Forty years have passed since Raging Bull entered the consciousness of fight fans and moviegoers around the world. But the film brought Vikki LaMotta back into Jake’s orbit
FORTY years have passed since Raging Bull entered the consciousness of fight fans and moviegoers around the world. The film, starring Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, premiered in New York on November 14, 1980, and was released in the United Kingdom on February 19, 1981.
The movie had special meaning for Vikki LaMotta (the second of Jake’s seven wives), who was portrayed onscreen by Cathy Moriarty. During her marriage to Jake (which began when she was sixteen years old), Vikki was subjected to brutal beatings. Finally, she left and carved out a new life for herself. But Raging Bull brought her back into Jake’s orbit.
The following pages are excerpted from KNOCKOUT: The Sexy, Violent, Extraordinary Life of Vikki LaMotta co-authored by Vikki with Thomas Hauser. The book has just been reissued in print and eBook form by Encore Press.
BEING involved with the movie carried a burden. Part of the price was being forced to relive a painful frightening period of my life. And just as bad, I had to deal with Jake in person all over again.
Over two decades had passed since we’d been together. And Jake still didn’t understand the difference between right and wrong. He’d gotten older without getting wiser. He was single again, broke, still violent, and drinking. And he wanted me. At first, his attempts at reconciliation had a poignant quality.
“Vikki, the greatest part of my life is happening now and I want you there with me. I was finished, washed up, a bum, gone completely. Then DeNiro comes along and everything’s different for me. I’m gonna be rich. People will respect me. You and I, we had such a beautiful love story. You’re the only person I ever loved. The movie is fate. You belong with me.”
I’d listen, and it was like a stranger talking. Jake and I had been together when I was a child. Now I was a woman in my forties. I couldn’t make Jake happy and there was nothing he could do for me.
“You loved me once, Vikki. And I still love you. I’ve always loved you. I want to hold you in my arms and bring back my youth, kiss you and caress you. We don’t even have to have sex together. I just want you to be with me. Please, Vikki.”
There was no way. And I told Jake so.
Jake was angry. Once his pleas for reconciliation had been rebuffed, he was obsessed by the thought of other men in my life. Soon, he was telephoning at all hours of the day and night.
“Vikki, this is Jake. Am I bothering you? . . . Okay. I thought maybe you had company, a man or something. I thought I heard a man’s voice.”
“That was Harrison [Vikki’s son by a second marriage that by then had also ended in divorce].”
“Oh, all right. You know, I’m surprised I even got you on the phone. I mean, I figured you’d be out tonight. Are you sure that’s Harrison?”
“Yes, Jake. I’m sure. Would you like to say hello to him?”
“Maybe later. You know, we’re a lot alike, Vikki. I like staying home nights too. If I was down there, we could stay home together. You don’t have a boyfriend now, do you? . . . I didn’t think so. But you know, I hear things . . . Just things. Am I talking on the phone too long? I mean, maybe I should get off because some guy might be trying to call you.”
Invariably, during the course of our conversations, Jake would ask if I was sleeping with X, Y or Z. One evening, Hugh O’Brien made the list. I don’t know where that came from. Maybe Jake had just watched a rerun of Wyatt Earp on television. After a while though, his primary obsession was DeNiro.
“Did you f**k him, Vikki? Pete [Pete Savage, a business associate of Jake’s] says you did. It’s all right. You’re entitled. I just want to know. I mean, Bobby’s the kind of guy who wants to get deep into his subject. I’m teaching him to fight like me and everything. So I figure, maybe to research the movie, he wants to f**k my wife.”
Filming began in April 1979. Then one afternoon, Jake telephoned and told me, “I’m in California watching them do fight scenes for the movie. Marty [director Martin Scorsese] says, if you want to come, they’ll pay your way.”
I wasn’t sure Marty really wanted me there. More likely, Jake had pressed for the invitation but it sounded like a unique experience. How could I not go? So I flew to California, checked into the hotel and, the next day, went to the stadium where the fight scenes were being filmed. The arena was jammed with people dressed in costumes from the 1940s. Jake and I sat together, watching it all. Bobby looked great. By then, he was proficient enough as a fighter to have cracked one of Joe Pesci’s ribs during filming. He and Scorsese working together were like two critical masses coming together in a brilliant fiery ball.
After a while, they took a break. Bobby and Marty stayed by the ring. Jake was excited by the way it looked from the stands and took my hand. “Come on. I want to tell them how great it was.” I said okay and we walked through the crowd to the edge of the ring. Marty was sitting on one of those director’s chairs that rises up in the air with a boom and camera. He was at ring level, just inside the ropes talking with Bobby. He saw us coming. They both did. And they ignored us. Jake walked to within five yards of them, to the edge of the ring. All he wanted was for one of them to turn around and acknowledge his presence. They wouldn’t do it. I said, “Jake, let’s go.” And he told me, “No, I just want to tell them. I want them to know how good it looked.”
For ten minutes, we stood there. It seemed like an eternity. I was embarrassed for Jake. He was caught and didn’t know how to walk away from them. Finally, he started calling, “Marty, Marty. Over here.”
Scorsese turned and Jake told him, “It’s beautiful.” That’s all he wanted to say. Marty answered, “Thank you,” and turned back to DeNiro.
Soon, I got a taste of the same medicine. Filming moved to New York, and my sister Pat telephoned to say that one of her friends lived directly behind the Bronx shooting location. “It’s unbelievable,” she told me. “The house looks just like the one you and Jake lived in. Robert DeNiro is in the backyard now with three children. The woman who plays you has a turban on her head. Vikki, she’s beautiful.”
How could I stay away from something like that? Later in the week, I flew to New York. Pat took me to her friend’s house, where we sat in the backyard and watched them film. Then we went over to the set to say hello. And as soon as we got there, I knew it was wrong. Scorsese didn’t want to see me. It was written all over his face, as though he was holding a placard that read, “Vikki, go home.” I started to leave. Then a tall blonde woman saw me and said, “Vikki, wait a minute. I want to meet you.”
It was Cathy Moriarty, the woman cast to play me in the movie. She was nineteen years old, a receptionist without any acting experience at all. We’d never met. I’d had no idea what she looked like. And there she was. We talked for a bit. I liked her. Then Marty called over to say it was time to resume filming. I left and didn’t go back again.
From then on, my contacts with the movie people were minimal. Late in the year, they sent me a cheque for $25,000 in exchange for a release and the time I’d devoted to the project. Then filming stopped while Bobby, who normally weighed 150 pounds, gained sixty pounds to portray Jake at age forty. He could have used make-up but that’s not the way DeNiro operates. He wanted to feel what a fat person feels, experience the bloat. During the weight-gaining process, his health was monitored by a doctor, who wasn’t particularly pleased with what was happening. Bobby’s blood pressure rose. The insides of his thighs developed rashes from rubbing together. His feet hurt from the added weight. He was constantly huffing and puffing. His own daughter was embarrassed to be seen with him.
Finally, the film was edited. In September 1980, publicity began with full-page newspaper ads across the country. That’s when I started to get frightened. All of a sudden, I realised that an entire nation would see me portrayed on screen. And I didn’t know what that portrayal would be like because I still hadn’t been allowed to see the film. Jake was in the same boat. He hadn’t seen it either.
Several weeks before the premiere, Jake told me that he’d been to the movies and seen a coming attraction for Raging Bull. “Vikki, I was so nervous I almost left the theatre. I couldn’t see what I was seeing.”
Both of us knew our lives were about to change, but neither of us knew how. It was an odd bond. In a strange way, we’d been reunited.
The world premiere was in New York on November 14, 1980. The producers flew me up from Miami so I could attend with Jake. Jack, Joey, Chris [their three children] and Harrison were also invited. That morning, I gathered the family together and gave everyone a little speech.
“Look,” I admitted. “I don’t know how I’m going to react to this. I might like the movie. I might hate it. Maybe I’ll sit there crying and carrying on like a lunatic or leave because it’s too painful to watch. I just don’t know.”
That afternoon, I went to the theater to check out the seats. I wanted to be in back, near an exit, so if I did leave, it wouldn’t be noticed. Then I went to a men’s clothing store and bought six handkerchiefs, just in case.
That night, Jake looked very handsome. He wore a white shirt, conservative tie, and elegant grey suit. We met at the hotel and walked to the theatre. All six of us. Jake, the four children, and myself. Except they weren’t children anymore. They were adults. Outside the theatre, there were dozens of photographers with flashbulbs popping. I saw Cathy Moriarty. She was with her family. I don’t think DeNiro was at the premiere.
Generally, he avoids interviews and public appearances. Jake loved the attention. He kept saying, “Look at this; I’m a star.” He was all smiles.
We took our seats, the ones I’d chosen in back near an aisle. The lights dimmed. The movie began. And all of a sudden, on the screen, there was a man, DeNiro, wearing a hooded robe, dancing in slow motion framed by three ring strands against a backdrop that vanished into mist. Low music was playing. And I said to myself, “Oh my God; this is incredible.” I don’t know how else to describe it. Anyone who’s seen the movie knows what I mean. There was a spiritual quality to what was happening. It was extraordinary.
Martin Scorsese hadn’t made a movie about boxing. It was about Jake, his mind and character, the violence, paranoia, ugliness, and rage that scarred his life. Part of the film involved fight scenes, the most graphic violence I’d ever witnessed on screen. I hid my eyes during those moments. Other segments were soft with Italian arias playing.
There were several things I didn’t like. A couple of scenes portrayed me through Jake’s eyes rather than the way I was. And I wish they’d shown more of the good in our marriage instead of just the bad. But basically, Raging Bull captured what Jake and I were about. It’s essence was truth. Robert DeNiro was Jake.
I laughed. I cried. I Ioved every moment.
When the movie ended, the audience seemed stunned. That’s how overwhelming DeNiro’s performance had been. People weren’t sure whether to applaud or weep. Jake was sitting directly beside me.
For a long time, he was silent.
“Jake, did you like it?”
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “I could see this movie ten times and not know what to think.” His face had a confused, bewildered look. “DeNiro is great. He’s really me. But I see that man on screen. I know I’ve done all those things, and I don’t like that person. He’s a bad man, and I know it’s me.”
That was what Jake said to me. And then I realised he’d given everything he had to the movie. He’d spilled his guts, opened up completely, expecting a film like Champ or Rocky that would restore his dignity. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected to be confronted so starkly by the dark side of who he was. And I told myself, sure, I can sit back and enjoy the movie. The way I’m portrayed is fine. It’s easy for me. But suppose everything in my life that I’m ashamed of had been thrown in my face. Imagine if all my negatives were on screen for millions of people to see. That’s what had just happened to Jake, and he was ashamed.
After the premiere, I saw the movie a dozen times. Alone, with friends, with family, in varying environments. I wanted to get as many different feelings and sensations as possible. I even saw it twice more with Jake. Then as the days passed, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed by the attention I got. Having been married to a world boxing champion, I was used to the limelight. But Raging Bull was a major movie with a towering performance by DeNiro. Whether critics liked it or hated it, they wrote about it. That brought my name to millions of people who’d never heard of me or Jake. Also, Chartoff-Winkler [the producers] had hired me to go on a national publicity tour. And when that began, the exposure I received increased exponentially.
Jake was erratic during the promotional period. Sometimes he’d be kind and gentle. On other occasions, he was awful. I think what was going on was, he realised he still loved me. We were together daily. He was starting to feel that rightfully I belonged to him. But he knew I was gone and it made him miserable. Over and over, he’d tell me, “Vikki, I love you. Please marry me. We don’t even have to have sex. I just want you to be my wife and live with me.”
I’d tell him no. Then, as often as not, the conversation would turn ugly.
“You don’t understand, Vikki. Right now, you’re nothing. You’re a nobody. You need a man to pay the bills, and you have to f**k for it. That’s what I want. You’ve had sex with slobs before. You could f**k me.”
“Jake, stop it.”
“Please, Vikki. I’m tired of this s**t. I want to be happy. Don’t you need love and affection? Aren’t you curious after all these years? Let’s you and me go to bed together. Make me happy.”
“Jake, make me happy. Leave me alone.”
“Go f**k yourself.”
That’s how it was with Jake. He was a sad caricature of himself, reaching out for someone who wasn’t there anymore.
After the tour, we sat back and waited for the Academy Awards. Raging Bull received eight nominations. Best picture, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, director, cinematography, film editing, and achievement in sound. I was hoping desperately that Cathy would win. I also wanted to be there for the ceremony rather than watch it on television. But I wasn’t invited.
Several days before the ceremony, Jake telephoned and asked when I was going out to Hollywood. I told him the truth, that Chartoff-Winkler hadn’t given me a ticket. Then Jake did something nice. He called DeNiro. Bobby spoke to the powers that be, and a day later everything was set.
“Here’s your airplane ticket. Here’s your ticket for the awards ceremony. When you get to the coast, there will be a room in your name at the Beverly Wilshire.”
That was great. I flew to Los Angeles the day before the awards, went to the hotel – and there was no room for me. Cathy Moriarty and I had spoken a week earlier, and she’d told me, “If you come and don’t have a room, you can share with me.” I tried getting in touch with Cathy, but she’d gone out with her boyfriend and left word at the front desk that she wouldn’t be back until morning. The hotel was sold out.
Enter Jake. He and Jack were sharing a room at the Beverly Wilshire. “Come on, Vikki. You can sleep with me.”
“I’m not sleeping with you, Jake.”
“I don’t mean that way. Jack and I have twin beds. I’ll take one, you take the other, and Jack can sleep on the floor. He’s your son. You can trust him for the night even if you don’t trust me.”
So twenty-five years after I’d left Jake, we spent the night together at the Beverly Wilshire with Jack on the floor between us. The next day, a room at the hotel opened up. I think DeNiro handled that too.
The awards ceremony was vintage Hollywood. Johnny Carson was master of ceremonies. Cathy Moriarty lost out to Mary Steenbergen for best supporting actress. Ordinary People won the Oscar for best picture.
The nominees for best actor in addition to DeNiro were Jack Lemmon, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, and Peter O’Toole. Bobby won.
After the Academy Awards were over, I returned to Miami. For a while, it was nice just to relax and be at home. Then I started to feel let down. Harrison was eighteen and on his own. Everything I’d undertaken up until then was done. My life was quiet. I was living alone. I began to ask, what happens now?
Then Playboy came along.