Scorsese vs. Mailer: Boxing as Redemption in Raging Bull and An American Dream

From Project Mailer
Written by
Barry H. Leeds

Throughout most of his career, Norman Mailer has used gladiatorial combat, and boxing in particular, as a moral touchstone in his life as well as his work. Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese’s penetrating treatment of Jake La Motta’s boxing career and the role of violence as it defined La Motta both in and out of the ring, provides a number of parallels (and some significant differences in focus) to Mailer’s vision of boxing.

Unlike Mailer, who has been fascinated by boxing from the outset, Scorsese came reluctantly to the sport as an artistic subject. When Robert De Niro gave him the book Raging Bull and suggested it as a film project, Scorsese recalls, his response was: “A boxer? I don’t like boxing . . . The idea . . . was something I didn’t—couldn’t—grasp.”[1]

By contrast, Mailer has consistently treated violent confrontation as a central metaphor for his own artistic and personal struggles for growth, fulfillment, salvation. During his youth and middle age, he was known for his refusal to avoid a brawl. This ethic has been evident for at least thirty years in his writing. In his powerful essay titled “Death” in The Presidential Papers,[2] Mailer uses the first Sonny Liston/Floyd Patterson championship bout as a point of departure from which to develop a profound series of perceptions about the American national temperament, particularly that of blacks. In King of the Hill[3] and more strikingly in The Fight[4] he deals nominally with a specific fight but goes beyond journalism to find certain normative precepts in the sport. A more important level on which boxing informs Mailer’s vision is in his fiction, notably An American Dream[5] and Tough Guys Don’t Dance,[6] in which boxing experiences help define the protagonists. Stephen Richards Rojack and Tim Madden respectively find “the reward of the ring”[7] applicable to their quests for identity. Thus, Mailer has found in this arena of ritualized violence a rich source of perception about the human condition.

An interesting confluence of life and art informs the comparison between Scorsese and Mailer. In his seminal novel An American Dream, Mailer introduces a brief but significant confrontation between his protagonist, Stephen Richards Rojack (a university professor, television personality and amateur boxer) and a brash retired prizefighter, Ike “Romeo” Romalozzo. This provides a significant test of courage for Rojack in the series of challenges by which he wins the love of Cherry Melanie and finds his way to personal salvation and an existential definition of self. Romeo seems clearly modeled on Jake La Motta.

Despite the pitfalls of biographical criticism, it’s difficult to ignore the similarities between Romalozzo and La Motta or the fact that Mailer drew upon personal experience in this scene. Each of Mailer’s biographers to date,[8][9][10] recounts the story of how Mailer first met Beverly Bentley, who was to become his fourth wife and the prototype for Cherry in An American Dream. Mailer and his friend Roger Donoghue, a world middleweight contender from 1946 to 1952 with whom Mailer frequently sparred, and who says “Tough writers can fight,”[11] were drinking at P.J. Clarke’s on the East Side of Manhattan one spring night in 1963 when “a pretty blond actress, Beverly Bentley, walked in, accompanied by former middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta.”[8] Donoghue, who knew Bentley, introduced her to Mailer. According to Donoghue,

I don’t know what happened to La Motta that night, but a couple of years ago, in fact, I ran into Norman and asked how the divorce from Beverly was going. He says, ’. . . It’s goin’ tough.’ Then we got talking about the movie Raging Bull—it had just been released—and he cracked, ’Maybe I shoulda married Jake La Motta.’[9]

Mailer, like his character Stephen Rojack, took the boxer’s date home: according to Beverly, “I was attracted to the vulnerability beneath his tough act. He walked me to my apartment. That night he was wonderful in bed.”[8] The intervening events, in life unrecorded by any witness, are quite dramatic in the fictional scene in An American Dream. Romeo, who “had a very bad reputation in the ring”[12] tells Cherry, “They’re going to make a movie of my life” [13] The projected movie is described by Romeo in terms of clichés: “Story of a kid who goes bad, turns straight, goes bad again. . . . It’s the fault of the company he keeps. Bad influences. Cheap whiskey. Broads.”[13] He concludes, “If they get a good enough actor to play my part they are going to make a very good movie.”[13]

No better actor could have played La Motta than Robert De Niro in his Academy Award-winning performance in Raging Bull, and the film itself rises far above the Hollywood stereotypes described by Romeo. Yet the peculiarly American quality of the story as told in bald outline echoes the deceptively simple surface of Rojack’s tale, that of a man who murders his wife, meets a beautiful blonde and survives the American experience intact. Thus, both Scorsese and Mailer are able to take hackneyed situations and transmute them into true art that transcends the trite and predictable.

In the novel, the Romeo passage becomes one of the dramatic turning points of Rojack’s quest for personal salvation through courage. Although no blow is struck, Rojack’s refusal to retreat before Romeo’s crude bullying helps him grow morally and win the opportunity to begin his redemptive relationship with Cherry. More significantly, this scene raises the central issue of the similarities and differences between Mailer’s vision of boxing and personal confrontation in such protagonists as Rojack, and that of Scorsese and De Niro in their portrayal of La Motta.

Both Rojack and La Motta seek their identities largely through courage and violence; and each achieves a form of spritual purification only after tempering, even renouncing, this violence. As Mary Pat Kelly writes in Martin Scorsese: A Journey,

Scorsese and De Niro . . . have taken apart this man, Jake La Motta, and reconstructed not the fighter of reality, but the figure of a man so unconscious of his own feelings and emotions that he can speak only through violence . . . Yet Jake is conscious of the “bad things” he has done, and sees his defeats as a kind of punishment. His rise to the championship and his relationships with . . . women seem marked with a gratuitous brutality—for example, he-destroys the face of the good-looking fighter whom his wife Vicki [sic] has admired.[14]

Kelly goes on to suggest that at the film’s end, Jake, shouting “I am not an animal!” in his jail cell and in a subsequent scene embracing his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), “faces himself and, somehow, redemption begins . . . A man recognizes his own soul.”[14]

Stephen Rojack is a far more cerebral and introspective character, but his rebirth, too, comes from purging his rage and ultimately achieving a more profound knowledge of himself.

A crucial point of departure between Scorsese’s vision of regeneration and Mailer’s lies in their respective treatments of their protagonists’ relationships with women. Rojack sets out on his pilgrimage to salvation by murdering his witch-like wife Deborah with his bare hands, a scene rendered in pointedly combative terms. Deborah is described as a “prep-school bully,” a “wrestler,” a “gladiator.”[15] Yet his moral conversion comes about largely because of his commitment to a fertile love for Cherry, whose name suggests the virginal new beginning which their affair represents for both partners.

Both Cherry and Vickie La Motta (as portrayed by Cathy Moriarty) epitomize the voluptuous blonde to be pursued as part of the American dream. Vickie, from her first introduction to Jake in the movie’s pool scene, evokes an intense desirability and personal confidence. As Cis Corman remarks, “Vickie La Motta had something special . . . she had an attitude that was extraordinary. It said, ’I’m beautiful, I’m happy, life is joyous . . . “’.[16] Cherry is portrayed in her nightclub performance as looking something like Grace Kelly and even like Marilyn Monroe. Rojack tells us, “She looked at different instants like a dozen lovely blondes . . . She had studied blondes, this Cherry, she was all of them.... “.[17] Jake’s attitude towards Vickie, however, never seems to rise- above virulenti, self-destructive possessiveness, while Rojack is able to rise above jealousy to a relationship of reciprocal trust with Cherry which strengthens him.

Rojack’s continued moral progress may be traced by the strategically placed scenes in which he fights Shago Martin, Cherry’s ex-lover, and Barney Oswald Kelly, his satanic father-in-law. From Shago he learns mercy when, beaten, the singer says, “I don’t hate. Never . . . Tell Cherry, her and you, I wish you luck.” [18] In his struggle with Kelly, who tries cold-bloodedly to kill him, Rojack uses minimal force and consciously controls his rage, throttling the murderous frenzy he knows himself capable of.

La Motta, by contrast, chooses violence (admittedly his profession, his route to success) over sexual love, as exemplified in the scene when he extinguishes his lust for Vickie while training for a fight by pouring ice water over his erection. Yet, even in the film’s later scenes, the retired and overweight La Motta is characterized by the barely concealed threat of imminent violence coupled with predatory sexuality that surrounds him like an aura, as in the scene in which he takes marginally unacceptable liberties with the wife {Laura James) of State’s Attorney Bronson (D.J. Blair), to whom he is introduced in his night club. A related scene, in which La Motta permits a fourteen-year-old girl (Mary Albee) to be served alcohol, accepting her lie that she is twenty-one on the evidence of her sophisticated appearance and her kiss, echoes the passage in An American Dream when Romeo, upon being introduced to Cherry, kisses her on the mouth and says, “You could charge five bucks for those kisses.”[19]

Ultimately, La Motta is never redeemed to the degree that Rojack is. The extent of his moral change lies primarily in remorse: too little, too late. Even De Niro, who clearly felt an intense empathy for La Motta, says simply: “In the end, there was a lot of remorse with Jake, I think—with his brother, his wife . . . he’s sort of stoic. He takes the punishment. He created it, so he has to live with it.”[20]

La Motta’s story, like Rojack’s, is peculiarly American, characterized in its early stages by a hunger for fame and material success. Jake’s venality is mitigated by his commitment to his chosen profession: he cries after throwing a fight, and displays a religious devotion to his craft, as suggested by the opening credits sequence in which he is shown shadow-boxing in slow motion, alone in a mysteriously shadowy ring, hooded like a monk, to the accompaniment of the ethereal Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. (In the opera itself, the Intermezzo suggests a momentary religious sanctuary before a violent confrontation prompted by jealousy.)

Yet Rojack is more like an American Everyman in that he struggles with fear. In contrast, La Motta thrives on pain (as we see most dramatically in the scene in which he insists that his brother hit him in the face repeatedly) and ultimately reassesses his life only after his fall from the championship and the failure of his marriage.

Violence is central to both characters, Rojack and La Motta, the vehicle by which each defines himself. Both Raging Bull and An American Dream are masterpieces of character study. Ultimately, however, Rojack arrives at a more complete redemption than La Motta through a profound recognition and redefinition of himself which enables him not only to renounce his rage but to embrace selfless love, Christian mercy and a personal peace beyond that of the raging bull.

Thus, the central difference between Mailer’s protagonist and that created by Scorsese and De Niro is that Rojack, like many characters in Mailer’s work, uses his violence to purge his inner corruption and learns, cerebrally and spiritually, to grow beyond it to a true salvation. La Motta, after the end of his boxing career, is left only with remorse.


This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.
  1. Kelly 1991, p. 122.
  2. Mailer 1963.
  3. Mailer 1971.
  4. Mailer 1975.
  5. Mailer 1965.
  6. Mailer 1984.
  7. Mailer 1965, p. 16.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Mills 1982, p. 271.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Manso 1985, p. 374.
  10. Rollyson 1991, p. 155.
  11. Manso 1985, p. 677.
  12. Mailer 1965, p. 93.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Mailer 1965, p. 101.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Kelly 1991, p. 121.
  15. Scorsese 1980, p. 35.
  16. Kelly 1991, p. 131.
  17. Scorsese 1980, p. 94-95.
  18. Scorsese 1980, p. 183.
  19. Mailer 1965, p. 100.
  20. Kelly 1991, p. 143.

Works Cited

  • Kelly, Mary Pat (1991). "Blood on the Ropes". Martin Scorsese: a Journey. New York: Thunder’s Mouth. p. 119-150.
  • Mailer, Norman (1965). An American Dream. New York: Dell.
  • — (1963). "Death: Ten Thousand Words a Minute". The Presidential Papers. New York: Putnam’s. p. 213-267.
  • — (1975). "The Fight". Boston: Little.
  • — (March 19, 1971). "King of the Hill". Life. pp. 18–36.
  • — (1984). Tough Guys Don't Dance. New York: Random.
  • Manso, Peter (1985). Mailer: His Life and Times. New York: Simon.
  • Mills, Hilary (1982). Mailer: A Biography. New York: Empire.
  • Rollyson, Carl (1991). The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography. New York: Paragon.
  • Scorsese, Martin (Director) (1980). Raging Bull (Motion Picture). United Artists.