Biopics usually flatter to deceive, eliding, prettifying or downright lying to turn men into myths.
But this blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of middleweight Bronx boxer Jake LaMotta, the fourth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro after Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and New York, New York (1977), and based on LaMotta’s 1970 memoir, pulls no punches.
If it weren’t so painstakingly assembled and so thrillingly beautiful to look at, it would be practically unwatchable, like a man beating his head against a wall over and over and over. Needless to say, De Niro actually does this.
Before filming began in 1979, a United Artists executive accosted De Niro, asking, “Why would you want to make a film about this guy? He’s a cockroach.” With the gravitas of a man who had trained to become one of the “top 20 middleweight boxers of all time” (LaMotta’s words), De Niro said, simply, “He’s human.”
While the actor’s extraordinary empathy is admirable – necessary, even – LaMotta is a cockroach, but you won’t find a more loving tribute to one outside of a David Cronenberg film.
A masterclass in making the ugly beautiful, the sumptuous B&W cinematography looks both fresh (thanks to a great Blu-ray transfer) and ancient (thanks to the fetishistically recreated 1940s-1960s milieus), while the main theme, Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo’, sounds like an elegy for the damned.
Scorsese and his scriptwriters (including Paul Schrader) exploit the contrast: the chair flying through the air during a riot, the wedding party on a tenement roof, the way LaMotta, in his later years as a nightclub goof, turns Shakespeare’s “My kingdom for a horse!” into a gambling gag.
It even extends to the casting. Broken-nosed and black-eyed, De Niro looks more like the Elephant Man than a handsome young actor, and he famously piled on 60 pounds to play LaMotta in decline (“It’s fun for the first 20 pounds,” he relates in the extras).
“He didn’t do it to grandstand,” says Joe Pesci (himself brilliantly unshowy as Jake’s brother, Joey). “Robert did it because he really wanted to feel what Jake LaMotta felt.”
A Motta of life and death
What Jake LaMotta felt, in a nutshell, was violence. Whether in the ring or in the domestic arena, against Sugar Ray Robinson or his wife, Vickie (the then-unknown and subsequently Oscar-nominated Cathy Moriarty), all LaMotta is capable of is causing people pain.
A wild animal at work, and a caged one at home, he beats his wife, all but murders a pretty-boy boxer out of envy (“He ain’t pretty no more,” mumbles a shocked spectator), and takes a hammer to his hard-won title belt to pawn the jewels.
He’s the ultimate self-saboteur – perhaps that’s what De Niro meant when he called him human?
In this over-heated atmosphere, the boxing matches take on a mythical quality. Storyboarded like the musical numbers in Scorsese/De Niro flop New York, New York, they’re the most fearsome ever committed to celluloid, with bodies steaming, cameras flashing and blood spraying into the crowd.
“The ropes always stopped me, emotionally and psychologically, so we stay in the ring,” says Scorsese, whose camera becomes another combatant, stalking, circling, striking.
In this way, the fights dramatise the inner life of this inarticulate Othello, a life slipping forever out of control.
Like all Scorsese’s masterworks, this is a film about obsession, a fact echoed in the exhaustive extras. Though most of the 2.5 hours of featurettes (plus three commentaries) have been imported from earlier releases, the five new featurettes are interesting if inessential tidbits.
Marty And Bobby is a quickfire recap of a fruitful partnership (“We have an understanding,” smiles De Niro); while Marty On Film is another well-thumbed film-history primer.
Raging Bull: Reflections On A Classic, in which directors Neil LaBute, Richard Kelly, Scott Cooper and Kimberly Peirce wax lyrical, is eloquent if a little redundant – surely the greatest boxing film of all time deserved more heavyweight contributors?
Best of the new bunch are an appearance by Cathy Moriarty on The Tonight Show, where the impenetrable ingénue gives Johnny Carson a run for his money, bringing The King Of Comedy (1982) irresistibly to mind, and Remembering Jake, in which veteran boxers pass judgement on LaMotta. “The picture did not do justice to how bad he was,” says one of his friends. “Every day there was a war.”
Most unusual of the excellent making-of material is De Niro vs. LaMotta, a shot-by-shot comparison of the two men introduced by the following title card: “Here are several examples of art imitating life, both a demonstration of Martin Scorsese’s attention to detail and Robert De Niro’s commitment to accuracy.” (De Niro actually got in the ring with LaMotta, who said the actor could be a successful boxer if he wanted.)
And there’s the rub. Such is the disparity between Scorsese/De Niro’s care and LaMotta’s carelessness, the pathetic cockroach he was and the tragic king they make him, that the film achieves a kind of reverse polarity.
The result, paradoxically, may well be the most beautiful film about ugliness ever made.
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