Success, Movies, Boxing

By Jonathan Wallace

Recently I watched two movies about boxing which are particular favorites of mine. One of them, Raging Bull, directed by Martin Scorsese, is one of the best American movies ever made. The other, Fat City, is a fine, lesser known work of John Huston. Both explode a classic American myth, best represented in Sylvester Stallone's original Rocky film.

The boxing movie is a variation on a particularly American theme, the "success" story. The basic outline: a man from a working class neighborhood has a talent for fighting. Despite the odds against him--he is poor, unknown, has nowhere to train, is opposed by mobsters or other entrenched interests in the fight world, and must challenge a strong, famous champion--he succeeds because of his moral purity and determination to win.

Roland Barthes once wrote that wrestling is a barely disguised morality play. Boxing is the pure and mainly honest version of that play, without the costumes, masks or makeup; one thing that makes it appealing, both in reality and on film, is that it is a particularly stark sport, involving a ring, a light hanging over it, a bell, and two fighters with minimal equipment. It is a sport without helmets, kneepads, or chest protectors. It involves minimal finesse or strategy, and is all about strength and endurance.

Raging Bull and Fat City make a fascinating double feature, as one movie portrays a world champion and the other a stumble bum at the very bottom (his life "always makes a beeline for the drain", Tully complains.) Both movies communicate that "success is failure": when you have what you want, what do you have?

Raging Bull is, like most boxing movies, about the top of the profession: Jake LaMotta awaits a shot at the world championship, which is deferred for years because of his stubborn integrity and refusal to do business with organized crime. Like Rocky, he is a proud man, though his strength seems to be rooted in a desire for independence rather than in any strongly held moral scheme.

In defining a frame for LaMotta and the movie, Scorsese very cleverly begins the film with two scenes: one of LaMotta preparing for his solo stand-up show in the 1960's--this is where the movie will end--and then shows us his married life in the 1940's when he is already a successful young fighter with a promising future. Young LaMotta is a working class thug in dowdy surroundings, yelling at his wife that the steak is overcooked and then throwing it on the floor. Soon he has met teenage Vickie at the neighborhood swimming pool; she becomes an aspiration almost as important as the championship belt. Though she is a girl of the neighborhood, she presents as something better: she has a kind of serene perfection which, as we discover, is unaccompanied by the kind of moral purity the character would possess in a lesser movie.

LaMotta finally comes to understand that he will never have a shot at the title unless he comes to an accomodation with the mob: his ambition overcomes his pride and he agrees to throw a fight. The fighter against whom he is matched is a bum; LaMotta is too proud to go down on an early punch, and as a result must pick up his adversary after knocking him down. After he throws the fight, we see him crying uncontrollably; the next scene, in which his brother, played by Joe Pesci, demonstrates how to fall down on the first punch, is one of the funniest in the movie.

LaMotta's awkward corruption results in his suspension pending an investigation by the state boxing commission, but the powers that be keep their promise and he is given a successful shot at the title. At the moment at which most boxing movies end, LaMotta has only reached the middle of his journey. What do you do when you have everything you ever wanted? LaMotta complains bitterly that he can never fight Joe Louis: he is a middleweight, and Louis is the heavyweight champion. The film never gives you the sense that LaMotta derives any particular satisfaction from winning the championship. We watch him gain weight, argue with his wife, lose the championship again and retire from fighting, at which point he confronts the question of what to do next after you have been the world champion. His particular solution is to open a nightclub in Miami, where he performs stand up comedy and is in the spotlight every night. We watch him get stuck in the middle of a joke; he is not insecure or hesitating, but reciting a sort of litany: "Look at you, and look at me, and look at you, and look at me...."

Underaged girls came into the club, and he introduced them to men who had sex with them. He is arrested and learns from his attorney that $10,000 in bribes will result in dismissal of the case. Vickie has already left him, and he goes to her house to get his championship belt. The dregs of his stubbornness prevent him from pawning the belt; instead he seizes a hammer and breaks it up to remove the diamonds from it. The pawnbroker tells him that the belt--a "one of a kind" item--would have had much more value. He fails to raise the $10,000, and goes to prison. Two police officers wrestle him, incoherent and belligerent, into a holding cell, and we watch Jake LaMotta melt down into a punching, spasming wreck who bellows that he is not an animal. At rock bottom we reach the moral center of the movie. LaMotta in the cell is reminiscent of Anthony Quinn, as Zampano, weeping on the beach at the end of La Strada.

I have said elsewhere that Hollywood movies increasingly fear endings, and tend to peter out inconclusively. This is primarily caused by fear of the audience, but it may also relate to the American phenomenon which Scott Fitzgerald highlighted when he said, "There are no second acts in American life." Boxing movies tend to be an exception, as victory in the ring provides a ready-made ending: fade out on the battered champion, smiling and raising his gloves.

Most human lives are long enough that they raise the question of what comes after you get what you want. The really interesting questions arise at the moment when most movies end. Boy gets girl, but how do they navigate, how do they mediate their differences, for the next forty years? Most movies end at "I have everything I ever wanted," but there is a lot more to say, more abiding interest in "I almost had it" or "I had it for a while." Comedy is superficial, tragedy is substantial. All happy families are alike, Tolstoy said, but each unhappy one suffers in its own particular way. In the movie Broadcast News, William Hurt asks, "What do you do when your life exceeds your wildest dreams?" Albert Brooks replies, "You keep it to yourself."

LaMotta aspires to two things, the championship and Vickie. He gets them both by mid-movie, and loses both afterwards. The Second Law of Thermodynamics predetermines that anyone who wins a world championship will lose it later, as he ages and fails. LaMotta loses Vickie because he is jealous (though he has some reason) and because he is brutal to her. He estranges his brother as well, going to his house and beating him in front of his wife and children.

La Strada ends with Quinn crying on the beach, but we get to watch LaMotta reintegrate himself, rather quietly, into a smaller man. He comes back as a standup comedian, working small empty bars and burlesque shows (for a few minutes late in the movie he is in the territory which Fat City never leaves). He sees his brother on the street and tries to patch things up with him. In an extended, virtuoso sequence we watch DeNiro, who gained a substantial amount of weight for the role, rehearsing his act when he finally has the opportunity to present it in a much larger hall. He is a quieter, more modest man, but life is still about success, about being in the spotlight, having the adulation of a crowd. We last see him shadow-boxing in front of a mirror, psyching himself up to go on stage.

Fat City is the anti-Rocky: about two small time fighters, one just starting out and the other past his peak (though we discover late in the movie he is not yet thirty). The film is set in (and never leaves) Stockton, California, magnificently presented as a world of seedy bars, flophouses, and itinerant labor in the fields. Both protagonists are going nowhere: you can't speak of a "one way ticket to Palookaville" when describing someone who has always lived there.

I admire Huston for making this film, which probably didn't make any money. If Raging Bull is about success and failure, Fat City portrays marginal characters who swim only in a sea of failure; they are mainly as unaware of it as fish are of water.

Huston and Scorsese are both artists who have worked successfully in the Hollywood system, which does everything it can to inoculate itself against art, for fear of not making money. Modern Library recently reissued Lillian Ross' Picture, a description of John Huston's efforts to film Red Badge of Courage in the 1950's. Huston's conception of the novel was that the hero's climactic courage was as absurd and meaningless as his initial cowardice. When the studio panicked and began reworking the picture into an epiphany about courage overcoming fear--an American success story-- Huston simply lost interest, abandoned the film, and went on to his next project, the immensely popular and commercially successful African Queen. Huston and Scorsese both have alternated between projects they obviously love and films intended to cater to the lower level of studio taste.

If the studio had interfered in Fat City, it would have become Rocky. Huston clearly got to do what he couldn't in Red Badge of Courage: film exactly the movie he wanted. As such, he delivered one of the bleakest masterpieces ever made: a movie about people with no chance of redemption.

What makes them so interesting is that they are very nice people. Jeff Bridges, as the young fighter, is a very likeable kid. He is always nice to everyone, and when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, he marries her. His problem is that every time we see him fighting, he tries to protect his face instead of throwing any punches, and usually gets knocked out after a few moments. At the end of the movie, Stacy Keach, as the "aging" stumblebum, tells him, "The first time I saw you, I said to myself...." In a Rocky-style American success story, the sentence would end: "There's a man who has the stuff." But Keach says, "There's a man who's soft at the core." And he's right; and Bridges hears him out, and goes right on being nice to him.

Keach's performance as Tully is as great, in its own quiet way, as DeNiro's as Jake LaMotta. Keach specializes in the vacuous stare, the bewilderment, of a man too low even to know how marginal he is. He has all the elements: low intelligence, lack of motivation, and a liking for alcohol. Like Bridges, he is too nice to be a fighter: even when drunk, he is usually very kind, and his few rages, rather than being frightening, are ineffectual.

There is a moment which contains interesting echoes of the beginning of Raging Bull. There LaMotta is bullying his wife who is cooking a steak for him. In a key scene of Fat City, Tully is cooking a steak for an alcoholic girlfriend. She will not eat, and he tries to bully her into it ("you need your protein," he snarls.) LaMotta's steak ends up on the floor; Tully cannot bring himself to throw his and puts it back in front of his girl, who finally takes a few bites. During Raging Bull, LaMotta smashes a lot of crockery; Tully is clumsy, and when he drops a bottle of ketchup in the threadbare apartment, he just leaves it there and gets another one.

We have minimal details of Tully's prior life. When we first meet him, he is drinking and working as a day laborer, showing up every day at a hiring area hoping to get selected to pick walnuts, pull weeds or harvest fruit. After he has already moved in with his girlfriend, he shows Bridges a photo of a doll-like blonde woman, his wife, who left him but whom he will send for if he succeeds. Needless to say, she never shows up in the movie. With no other particular motivation, he decides to get back into fighting, and he contacts his old trainer, Ernie. Amusingly performed by the same actor who played the character Coach in the TV series Cheers (and who also makes an appearance in Raging Bull), Ernie himself is a loser who only works with fighters who don't have the right stuff. Bridges, referred by Tully, is another customer of his.

Both Tully and Bridges are soft: they lack the vicious electricity DeNiro is famous for and brings to the character of Jake LaMotta.

We learn that like the detective in Chinatown, Tully's life circles an old disaster: To save money, Ernie once sent him to Panama for an important fight without accompanying him. The other fighter cut Tully over the eye, ending the fight, and only when Tully returned to the US did Ernie determine that the cuts were made not by a punch, but by a razor. Tully, drunk or sober, can't stop talking about how different life would have been if Ernie had come with him to Panama (reminiscent of the "I could have been a contender" speech from On The Waterfront).

Like LaMotta at mid-point in Raging Bull, Tully now has a woman and an important fight scheduled. He has started training and stopped drinking. We see him relapse once after his argument with his girlfriend over the steak; Ernie convinces him to leave her and pays for a room in a flophouse.

Ernie goes to see a local fight promoter. In a scene that in another movie would be set in a nightclub or fancy restaurant, we discover the boxing magnate behind the counter at a bowling alley. Ernie asks for a "tuning bout" and the promoter keeps responding that "Tully won't draw." He finally suggests that Tully fight a well-known but over the hill Mexican boxer and Ernie is frightened but finally accepts.

The Mexican man arrives, unaccompanied, by bus. Reminiscent of one of Hemingway's aging, frightened bullfighters, Huston masterfully establishes across a series of scenes with no dialog that the fighter has consummate dignity, a busted gut, and is pissing blood. (In general the dialog in both Raging Bull and Fat City is almost nonexistent, more background noise than exposition). In the bout, Tully, at the minimal top of his game, figures out that his adversary is "weak downstairs" and keeps hitting him in the stomach. The opponent has some vestiges of his old strength; he and Tully both knock each other down several times, and once Ernie seems to be telling Tully not to get back up. Finally Tully, who has at last shown a small amount of electricity, outlasts the other fighter. Staring vacuously, he asks Ernie, "Did I get knocked out?" "No, you won," Ernie answers, and Tully stumbles across the ring for the traditional hug.

Ernie drives Tully back to his skid row hotel, and the movie reveals its moral epiphany: After Ernie deducts his cut the money he has advanced Tully for room and board in the last months, the purse Tully has just won comes to less than $200. Tully reacts with benumbed anger and disappointment, and reproaches Ernie again about Panama. Ernie promises him another fight in five or six weeks.

Tully goes back to see the girlfriend, who has returned to an old boyfriend. The other man is one more nice loser, who compliments Tully on the fight, and gives him back his clothes, including a T-shirt of Tully's he is wearing because all of his own are in the wash.

In the next and final scene, Tully is drinking again. He runs into Bridges (who has just won a fight) and they go for coffee together. Tully mutters something about his life "making a beeline for the drain"; sitting in a greasy spoon diner, they both stare into space, and the movie suddenly ends, leaving the viewer feeling challenged and indignant.

For LaMotta, success contained the seeds of failure, and was not really satisfying; but for Tully, one of life's hapless bottom-feeders, success was failure. Both films ask and answer the highly interesting question, "When you have everything you sought, what do you have?" In both, success, like life itself, is the victory of a very temporary order over the Second Law, and cannot impose itself for very long.