Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
Martin Scorsese was at his lowest ebb. The failure of New York, New York was the first big blow of his career. He indulged his cocaine habit whilst making the rock-doc The Last Waltz, and was finally hospitalized following an overdose. To stimulate his friend’s creativity and, Scorsese felt, saving his life, Robert De Niro pressed him to make a film of the autobiography of Jake LaMotta, one-time middleweight champion of the world and another Bronx-Italian prodigy. Marty, who hated sports movies, virulently declined at first, but De Niro’s continuing passion for the subject eventually convinced the burnt-out auteur to film the subject. Scorsese got Mardik Martin to pen a screenplay; Martin did months of research and turned out a regular biopic script before himself dropping out from exhaustion. Scorsese then got Paul Schrader to redraft it; Schrader broke up the structure, injected dashes of his dirty sensibility, and combined two major characters, LaMotta’s brother Joey and friend Peter Savage into one. Scorsese and De Niro then sat themselves down and spent six weeks making the script exactly what they wanted. What they wanted was described by UA executives as a portrait of “a cockroach.”
Whatever the qualities of NY, NY, it was clearly not the future of Scorsese’s career. So he stripped his approach back to basics; Raging Bull reinvents his early style – black-and-white photograph; flatly-lit, long-take, improvised scenes; experimental film editing. It was the first time since Who’s That Knocking On My Door? that Scorsese was allowed to work with his film school chum Thelma Schoonmaker, who had been a victim of absurd union regulations. Schoonmaker’s touch is instantly, virulently, eye-catching. Raging Bull is set thoroughly in the milieu of Scorsese’s childhood (the story begins proper in 1941, the year before his birth), and details a scene, wispily remembered, of small Bronx flats with the constantly intrusive neighborly noise, marital rows, baby whines, tinny radios.
Raging Bull has an ironic style. The distancing veneer of gleaming black-and-white offering one of the most vivid historical recreations on film, with almost every shot seeming fit for Life magazine. The elegant music with which Pietro Mascagni dreamily fills the film suggests a deep sorrow at the transience of glory, the brutal beauty of life, the dulling of youthful quality, and stands in raw opposition of the tawdry humanity Scorsese filmed. In contrast to the starkly shot personal scenes, the intricately choreographed, expressionistic, anti-naturalistic fights are almost like horror movie moments. Scorsese uses sound effects and slow motion to turn Jake, and later Sugar Ray Robinson, into prowling beasts of prey; steam and smoke weave gothic fogs.
Jake LaMotta. Who is this brawling hunk of masochistic meat, this man who became famous for the amount of punishment he could dish out and take in a ring? In many ways he’s masculinity run amok. He fuels his abilities in the ring with resentment and sexual frustration that eventually curdles into sexual paranoia. His most admirable quality – his long-standing refusal to kowtow to the Mafia – springs from venality. “You gonna let them take my money?” he demands of his brother-manager Joey (Joe Pesci), before clobbering him in a sparring session, when Joey’s connected friend Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) comes sniffing around at the behest of local godfather Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto).
The singular quality of Scorsese’s oeuvre, especially for an American director – his willingness to make films of less-than-admirable, even despicable people – is at its apotheosis here. Even Peckinpah tended to love his bastards; Scorsese has an endlessly unblinking eye for the hypocrisies, thuggery, betrayals, cruelties, and pathos of LaMotta’s life and of the culture that surrounds him.
In the first scene of the proper narrative, we meet LaMotta, 1941 model, losing and winning at the same time – the film’s keynote of his character – when he knocks down a black boxer but loses to him on points. This provokes a riot from the fight fans; chairs and popcorn fly to the roof, punches are thrown, a woman is knocked to the ground and trampled by the blood-lusting crowd. So often throughout the film, the corners of the tapestry Scorsese weaves are crowded with evidence of some violence or sleaze; even in the legendary Copacabana (something of an icon for Scorsese, who returns to it in GoodFellas), there’s the evidence of fights just finished or just about to start.
After the travesty of the ’41 fight, Jake, in one of the lengthy domestic sequences that anchor the film, starts an argument with his frazzled first wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax) that boils over into a painful, hilariously accurate moment of marital cacophony. She’s a hard-as-nails, standard-issue, Italian-American woman who lets duty take her only so far before she erupts. Jake, barely concerned or even interested, frets over his tiny hands, the fact he’ll never fight Joe Louis (whom he thinks is the best there is and whom he thinks he is better than), and finally eggs Joey to punch him in the face. Jake lives in a dialogue with the flesh. He understands people and himself, feels and expresses through the way he comes into contact with their meat. He subjects a young boxer, Tony Janiro (Kevin Mahon), to a disfiguring beating because his second wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty, in her film debut) called him good-looking (“He ain’t pretty no more,” Como notes), but also lets himself take a brutal beating for many rounds in another bout, to pay for a row with Vicky, before turning around and clobbering his opponent.
The spirituality and eroticism of punishment of the flesh echoes long through Scorsese. Vicky’s kissing his bruise-riddled body has its parallel in Cameron Diaz kissing Leonardo DiCaprio’s scars in Gangs of New York. Jake is an ancient kind of human, inarticulate and foolish, macho bordering on insane – but when it comes to that language of meat, he’s Aristotle. After he retires from boxing, Jake enters showbiz, which then had a strange, symbiotic relationship with boxing.
Joey, Jake’s usually stabilizing influence, says to one of his children at the dinner table, “If I see you put your hands on that plate one more time, I’m gonna stab you with this knife, d’ye hear me?” Yes, this is the familiar world of working-class fatherhood. The film’s brute honesty about what constitutes family life in this period for these men is best seen as Jake and Joey’s respective wives (Theresa Saldana is the other) sit like decorous dolls on the floor tending the children and Jake walks in and pinions his wife on the floor with kisses.
Jake falls for Vicky when she’s a 15-year-old nymphet (Joey’s already taken her out and tried to make her), the gimlet-eyed, platinum-haired minx who promises intricate sexual possibilities and delivers them. She’s initially one of Salvy’s entourage, and for Jake, it’s partly a pleasurable, infuriating challenge to steal her away from that representative of the unseen influence that’s caging his talents. Vicky’s barely more articulate than Jake; in fact, she’s an icy, careless youth who is overwhelmed by Jake’s sheer physicality (his seduction of her is almost paternal). She enjoys provoking and indulging his sexuality, even as she grows up and finds the oppressive quality of his adoration intolerable. Jake’s desire for Vicky is identified as an illness central to this and any hypermacho culture, which delights in asserting sexual ownership of adolescent women to simultaneously leash and exploit them. Jake lives an American dream riddled with familiar American termites. Is there any more pathetic yet typical, personally apt a comeuppance, than losing his long-worked-for nightclub by mistakenly aiding sleazy businessmen get laid with two underage schoolgirl hookers?
Jake is jailed and strains at a bleak cell, punching the wall in howling agony. He has by this time destroyed any personal support. Once upon a time, Joey put his neck on the line when he found Vicky back in Salvy’s company at the Copa; reacting to Salvy’s sheer cheek, Joey went berserk, hitting Salvy in the face with a glass and slamming his head repeatedly into a door, the height of the film’s violent absurdity. Yet later, Jake, aging, getting fat and lazy after finally gaining his title, starts off trying to fix his television, prodding Vicky over her trips out and Joey over the near-forgotten Copa incident; slowly and malevolently, Jake works himself into a jealous fury (“D’you fuck my wife?”), slapping and threatening Vicky until she spits back confirmations, “I sucked all their cocks, whaddaya want me to tell you?!”, going to Joey’s house and, in front of his family, putting Joey’s head through a door and cold-cocking Vicky. She can forgive him, but Joey can’t. If Jake can’t find a real opponent, he’ll make a shadow one. Even many years later, when Jake’s a washed-up comic, he tries to reconcile with Joey without actually apologizing; in a sticky, cringe-worthy moment, he draws his not exactly thrilled brother into an embrace. Vicky’s already kicked his butt out before the nightclub arrest over infidelities; to her chagrin, he barges into her house to gouge jewels from his championship belt to pay his bail.
Jake breaks just about every heart to come in contact with him, but then, his is broken a few times in the film. He feels the long period when, in resisting the mob, he can’t get his title shot, as a slow, maddening torture. To get his shot, he gives into Como’s clear declarations and throws a fight to Billy Fox (Eddie Mustafa Muhammad); he can’t fake it, and afterwards is reduced to a blubbering mess. Here, and in the jailhouse, Jake’s ability to inflict suffering on others seems tame compared to the suffering he generates for himself when his clear, simple, natural capacity for violence is manipulated and betrayed. As a boxer, he’s finished off by Robinson, who, in their last bout, destroys LaMotta, aging, out of shape, having lost Joey’s counsel. Robinson crushes his nose, destroys his face, and tears him down to a bare trunk of masculinity; his flying blood decorates the judges. Still, his sliver of unbowed triumph: “You never got me down, Ray!”
De Niro gained his second (and, to date, last) Oscar for his performance, probably more for his commitment to gaining and losing weight. His LaMotta is a prowling, growling, dead-eyed creature when not in the ring (he reminds you of Quint’s description of sharks in Jaws), then, in the ring, quite literally the raging bull. Only Pesci keeps pace with him; it’s amusing to watch Pesci beating the crap out of Frank Vincent (which he’ll repeat, worse, in Goodfellas) knowing that Pesci and Vincent were, before the film, working as a comedy duo; the underemployed, demoralized Pesci had to be talked into appearing in the film.
The final scene has Jake, 1961, rehearsing the taxicab scene from On The Waterfront (the Tao of palookas) for his act, facing himself in a mirror (a scene egregiously copied by director Paul Thomas Anderson at the end of Boogie Nights. Jake has traveled the full arc of American celebrity, not most or least successfully, but most pungently typical, which is perhaps what finally made him interesting to De Niro and Scorsese. Reflected from the distorted eye of LaMotta’s tale is a grotty, tawdry culture that sups money and youth, pride and strength. As such it manages in a more sophisticated and compressed fashion than New York, New York to eviscerate the self-mythologizing fabrications of pop culture. Raging Bull, finally, is a statement of enormous cultural disgust. Scorsese would continue in this vein with his next film, The King of Comedy. With Raging Bull, deconstructing the ugly truths of American celebrity and life, Scorsese ironically reinvented himself. The film’s epilogue, suggesting a form of religious self-realization, also pays tribute to Haig Manoogian, his mentor.
As for LaMotta, he had, in 1961, made a cameo appearance basically as himself in The Hustler, to which Scorsese would make a sequel, The Color of Money. He was helpful with the production, and later watched the film in the company of Vicky. Astounded and horrified, he asked her, “Was I really that bad?”
“No,” she replied, “You were worse.”