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Fighters Aren't Supposed to Be Funny
by Jon Schuller

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For many of us who love the movies, and performers in general, many actors can cross over into other disciplines. For example, someone like the immortal Peter Sellers could go from the most serious drama to hilarious comedy, sometimes within the same film. Many comedians, who started in stand-up or, earlier in vaudeville and burlesque, became some of our most treasured, serious actors: Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Gene Wilder, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, George Burns and Groucho Marx to name just a few. Maybe it's because comedians see the serious sides of life and help us all laugh at the absurdities, the trials and the tribulations of everything human. But, we have also seen many people from other disciplines who've attempted to venture into other fields: sportsmen and -women, business types, politicans and even ordinary, everyday folks have tried to fit into another form of expression. Rocky Graziano got a showbiz break thanks to Martha Raye back in the 50s. A few, like Rocky, have succeeded, it's true, thanks to television and the internet explosion. But many who've ventured down new roads, imagining themselves game show hosts or guest lecturers on topics they're barely familiar with, have failed. But, I give them all an "A" for effort. This week I'm writing about a middle weight prizefighter, after a long career of getting into the ring and punching his way to fame and fortune over many years, tried his hand at stand-up comedy and became pretty good at it. His name: Jake LaMotta. The movie: Raging Bull which premiered in November, 1980, directed
by Martin Scorcese, starred Robert De Niro as LaMotta, Joe Pesci as his brother, Joey LaMotta, Cathy Moriarty as (2nd wife) Vickie LaMotta, Nicholas Colasanto as Tommy Como, Theresa Saldana as Leonora LaMotta, Frank Vincent as Salvy Batts and Johnny Barnes as Sugar Ray Robinson.

Jake LaMotta was a great middleweight with a terrible reputation for self-destructive behavior and fighting out of the ring more than in it - who we see in a dressing room at the film's opening, preparing to go on stage and attempting to make his audience laugh. From then on the entire movie is a flashback as we travel back to the Bronx in 1941. Jake's brother, Joey, wants to get Jake a shot at the middleweight title through one of his wiseguy buddies, Salvy Batts who is connected to the local mob boss, Tommy Como. Although Jake just lost a fight, Joey keeps selling the idea about a title shot, despite Jake's reputation as someone from the neighborhood who has no self-control, attracting too much attention something the mob doesn't appreciate. Jake also becomes involved with a beautiful young girl, Vikki, even though he's married. By 1943, Jake has 2 matches with a great fighter, Sugar Ray Robinson, who wins the 2nd fight on a decision. In 1947, Jake marries Vikki.

But Jake's unstoppable anger and strength great and powerful in the ring are the main elements in his obsessive jealousy of his new wife, who is very attractive. She makes a casual comment about Jakes' next opponent, Tony Janiro, and next thing you know, Jake almost kills him in the ring, as the mob boss, Tommy Como, looks on.
Vikki is seen, by Jake's brother, Joey, talking to some of the other wise-guys as they celebrate at the Copacabana. Joey also has an uncontrollable temper and attacks Salvy, one of them. The boss sees the whole thing as it spills into the street and warns Joey that, again, he and his brother are attracting too much attention away from the boxing matches. If Jake wants a title shot, he'll have to take a dive in his next fight against Billy Fox. The Boxing Commission finds out he threw the fight and he's suspended until 1949. That year he's re-instated and wins the middleweight championship bout against Marcel Cerdan. His intensity and passion find release again as he mercilessly fights and wins.

A year goes by as Jake cannot stop accusing Vikki of being involved with other men, even his own brother, Joey, plus Salvy and the mob boss. His jealousy continues to consume him as Vikki again asks for a divorce. He will have more fights until, in 1950, he defends his title in a hard-fought 15-round bout against Laurent Dauthuille. Joey has finally given up on Jake and his rages and in 1951, in a re-match against Sugar Ray Robinson, he loses his title for good.

By 1956, retired and living in Miami, Vikki finally gets a divorce and Jake has problems with the law, still not able to control his temper. The next year he's arrested and by 1964, heavier, lonelier, and quite a few pounds larger, he attempts his comedy routine, the final scene picking up from the movie's opening scene. Jake gets laughs but he's a tragic comedian. A sad ending to a tragic life.

It took a long while to
get this film made, as re-writes of several scripts, changes in directors and writers delayed it; and Scorcese's concerns about the inherent violence in language and actions added to the many developments. It was not greatly received when it opened, but Raging Bull did get critical acclaim and eventually was nominated for eight Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Sound and Editing), winning 2 for Best Actor and Best Editing. It is on 3 of AFI' s "Best" lists: 100 Years/100 Movies: #24 100 Years/100 Thrills: #51 100 Years/100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).

Raging Bull is not an easy film to watch because of the almost constant violence (in and out of the boxing ring), swearing and arguments. Bad tempers abound and it makes you wonder why and how things get so bad that the only way out is violence. But that's the power of the film, the direction and the great cast of actors who bring it all to life. Take your time with it. It does grow on you. In 1990, many of the featured actors in Raging Bull were re-united for another Scorcese classic, Goodfellas.

This is my 7th Anniversary Column at Matchflick.com. My first effort was published on February 11, 2010. It has become a true labor of love and I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their untiring support and encouragement. Thank you, Tim, for giving the chance to write and to my wonderful family and friends for their love and faith. I couldn't have done it for 7 years without you.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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