about that, but Moriarty has a way of carving out her own dynamic space as LaMotta’s wife. Her performance in this movie reminds me a lot of what Theresa Russell would do that same year in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980), where her character is completely realized in her body language and how she carries herself when surrounded by men who crowd over her. The men in these films, and this has been true of cinema for much of its entirety, find the notion of the women they love beguiling, mysterious and something that must be unlocked and then controlled. Vicki isn’t complicated if one were to only look at the page, but she becomes so when given life by Moriarty.  

Vicki’s a young girl whose beauty scares Jake, because he knows one day his skills are going to fade, and if he can’t be a fighter then he’s a bum, and women don’t stay with bums. Because he knows this, he wears her down and is physically abusive with her. Vicki married the man, and in the context of the 1950s and looking at Jake through her teenage eyes it’s easy to see how he might be Prince charming. He fights for a living. He could protect her and get her anything she wanted, but fairy tales don’t exist for boxers.  

After Jake becomes champion complacency begins to settle in, and he doesn’t have any more mountains to climb. All he ever wanted was to become champion, and now that he’s holding the belt what does he do? He eats a lot, and his weight darts back and forth. His brother Joey gives him a hard time about it, but the weight is just a mirror for everything else he’s losing control of in his life. It’s after he wins the title that he starts questioning his friends and family about whether or not they’ve had sex with his wife. Jake’s suspicious of her for no real reason than feeling paranoid and inadequate. Scorsese shoots these scenes of interrogation between Jake and others in frantic two-shots that begin to cramp the frame more and more. Everything in Raging Bull has a responsiveness that can be seen through choices of form. It’s a work of total cinema from Scorsese and everyone else who worked on the movie. Every camera movement and cut has a reason for existing: even in scenes of discussion between characters. My favourite of these involves LaMotta fighting with his brother Joey. Scorsese begins with a relaxed medium shot of LaMotta fixing up the television in his living room while Joey drinks a beer. It’s a casual conversation that builds and buildswith an ever encroaching camera into a bad decision that LaMotta can’t take back. When Vicki returns home from shopping and interrupts their conversation Jake starts badgering Joey about an incident that happened with Vicki at a nightclub years ago. Joey must have considered it water under the bridge by that point, but Jake can’t forget humiliation. It’s why he stood tall letting Sugar Ray Robinson beat him half to death and why he won’t stop asking Vicki about every little thing she does. Joey tries to calm the situation, and during this Scorsese keeps pulling the close-up in so there’s less space between the actors.  

De Niro and Pesci improvised some of the dialogue during this sequence. The cut to Pesci reacting with befuddlement and outrage at the accusation of adultery came after De Niro changed the line from “did you fuck my wife?” to “did you fuck your mother?”. It caught Pesci by surprise and got the reaction they needed for the scene, which spirals out of control, and is acted beautifully with rigorous attention to the conflict. De Niro’s instincts were incredible. Right after that fight the abusive relationship between Vicki and Jake reaches an apex when Vicki who is so fed up tells Jake what he wants to hear: that she has had sex with other people. It isn’t true, but it doesn’t matter. It’s her way of fighting back. It’s her way of hurting him when he’s hurt her so many times. Jake goes on an odyssey driven by the forward momentum of white-hot anger back to his brother’s place and tries to kill him. Sound engineer Frank Warner used audio clips of howling animals during this conflict (something he also did during the boxing matches), to create this dual effect of Jake’s home life and his world inside the ring combining. Jake dooms himself to a life alone with a final punch to Vicki, who followed Jake over. Jake knocks her right on her ass, but she doesn’t cry or react much. She is stoic. Bored. Used to it, and finally decides to leave him after that incident.  

The final half hour of Raging Bull is LaMotta in a downward spiral. De Niro famously gained an extraordinary amount of weight for this portion of the film and became completely unrecognizable. With LaMotta the weight was a symptom of him giving up and De Niro portrays him as such. Proud, nostalgic for a past where he mattered, but stuck in a present where he’s already burned all his bridges. With nothing left to fight for he has no reason to treat his body with respect so he spends his evenings drinking and trying to spin yarn into gold as a professional speaker/stand-up comedian/performer of monologues, but he gets in trouble when the police bust him for statutory rape. The final prevailing image of Raging Bull is De Niro punching the wall of a jail cell and repeating to himself that he’s not an animal. He could’ve had class. He could’ve been a contender. But he’s a beast. He tells himself the lie that he isn’t so he can keep on living, but when everything is quiet and he’s left to only be with himself, he knows the score. Scorsese and De Niro portray LaMotta as a sympathetic figure, because to fail is to be human in the eyes of Scorsese’s philosophical and theological interests as a filmmaker, but there is a time when the sins of the world do catch up to you. There is a time when you can’t be forgiven. Scorsese’s characters hope that the scales won’t tip in the wrong direction. Jake LaMotta knows that his already have, and he hates himself for it. Raging Bull ends with the image of him punching in the air at nothing. Like he always has.  

all anecdotal information in this essay is taken from the Criterion Collection’s Laser-disk commentary track between Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker and the documentary on the making of Raging Bull in the most recent blu-ray home video release of the film.

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