USA / 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin, based on Jake La Motta’s biogrpahy
Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colosanto
The Bronx, 1941. Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), just 19, is married and a father. Managed by his brother Joe Pesci, he has achieved a reputation as a boxer but cannot get good matches because he refuses to deal with the gangsters who control the sport. Impatient for success, he divorces his wife to take up with teenager Cathy Moriarty while Pesci does a deal with underworld figure Nicholas Colosanto and De Niro gets his shot at the world title – providing he first takes a dive which he does, unwillingly and unconvincingly.
Two years later, he wins the World Championship against Marcel Cerdan. Now, at the top, his troubles begin. He has weight problems, his suspicions of Moriarty’s infidelity drive him to the edge of madness and, after accusing Pesci and Moriarty of having an affair, he attacks them and Pesci walks out. In 1951 he loses against “Sugar” Ray Robinson and, catalyzed by self-loathing, his decline continues. He retires from the ring and opens a nightclub in Miami where he performs as a stand-up comedian but is jailed for the corruption of a minor and, in 1964, ends up in a club reciting from the works of, among others, Shakespeare, Budd Schulberg and Paddy Chayevsky …
De Niro deservedly won the Best Actor Academy Award for his towering, terrifying performance as boxer Jake La Motta in this superb adult film biography. La Motta himself was signed to the film, first to teach De Niro an authentic Bronx accent and then to teach him to box. They trained daily. “I guess in the first six months,” said La Motta, “we boxed a thousand rounds, a half-hour straight every day.” At the end La Motta was quoted as saying, “I guess I’d rank Bobby in the first top twenty middleweights, I swear.”
When the film’s earliest scenes were completed, production was halted so that De Niro could become the grossly overweight La Motta of the later years. “It was Bobby’s idea,” said Scorsese, “and when he told me about it, I thought it was great.” De Niro spent four months in Italy eating his way from a weight of 155 pounds to a bloated 215 pounds. This beyond-the-method dedication to his art paid off handsomely, not simply in extra poundage, but also in a superb, excoriating performance about which Sight and Sound wrote: “The identification is so complete that the distinction between actor and role becomes blurred – he enters a character the way that a somnambulist enters a trance.”
There was superb support from Moriarty and Pesci and both were rewarded with very well-deserved Academy Award nominations and there were nominations, too, for the film itself, Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker won the Oscar for her creative editing and picked up a BAFTA Award for her work. In colour and black & white.