‘Raging Bull’ delivers outside ring as classic sports film

Jake LaMotta was a straight-ahead brawler, so determined to wreak havoc every time he entered the boxing ring that he handed the great Sugar Ray Robinson his first loss.

He was pretty much the same outside the ring, which is why Hollywood made a movie about his life.

“I was a no-good bastard,” LaMotta said when “Raging Bull” came out 40 years ago. “It’s not the way I am now, but the way I was then.”

LaMotta fought 106 times, winning a middleweight title and meeting Robinson six times — five of them losses. He once threw a fight on mob orders so he could get a title shot, and tasted the canvas only once in 869 rounds.

But it wasn’t boxing that drew a young director named Martin Scorsese to make a movie about the former middleweight champion. The ring framed the narrative, but it was LaMotta’s violence outside the ring — outlined in his autobiography of the same name — that drove the film.

The boxing scenes brim with an intensity and graphic violence never really captured before on the big screen. LaMotta fought crouched down and moving forward and at times it cost him, including the Feb. 14, 1951 beating at the hands of Robinson that was so brutal it became known as the second St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

Still, it was the other beatings — including one of his first wife because she overcooked his steak — that drive the dark narrative of a boxer so full of rage that it consumed every part of his life.

The movie was rated No. 7 on a list of the best sports movies by a panel of Associated Press sports writers.

Robert De Niro won an Oscar playing LaMotta, and Joe Pesci made a breakout performance as his brother. But there wasn’t much to feel good about for moviegoers walking out of theatres after seeing the film in 1980.

“There is only one brief moment in the film — when LaMotta breaks down and cries after he has thrown a fight in order to get a chance at the championship — that the character is even the least bit sympathetic,” the Hollywood Reporter said in its initial review. “Otherwise, he is totally unlikable.”

De Niro boxed hundreds of rounds preparing to play LaMotta in the ring, and he largely succeeded in portraying the fighter like the 160-pounder with fists of fury that he was in the 1940s. De Niro then went on an eating binge in Italy to gain 50 pounds to play the bloated LaMotta after his ring career was over, when he worked, among other jobs, introducing strippers in a nightclub. LaMotta would go to prison for six months in 1957 for convincing a minor to become a prostitute.

Scorsese filmed the movie in black and white, with occasional colour depicting LaMotta in what were supposed to be home movies of the time. The boxing scenes were especially jarring, used both to set the scene and to let the audience know where LaMotta was at that point in his career.

But boxing is used mostly to set up the meat of the movie, including LaMotta’s relationship with Vicki, his second wife whom he met when she was 15 and quickly became obsessed with. LaMotta’s jealousy and drinking fueled his many rages, and he was convinced during their 11-year marriage that his wife was always cheating on him.

“Those who think it’s a boxing picture would be out of their minds,” Scorsese said upon LaMotta’s death. “It’s brutal, sure, but it’s a brutality that could take place not only in the boxing ring but in the bedroom or in an office. Jake is an elemental man.”

The film was not a huge box office success, barely generating enough to cover expenses in its initial run. But the publicity generated by eight Academy Award nominations helped fuel a renaissance and there are those in the movie business who believe it is not only one of Scorsese’s finest films but perhaps De Niro’s acting masterpiece.

It was also the big film debut for Pesci, who would later have major mobster roles in “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” both movies directed by Scorsese and featuring De Niro.

LaMotta, who died in 2017 at the age of 95, finished 83-19-4 in a ring career that stretched from 1941 to 1954. A member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he briefly held the middleweight title before losing it in 1951 on Valentine’s Day to his nemesis, Robinson.

His career was notable, if not spectacular. But it was not until he penned his autobiography and an actor and filmmaker took notice that more than just hard-core boxing fans knew who he was.

He became the Raging Bull.

___

The Associated Press is presenting a one-of-its-kind Top 25 of sports movies, a suggestion of what to put on the screen while stuck at home. This is, of course, what we do at the AP: We rank things. So, 70 writers and editors around the world voted on the best in the history of sports cinema.

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