On the set of Godfather II, Robert De Niro read the autobiography Raging Bull; My Story written by former world middleweight champion Jake La Motta. De Niro quickly knew that this was the character he wanted to embody after he wrapped filming the epic mobster sequel.
Many people wondered why De Niro would want to portray La Motta, who had the reputation of a bully in the ring and a scoundrel outside of it. The iconic Italian-American actor became obsessed with La Motta’s character and brought the idea to Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese had no interest in sports, much less in directing a film about a boxer from the Bronx. Scorsese’s career seemed on a downward path at the time, and his cocaine addiction was paving the path to a dark future. The director’s life almost came to an end with a drug overdose. There seemed to be only one way out- to get back into the filmmaking ring, and keep fighting. Scorsese started to relate to La Motta more and more- and he decided to make the film.
What may have been a fatal period for Martin Scorsese turned into his golden hour. Raging Bull was a tour de force, and is widely regarded as not only Scorsese’s finest picture, but perhaps the greatest sports films of all time.
De Niro’s portrayal the Bronx Bull is uncanny. He trained with La Motta to achieve the stamina and chiseled body of the then world champion. He then underwent a complete physical transformation, eating at the finest restaurants in France to transform into an overweight, aging La Motta. The gruelling physical marathon earned De Niro an Oscar for best Actor.
I met Jake La Motta on the eve of his 90th birthday in 2012. We filmed an interview for the docu-series called New York Wisdom. After nine decades, wisdom seemed as if it could not escape La Motta. Although frail- he had the stamina to keep pounding at life, to carry forward. Always looking at the next project, the next trip to Florida, the next cigarette. He enjoyed smoking, but kept fit- shadowboxing at every occasion. His lifestyle was an oxymoron, like most of his life had been.
Perhaps this complexity is what drew people to him. People like De Niro, Scorsese, millions of readers and moviegoers, and myself included. He had a magnetism which is only present in larger-than-life figures. He was the ultimate anti hero- no matter how hard you tried to hate him, you always rooted for him.
The 90-year-old Jake was a man who tried to make everyone around him happy, he wanted to love and to be loved in return. He was concerned about the wellbeing and safety of his children (he lost two children, one to cancer and the other in a plane crash).
Ultimately, Jake La Motta is someone we could all relate to in one way or another. Everyone is faced with feelings of insecurity, moments of doubt. The only way to overcome these emotions is to face them and fight back- and it could be a struggle. Jake struggled with his own insecurity, fought with some of the people that loved him the most. God knows his opponents in the ring were terrified by the thought of facing him. Jake represents the fight in all of us, the desire to never give up, but the realization that we are all human and make mistakes.
If you have never watched the film Raging Bull, please get a copy and enjoy it. We will all be surprised at how much of ourselves we will see in Jake La Motta.