As one would expect from a performance that has entered into the public consciousness as fantastic so that even people who haven’t seen the movie would repeat it, Robert DeNiro really does a stellar job portraying Jake LaMotta.
LaMotta is a man who seems incapable of seeing anything other than black or white. His wife is either a virginal saint or a filthy whore; e is either in love with her or disgusted by her. His inability to relax his suspicions about her leads their marriage to ruin. He also is unable to be honest with himself. When we first encounter Vickie, she is fifteen and hanging out with the local wiseguys. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that she likely has slept with some of them, yet LaMotta convinces himself that she hasn’t while taking his doubts out on her without really admitting to himself what he already knows. After she makes a comment about the good looks of an opponent, LaMotta beats him mercilessly, causing a mob boss in the crowd to say ‘He ain’t pretty no more.’ But rather than celebrating is victory, Jake stares down his wife in the crowd. Message sent.
The film isn’t really about boxing at all, but about a man incapable of seeing the grey in things. Though we do get a scene of redemption towards the end of the movie, the overweight failure LaMotta has become by the movie’s conclusion shows us that he hasn’t been able to change his life and make anything of it.
The movie begins with DeNiro, who underwent a legendary weight gain for what amounts to precious little screen time, sitting in front of a mirror and talking to himself. He quotes the famous speech from On the Waterfront, where Brando as Terry Malloy tells his brother how disappointed he is with the way his boxing career, and by extension life, has turned out. But at the end of On the Waterfront, Malloy triumphs. But at the conclusion of Raging Bull, LaMotta is shown as a failure. This dissonance makes the scene and the film all the more effective.
Cathy Moriarty is ridiculously good as Jake’s wife, Vickie, especially when one considers that she was 19 at the time of filming, but the real surprise of this film was how good Joe Pesci was as Jake’s brother, Joey. As LaMotta is struggling with a television set and grilling Joey over whether he had an affair with his wife, his shocked stare and his words are so believable and natural. Even though LaMotta and we suspect he is lying, the scene is played with such grace by Pesci that his Oscar nomination is deserved.
It seems that since Goodfellas, Pesci has just played the same wiseguy part over and over again. It’s painful to see what has happened to his career and reputation since then. I’d really like to see him in another role that shows his talent the way this one did.