Here is our pal John Schulian’s 1980 column on Jake LaMotta, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 95. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.—AB
She keeps dabbing at her left eye with a hanky as soft as an angel’s breath—dabbing, then smiling and pretending nothing is wrong. Maybe this is way all beautiful women growing old protect themselves. When nature can’t be depended on anymore, they master the art of illusion and produce what Jake LaMotta sees before him now. She is no fading flower. She is, rather, the same long-legged honey blonde he met beside a Bronx swimming pool thirty-seven years ago.
“That’s the Vikki that’s in the picture,” LaMotta says.
The hanky comes away from her eye quickly.
“He loves to say my name,” she purrs.
Once they were man and wife. Now they are friends and business partners, reunited by Raging Bull, the movie of LaMotta’s star-crossed life. They may even be more, but time apparently has taught them the virtue of discretion. When they checked into the Continental Plaza, their request was simple: same floor, separate rooms. “All I’m gonna tell ya,” LaMotta says, “is that I don’t go for that brother and sister stuff.”
Under the scarred brows that were part of the price he paid for the world’s middleweight championship, his dark eyes twinkle roguishly. It is what you expect, but it is not the complete picture of Jake LaMotta’s crowding sixty.
There is no more of the fire, the savagery, the craziness that could have made this untamed street kid a murderer if he hadn’t discovered the joy of mayhem in the ring. In a deftly-tailored gray suit, with his chair adjusted so you can speak into his good ear, he seems totally incapable of destroying his championship belt or, worse yet, punching his beloved Vikki.
“Feelin’ any better,” he asks her.
“I’m gonna go see the doctor in just a little while,” she replies.
She turns to a visitor.
“Isn’t Jake cute?” she asks.
Vikki LaMotta used different adjectives for him that grim day when his jealousy boiled over and he accused her of rampant infidelity, garroted his brother on a hunch, and blackened her eye. It was the same one that is bothering her now, and the funny thing is, her latest injury can be blamed on Robert De Niro, the actor who plays Jake in the movie. Vikki was holding De Niro’s picture the other day, and when somebody tried to grab it, she pulled back and poked herself in the eye. Just like that, history had repeated itself.
If Jake LaMotta flinches at the thought, you need only see Raging Bull to understand why. He has sat through it twice, and twice may be all he can bear. “I come out a bad guy in the picture,” he says. “It’s the way I was, it’s the truth, but that don’t make it no easier on me. The first time I watched it, I didn’t know what happened; I didn’t know whether to like or dislike it. There was something wrong and I couldn’t figure out what it was until the next day: I was reliving my life.”
It was a life in which the good times were almost extraneous. Sure, LaMotta waged a glorious holy war with Sugar Ray Robinson for the better part of a decade. Sure, he pole-axed Marcel Cerdan to win the championship in 1949. Sure, he refused to concede that Laurent Dauthille had him beat and knocked the stubborn Frenchman stiff with just thirteen seconds standing between him and ignominy. But the bulk of LaMotta’s legacy is as sad as a cauliflower ear and as ugly as nose split down the middle.
The ruination of Jake LaMotta began with the fight he threw to Billy Fox in ’47. The mob may have been leaning on him and he may have had to play along to get a shot at the title, but he went in the tank all the same, and when he did, he stamped himself as a bum forever. No wonder people were saying it figured years later when LaMotta got run in for letting a teenaged hooker operate out of his Miami strip joint.
He wound up on a chain gang, did time in the rat hole dedicated to incorrigibles, and never heard a word of sympathy. Maybe it would have been different if the word had gotten out that he pried the diamonds out of his championship belt to pay for a defense attorney, but Hollywood wasn’t going to make Raging Bull for another twenty years.
“When I done that to my belt,” he says, “I was symbolically—is that the word?—destroying the thing that made me the way I was. See, I was like one of those dogs that go to war. They’re trained to be vicious, they’re rewarded for it. But when the war’s over, and they’re back with their civilian masters, they can’t understand why they’re punished when they attack people. That’s the way I was, and I had to figure it out myself. I couldn’t afford no psychiatrist. I had to adjust by myself. There’s the word. I had to adjust.”
Not until now, however, did LaMotta have the chance to prove that he has succeeded. With Raging Bull hitting theaters across the country, he gets paid to leave New York and hold court in fancy hotel rooms in the cities where he used to fight. He does Marlon Brando’s back-of-the-taxi speech from On the Waterfront, and when the telephone rings, he leaps from his chair and shouts, “What round is it?” And always there is Vikki, the second of his four wives, the mother of two of his six children. She is up from Miami, back into his life, and for just a while, Jake is young again.
“Ya know why she didn’t play herself in the movie, don’tcha?” he asks. “I didn’t want her kissin’ Robert De Niro.”
“You mean you didn’t want me to kiss Bobby’s booboo?” she teases.
“That’s the truth, Vikki.”
He loves to say her name.
Thirty-seven years ago this December, Jake LaMotta Jr. ushered me into his father’s hotel suite and introduced me to the man himself, sitting there in a high-backed chair looking like a Mafia don. Then Jake Jr. turned to a beautiful blonde of a certain age who, if I hadn’t seen her in Playboy, I might have guessed had been kidnaped by these two characters. “This is my mother,” he said. “You believe it?”
He was balding and rumpled, in his 30s somewhere but the extra pounds he was carrying made him seem older. He’d probably asked the same question of every writer he’d met on this press tour, but he still tensed up as he waited for my answer.
“To tell you the truth,” I said, “no.”
His father laughed first. Vikki just smiled serenely even with her bothersome eye tearing up.
She didn’t say much beyond what I used in my column, but she turned out to be the salvation of that cold Monday morning anyway. Whatever humanity Jake LaMotta possessed, she coaxed to the surface with a look or a laugh or a few gently teasing words. The rest was part of the show he didn’t need much encouragement to put on. His On the Waterfront routine wasn’t bad, but it was still LaMotta imitating Brando, just as Raging Bull was an imitation of LaMotta’s life.
There really wasn’t enough meat on the bones of LaMotta’s life to sustain a movie. Martin Scorsese made one anyway. His infatuation with tough guys and wise guys blinded him to the lack of a dramatic arc in the story. As Barney Nagler, the vinegary columnist for the Daily Racing Form, once said of LaMotta: “He was a prick the day he was born and he’ll be a prick the day he dies.” Not that Raging Bull was without brilliance. Those brutally beautiful scenes depicting LaMotta’s war with Sugar Ray Robinson leap to mind every time I think of the movie. Unfortunately, Scorsese turned the violence into a cartoon that neither man would have survived for six fights. They might not have lasted six rounds.
It was Roger Ebert’s job to review the movie for the Chicago Sun-Times. I would write a column about LaMotta that would be paired with Roger’s review in the paper’s promos. The day before my audience with LaMotta, I’d damn near frozen to death in a press box in Minneapolis before racing to catch the last flight home so I could get up early and drive downtown. I wasn’t sure he was worth the trouble. Then Vikki said he liked to say her name and he was.