I attribute my lifetime fascination with boxing to my maternal grandfather, Louie Greenberg. Chewy Louie (as he was affectionately known for his steadfast support of the Wrigley franchise) lived upstairs from us in the house he built. He was an expert plumber with skills jointly celebrated by nearby nuns in their cloister and bootleggers whose stills he had repaired in the woodlands of New Jersey during Prohibition. From the time I was a little kid, I knew that I always had a date to climb the stairs for the Gillette Friday Night Fights. (To look sharp, to feel sharp, etc.) Grandpa was the gentlest and most even-tempered man I have ever met, even when henpecked by Grandma. (There surely must have been times when he might have felt like paraphrasing Ralph Kramden: “One of these days, Bella…pow! Right in the kisser!” However, no such utterance ever escaped his lips.) He seemed to sublimate all his aggression and keep it in reserve for Friday nights. Then, leaning forward on the edge of his reclining chair (the arms of which sometimes contained remnants of last week’s chewing gum), Louie would fight along with the guys on TV. His arms would flail; his head would duck; he could have been a contender. Boxing in those days was dominated by two groups of fighters. There were black champions like Sugar Ray Robinson (who figures so prominently in Raging Bull), Archie Moore, Kid Gavilan, Floyd Patterson, and so many others. The other group was Italian Americans like Rocky Marciano, Willie Pep, Carmen Basilio, and (at the tail end of his career) Jake LaMotta. Utterly devoid of prejudice (Grandpa’s great hero, and mine, was Jackie Robinson), Louie loved them all. Whatever verbal venom he possessed was reserved for Republicans: “They stink!”For Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese was reunited with Michael Chapman, who had photographed Taxi Driver. Together with the great editor Thelma Schoonmaker, they helped the director forge a searing document on what for more than a century was the most popular blood sport in America. My recollection is that the sadism and brutality in the film goes well beyond that which I witnessed on black-and-white television. Today, any self-respecting referee would quickly step in to stop the kind of beatings that Raging Bull repeatedly depicts, although the bloodlust of the crowd in the film doubtless remains intact, and I must confess that I still look for knockouts in preference to “ring generalship.” All too often, today’s boxing seems dominated by Fancy Dans like Floyd Mayweather and stoic, barely mobile giants like Wladimir (the current heavyweight champ) and Vitali Klitschko (now, improbably, the mayor of Kiev).
However, there’s certainly method in Scorsese’s “madness.” To do a larger-than-life figure like LaMotta justice requires an enhanced reality. As James Harvey says in his excellent new book Seeing Them Be, Robert De Niro’s LaMotta displays “more than ordinary perversity, even ordinary craziness—it’s epic.” Just as the actor gained an enormous amount of weight to portray the post-ring Jake, Scorsese’s commitment to his vision is mesmerizing. Of course, LaMotta himself is credited as a consultant on the film, and Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader could not have made all this up. To add to this remarkable tale is the fact that Jake, now in his nineties, recently married his seventh wife.
Whether or not I fully agree with my esteemed and kindly editor, Jason Persse, who recently chose Raging Bull as perhaps the finest American film of the past 40 years, I’m not sure. It is, however, a powerful and unique experience. In terms of De Niro’s career, the selection of Marlon Brando’s taxi cab/I could have been a contender/I could have been somebody speech in On the Waterfront for LaMotta’s recitation in his 1964 nightclub act is near perfection. James Harvey contrasts the two actors: “Brando…plugs right into your feelings—where De Niro leaves you to deal with them, and good luck.” Bobby, as On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan called him, had become the new Brando, and Bobby (as LaMotta) imitates him in his rehearsal before the dressing room mirror. Many years later, Scorsese and De Niro arranged for and presented Kazan with his honorary Oscar.