Jake LaMotta was a wreck of a human being. He was a great fighter who held the world middleweight title from 1949 to 1951. He was born to fight, to hurt people, and he did so relentlessly in and out of the ring. He did his damage in tight quarters and endured some of the most hellacious beatings in boxing history. Sportswriters who watched him in his prime say he had an iron chin. You could pulverize his face into hamburger, but if you wanted to put his lights out you better pack a lunch because it was going to take all goddamn day.
De Niro didn’t just study LaMotta for “Raging Bull,” he became him. His real-life subject participated in the actor’s rigorous training and said he could’ve been one of the 20 best middleweight pugilists of all time. Then Scorsese paused the production for several months so De Niro could pack on 70 pounds to become the slovenly, showbiz aspirant version of the hateful palooka.
There isn’t anything shy about LaMotta. He is loudly, disgustingly violent. He is all appetite, and he is nothing like Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, or Rupert Pupkin. He can function within society, and did so for 95 years, even though he absorbed thousands of punches from men whose fists are essentially lethal weapons. He was a survivor who subsisted on hate. I don’t think LaMotta was quintessentially American, or quintessentially anything. He was a ball of self-loathing who paid his penance in the ring but never went down. His very existence was an act of resentfulness.
Scorsese’s film wears you out. It opens with De Niro bouncing out a beautiful, bulb-flash-lit solo dance to the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana,” then backs you into the corner and busts you up until the closing credits. And you accept the punishment because De Niro, the shy kid raised by sensitive artists, is dishing it out. Where does this savagery come from? It’s in all of us. Going there would destroy most of us. Maybe touching those cruel depths and pulling back provoked De Niro’s disdain of Trump. And maybe he’s just the man to make him kiss the canvas.