Saturday, December 19, 2015

Taming a Raging Bull

Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro): She says he's pretty.

Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci): Yeah, well, you make him ugly.

I like black–and–white movies. I know some people don't. I've noticed that younger people are often dismissive of black and white, but they deprive themselves of some truly great movies that way — classics, whether they came out in the '30s or on this day in 1980.

That was the day that Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, premiered — and it seemed fitting to tell the tale in black and white, just as it seemed fitting 25 years later to tell the story of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy in "Good Night, and Good Luck" in black and white.

Both movies were based on true stories that took place at a time when color was cost prohibitive, something you really only saw on movie screens, not the much smaller screen of the television set. And you certainly didn't see color in news footage of either LaMotta's fights or the Murrow–McCarthy clashes.

But "Raging Bull" wasn't really a boxing movie, and Roger Ebert came about as close as anyone has to explaining what it was really about. He wrote that it was "about a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution. It is no accident that the screenplay never concerns itself with fight strategy. For Jake LaMotta, what happens during a fight is controlled not by tactics but by his fears and drives."

LaMotta's obsessiveness with his wife (played by Cathy Moriarty), who was 15 when they met, told the story best.

LaMotta constantly worried that she would have relationships with other men. When she made an offhand remark about one of his opponents, saying he was "good–looking," LaMotta made a point of pounding the man into a pulp, then glaring at his wife in the crowd. She got the message.

It's one of those basic, primal urges in man, I guess, to stake out a territory and be jealous of anyone who posed a threat to it, whether that territory was land or livestock — or female. It may not be the sort of thing that can be changed, as deeply ingrained as it appears to be.

In modern man, much of that instinct is contained by various factors that didn't exist or were much less pronounced centuries ago, including professions, but some professions still urge those within them to utilize such instincts. One such profession is boxing, where violence is not just permitted but openly encouraged.

It really shouldn't surprise anyone when a professional fighter resorts to violence outside the ring. It is the only way many of them ever learned to resolve any kind of conflict.

The story was told in a kind of flashback style with the present day being an aging Jake LaMotta, past his boxing days and doing standup routines to support himself, followed by reflections on his life and career.

The movie followed a recurring theme that those familiar with Scorsese's work must have recognized. Again, Ebert may have described it best: "the inability of his characters to trust and relate with women."

"Jake has an ambivalence toward women that Freud famously named the 'Madonna–whore complex,'" Ebert observed. "For LaMotta, women are unapproachable, virginal ideals — until they are sullied by physical contact (with him), after which they become suspect."

Or, as Groucho Marx put it, "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

It isn't funny, though. Jake even went after his brother (Joe Pesci) in a jealous rage.

Ebert couldn't stop gushing about the movie. He wrote that it was "the most painful and heartrending portrait of jealousy in the cinema— an 'Othello' for our times. It's the best film I've seen about the low self–esteem, sexual inadequacy and fear that lead some men to abuse women. Boxing is the arena, not the subject. LaMotta was famous for refusing to be knocked down in the ring. There are scenes where he stands passively, his hands at his side, allowing himself to be hammered. We sense why he didn't go down. He hurt too much to allow the pain to stop."

"Raging Bull" tied with "The Elephant Man" for the most Oscar nominations at eight apiece. De Niro won Best Actor, and Thelma Schoonmaker received the Oscar for Best Film Editing, but "Ordinary People," in hindsight a rather routine drama, won Best Picture and Best Director.

There are probably some Oscar voters who regret those decisions now. Certainly the folks at the American Film Institute would go along with awarding those Oscars to Scorsese and his movie. AFI ranks "Raging Bull" #4 on the all–time greatest movies list. "Ordinary People" didn't make the Top 100.