Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) opens with Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) at the height of his boxing career—agile, practically unbeatable and alone in the ring. The audience is then shown an older, less physically fit LaMotta in a tuxedo, reciting a poem in his dressing room. LaMotta’s poem is a lamentation on his long-past boxing career and his newfound affinity for putting on a one-act variety show. These two opening shots establish LaMotta, the subject of this biopic, as a formidable entertainer and yet extremely alone. This isn’t Scorsese’s first foray into themes of loneliness and isolation, as those who have seen Taxi Driver (1976), also starring Robert De Niro, will know. Jake LaMotta’s loneliness, however, comes as a result of his fall from glory, a man who has everything and ends up with nothing. In his desperate attempt to cling to the things he appears to hold dear—his fame, fortune and family—it all slips through Jake LaMotta’s fingers as the bull rages on, destroying everything in his volatile path until all he can do is punch the air and mutter “I’m the boss.”
Jake LaMotta’s first fight in Raging Bull takes place in Ohio, outside the familiar rings and rules of the New York Boxing Commission, where everyone knows he’s the one to beat. The crowd at this match knows that fact too, because even though Jimmy Reeves (Floyd Anderson) is declared the winner, it’s Jake that everyone is cheering for, and it’s Jake who throws his fists up in victory. His brother and manager, Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci), is furious at Jake’s loss since it is the first one of his career. The crowd similarly begins to riot at Jake’s loss. Jake seems unfazed, but his frustration rears its ugly head back home in the Bronx, where he and his wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax) throw digs at each other which escalates to a shouting match where they each end up slamming doors and throwing furniture. Fed up with his behavior, Irma leaves him that night when he goes to a club with Joey.
His wife walking out on him doesn’t bother Jake much, as he easily shifts his attention to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a fifteen-year-old girl who frequents the neighborhood pool. Their “romance” acts as a testament to Jake’s need to prove himself as the best. Everyone wants Vickie, but he ends up with her, even though one can assume he’s at least ten years older than she is. When the initial thrill of being in a somewhat forbidden relationship with a boxing celebrity wears off, Vickie finds herself trapped under Jake’s gloved thumb, subject to his violent outbursts and dangerously jealous tendencies, repeatedly accusing her of cheating.
Jake’s paranoia regarding Vickie’s cheating is what ultimately destroys his relationship with Joey, who can’t make excuses for Jake anymore. In an iconic scene, Jake confronts Joey over his suspicions “You fuck my wife?” Joey’s refusal to answer tells Jake more than he needs to know. He confronts Vickie, and she angrily yells that she slept with Joey and gives him a laundry list of other men to appease Jake’s insistence that she has been cheating on him. To the viewer, it’s obvious Vickie is lying, tired of dealing with Jake’s constant distrust of her and only tells him what she knows that he wants to hear. Jake is too blinded by his insecurity in Vickie’s faithfulness that he truly believes her claims of infidelity. He storms out of their house, bursting into Joey’s home and assaults him in front of his wife and children. Thus, Joey LaMotta is no longer a fixture in Jake’s life. This shift in familial dynamic is emphasized in Jake’s move to Miami, bringing Vicky and their children with him as he retires from boxing and opens a surprisingly popular nightclub that’s unsurprisingly called “Jake LaMotta’s”.
Despite the club’s success, Jake finds himself flying far too close to the sun, as it all comes crashing down when Vickie tells him that she’s filing for divorce and full custody of their children. He drowns his sorrows in alcohol, traversing his club as if nothing’s wrong until he gets caught selling alcohol and introducing older men to underage patrons, particularly two fourteen-year-old girls. Unable to find a way out of the situation, Jake is brought to prison. Now at his lowest point, the once great boxer is a shell of his former self, repeating “stupid, stupid, stupid” as he bangs his head against the brick wall of his cell. Scorsese brings the audience forward a few years, back to the Jake LaMotta we saw at the start of the movie, overweight and tuxedo clad as he entertains small audiences with jokes and recitations of Shakespeare’s soliloquies and Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” monologue from On the Waterfront (1954).
After the show, Jake sees Joey leaving a shop, the first time he has seen his brother since their falling out. Jake attempts to make up with Joey, cracking jokes, asking about his family and giving him an extremely awkward hug. Joey unconvincingly promises Jake that he’ll call him, an answer with which Jake seems content. For someone who used to have everything and now has nothing, he’ll settle for something.
While filming Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese was convinced it would be his last film, as he had nearly died from a cocaine overdose prior to filming and continued to struggle with his addiction throughout production. It wasn’t until Robert De Niro, his close friend and frequent collaborator, approached him with Jake LaMotta’s biography and expressed an interest in making the biopic. Scorsese reluctantly agreed, and the film ended up being considered his best, earning 8 Oscar nominations and winning Best Actor for De Niro and Best Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited all of Scorsese’s films since Raging Bull. Scorsese’s involvement in the film and renewed passion for filmmaking pushed him to get clean. With this in mind, it’s clear to see why Scorsese took the approach he did with LaMotta’s biography, focusing on the themes of loneliness and discontent.
If fame, fortune and family are a man’s ultimate goal in life, why does he still feel an emptiness when he’s achieved these things? When the pinnacle of masculinity and success is not enough, where does a man turn? For Scorsese, it was drugs. For LaMotta, it was violence. The same can be said for countless other men who find themselves stuck in the trappings of mainstream masculinity, on an endless quest to prove something to their peers–that they’re the best, that they’re formidable, that they deserve to fill the space that they occupy. Constantly in competition with each other, seemingly on the verge of snapping, for this man, there is no time for rest because he always has to be on guard, ready to defend his masculinity in an instant.
Mainstream masculinity alone cannot sustain a man as it makes him incapable of maintaining meaningful relationships. This form of masculinity encourages emotional illiteracy and, as a result, has dire consequences for its adherents. Viewers can look at Raging Bull as a study of where this lifestyle goes wrong—the emotional insecurity, the inability to properly express one’s self, the refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions. The life of a masculine man is a lonely one, as emphasized by Jake LaMotta’s solitary monologues in his dressing room serving as bookends for the film. His choices, encouraged by a society that rewarded his violence until it became too much, leads one to wonder if he could have ended up any other way and how many other men have and will suffer this same fate.