Reel Life: 'Raging Bull'
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

"Raging Bull," the gritty biopic about the life of former middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, was considered by many to be the best movie of the 1980s. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1980, and took home two -- Robert De Niro won best actor, and Thelma Schoonmaker won for best film editing. "Raging Bull" was also nominated for best picture, but lost out to "Ordinary People."

Director Martin Scorsese's brutal depiction of La Motta's life in and out of the ring pounds home the aura of realism with every blow. But just how true is the story? You decide.

In Reel Life: Jake La Motta is listed as a "consultant" in the opening credits.
In Real Life: The film is based on La Motta's 1970 autobiography, also entitled "Raging Bull." La Motta coached and sparred with Robert De Niro (who plays La Motta in the film). La Motta's involvement in this less-than-flattering portrait may be puzzling to some, but in his autobiography he doesn't spare himself, either. After the film came out, La Motta said, "When I saw the film I was upset. I kind of look bad in it. Then I realized it was true. That's the way it was. I was a no-good bastard. I realize it now. It's not the way I am now, but the way I was then."

In Reel Life: La Motta's life is black-and-white, episodic, sometimes confusing, dark and doesn't have much of a soundtrack.
In Real Life: Scorsese seems to have lifted the film's distinctive look and feel directly from La Motta's autobiography. "Sometimes, at night, when I think back, I feel like I'm looking at an old black-and-white movie of myself," La Motta wrote near the start of his book. "Not a good movie, either, jerky, with gaps in it, a string of poorly lit sequences, some of them with no beginning and some with no end. No musical score ..."

In Reel Life: It's 1964, and an overweight La Motta is shown in a dressing room, rehearsing a nightclub monologue. Then the movie cuts to 1941, and a lean and mean La Motta is shown dancing around the ring.
In Real Life: De Niro prepared to play the young La Motta by dieting and working out. Then, during a four-month break in filming, he ate his way from 160 to 215 pounds, loading up at some of the best restaurants in France. "I began to realize what a fat man goes through," said De Niro. "You get rashes on your legs. Your legs scrape together." Scorsese was concerned about De Niro after his weight gain. "His breathing was like mine when I have an asthma attack," he said.

In Reel Life: La Motta's first bout in the movie is against Jimmy Reeves.
In Real Life: The fight against Reeves, a good light-heavyweight, was La Motta's first big bout -- the first time he fought more than six rounds.

Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
Joe Pesci, right, played La Motta's brother, but the character was a composite of Joe La Motta and Jake's friend Pete Petrella.
In Reel Life: During his fight against Reeves, La Motta's absorbing a lot of loud, brutal punches, but he doesn't go down, even though he loses the fight.
In Real Life: La Motta was renowned for, among other things, his ability to stay on his feet even when taking a brutal beating. The sounds of the punches, though, are pure Hollywood -- produced by the squashing of melons and tomatoes. As Red Smith wrote in 1980, "Just the sound effects of the punches would dislodge the foundations of most fight arenas."

In Reel Life: Jake is very close to his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci). Joey's his friend, his manager, his confidante.
In Real Life: Joey, Jake's younger brother, was a good boxer himself, and was, on paper, Jake's manager. But in the film, Joey is a composite character -- about 20 percent Joey, and about 80 percent La Motta's friend, Pete Petrella. Many of the things that happen between Jake and Joey in the film actually happened between Jake and Pete in real life (as La Motta reveals in his autobiography) -- the arguments about women, about the mob, the jealousy, and so on. Even the "breakup" and reconciliation with Joey actually happened, in real life, with Pete.

This was a breakout role for Pesci, a singer, comedian, and former child-actor. He had been in only one film before, "Death Collector," and had decided to quit acting before he was asked to play Joey.

In Reel Life: In 1941, Salvy, a mobster, tells Joey that Jake won't get a title shot unless he's "with Tommy."
In Real Life: It was an open secret that the Mafia controlled pro boxing in those days, and La Motta made a decision, as is stated early and often in the film, that he wanted to make it on his own in boxing. He refused to take on a Mafia manager (which would have given the mob a steady stream of income from his bouts) and kept to himself.

Vickie La Motta, Jake La Motta
Vickie and Jake La Motta arrive in New York after Jake defeated Marcel Cerdan for the middleweight title in Detroit in 1949.
In Reel Life: At the community pool, Joey introduces Jake to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a 15-year-old blonde who soon becomes Jake's second wife.
In Real Life: Joey introduced Jake to Vickie, but did so while Jake was talking to reporters after a workout. They were married about three months later. After the success of the movie, Vickie La Motta, who has since been superceded by wives No. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, leveraged her new-found fame into a Playboy pictorial. She appeared, at age 51, in the November 1981 issue, becoming, at the time, the oldest Playboy pinup.

Despite their volatile relationship and divorce, Vickie and Jake remained friends. In 1983, she told Newsweek she talked to Jake weekly, and considered him "an uncle." "I am the woman of his life, and he loves me," she added. "He's family."

In Reel Life: Joey often spars with Jake, and sometimes acts as a human punching bag, wearing a huge black pad around his stomach.
In Real Life: In one of the sparring scenes, De Niro broke one of Pesci's ribs. You can hear Pesci groan. He's not acting.

In Reel Life: Jake works out at Gleason's Boxing Club.
In Real Life: La Motta was one of many champions who worked out at Gleason's and, along with Roberto Duran, was the most famous boxer who trained there on a regular basis. Gleason's, which opened in 1937 at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx, moved to Manhattan in 1974 and is currently located at 83 Front Street in Brooklyn, under the Brooklyn Bridge. You can join for $720 a year.

De Niro worked out with La Motta for a whole year, between April 1978 and April 1979, at the Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street. "I guess in the first six months we boxed a thousand rounds, a half hour straight every day," La Motta said.

Pesci also worked out at the Gramercy, sparring with Joey La Motta.

Robert De Niro
Like La Motta trying to sidestep the mob early in his career, Robert De Niro took to the lead role in his own way.
In Reel Life: A dozen fights are depicted on film, taking about 10 minutes of the two-hour runtime.
In Real Life: The fight scenes were choreographed in extraordinary detail, and took nine weeks to film. The rest of the movie took about 10 weeks to shoot.

In Reel Life: The fights take place in Detroit (at Brigg's Stadium), in New York's Madison Square Garden, and at other unnamed venues.
In Real Life: The film is historically accurate regarding fight locations, but the fight scenes were shot at the Los Angeles Auditorium.

In Reel Life: The fight scenes are impressionistic, and the ring often seems impossibly large.
In Real Life: Scorsese altered the size of the ring, making it larger as La Motta aged, to depict how he thought the ring might appear to a boxer past his prime.

In Reel Life: In his bout against Tony Janiro, who's described by Vickie and others as "good looking," La Motta pounds Janiro and almost punches his nose off.
In Real Life: Special effects were used liberally to create the "realistic" look of the film. Sponges in the gloves and small tubes in the boxers' hair dispersed enormous quantities of "bodily fluids." The Janiro sequence was one of makeup artist Michael Westmore's more complicated jobs in the movie. "That nose ... was a genuine plumbing job," said Westmore. "There is a tube that runs from the back of the man's head across his forehead and down to his nose -- but it's impossible to detect. The tube carries the 'blood' that squirts on impact of the boxing glove."

Jake La Motta, Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray Robinson beat La Motta in a TKO in the 13th round in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1951 at Chicago Stadium.
In Reel Life: La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson are described in the film as "fierce rivals," and after one of their bouts, in which Jake loses, he says to Joey, "I've done a lot of bad things, Joey. Maybe it's coming back to me."
In Real Life: It's not explained in the film, but La Motta had been a petty criminal (a largely incompetent one, by his own account) as a teenager, and had learned boxing while in reform school. During much of his boxing career, he feared that it would be found out that he killed a local bookie during a failed robbery attempt, and he believed that he would "pay for" what he did, one way or another. As La Motta found out later in his boxing career, he had badly hurt the bookie, but hadn't killed him.

In Reel Life: Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto, who later played Coach on "Cheers"), the local mob boss, meets with Joey and says, "Jake's making me look bad. I can't deliver a kid from my own neighborhood," and tells Joey that Jake won't get a shot at the title "without us." Joey tells Jake that "they want you to do the old 'flip-flop' for them."
In Real Life: As La Motta admitted in later testimony and in his book, he did throw his fight against Billy Fox at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 14, 1947, and he did it knowing, at that point, that he really wouldn't get a shot at the title unless the mob arranged it. The fight, ridiculous as it looks in the movie, happened pretty much as depicted, wrote Red Smith in 1980. "Exposing himself almost as flagrantly as Lady Godiva, Jake refused to go down but threshed and floundered on the ropes, apparently helpless against Fox's blows, until the referee stopped them in the fourth round."

La Motta, in his book, wrote, "Fox can't even look good. The first round, a couple of belts to his head, and I see a glassy look coming over his eyes. Jesus Christ, a couple of jabs and he's going to fall down? I began to panic a little. I was supposed to be throwing a fight to this guy, and it looked like I was going to end up holding him on his feet ... By [the fourth round], if there was anybody in the Garden who didn't know what was happening, he must have been dead drunk."

In Reel Life: La Motta returns to fighting after serving a suspension for throwing the Fox fight, and does get his title shot, against Marcel Cerdan, the French middleweight champ. La Motta is depicted as clearly dominating the fight at Brigg's Stadium in Detroit. Marcel is unable to continue after the ninth round, and La Motta is winner by TKO.
In Real Life: "Actually, there was nothing to suggest that La Motta might win until Cerdan tore the supraspinatus muscle in his right shoulder, rendering that arm useless," wrote Red Smith. "With only his left, he fought on until his corner induced him to accept the inevitable and save himself for another night. Meanwhile, La Motta was having hell's own time beating one side of Cerdan."

The contract between La Motta and Cerdan called for a rematch, but Cerdan, the "Casablanca Clouter," was killed in a plane crash while returning to the United States. for the fight.

In Reel Life: Robinson and La Motta fight several times in the film. In one fight, on Feb. 5, 1943, at Detroit's Olympia Stadium, La Motta defeats Robinson, and it's described as Robinson's first loss as a pro.
In Real Life: Robinson and La Motta had a genuine middleweight rivalry going in the 1940s. They fought each other six times. In their first fight, Robinson won by decision in New York. The Feb. 5 fight was their second, and La Motta won, breaking Robinson's 40-fight pro winning streak. Three weeks later, they fought again in Detroit, with Robinson taking the decision. Robinson then won two bouts in 1945, and on Feb. 14, 1951, at Chicago Stadium, Robinson brutalized La Motta to take the middleweight crown in what was called the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre."

De Niro trained with La Motta for a year to prepare for "Raging Bull."
In Reel Life: After the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Jake goes over to Sugar Ray's corner and says to him, "You never knocked me down."
In Real Life: "That never happened," La Motta said last year. "I never said it. That is probably what I would have said if I did say something, but I never did. I don't even remember if I was talking at that time. I had too much respect for Ray."

In Reel Life: Near the end of the movie, Jake moves to Miami, opens his own night club, and is arrested for abetting prostitution -- serving as a pimp for a 14-year-old girl. He's found guilty, thrown into jail, and, in a gut-wrenching scene, thrown into "the hole."
In Real Life: La Motta got six months of jail time and a $500 fine, and did pass some time in "the hole" as depicted -- hitting the wall. He describes this in his book: "The wall closest to me became the whole stinking world. I doubled my fists tight and lashed out at it, at them ... I just kept on doing it, hitting a wall that was about as thinking and as feeling as the world." La Motta claimed innocence in both the book and the movie, saying he didn't know the girl.

In Reel Life: At the end of the film, Jake, now older and out of jail, makes a living doing a standup act at seedy nightclubs. He seems to take his "show biz" career seriously, and is shown rehearsing Terry Malloy's speech ("It wasn't him, Charlie. It was you ...") from "On The Waterfront," before performing it in front of an audience at the Barbizon Plaza Theater.
In Real Life: La Motta did some television, some plays and a nightclub act after he got out of prison. He also did perform nine scenes from nine plays in "A Dramatic Concert with Jake La Motta" at the Barbizon. He played a bartender in "The Hustler," and has had 10 other roles in forgettable movies throughout the years.

"Raging Bull" turned La Motta's life around. "I was real low before the film," he said in 2001. "I was barely surviving. The book came out, I started to get interviews. The stand-up took off and the movie hit. Then the Oscar, that was it. I was famous again."



Jeff Merron Archive

Reel Life: 'The Hustler'

Reel Life: 'Rocky'

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Closer Look: Lost in a 'Field' of imagination

Closer Look: 'The Rookie' in reel life

Closer Look: 'Bull Durham' in reel life

Closer Look: 'Hoosiers' in reel life

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