"Raging Bull": A love story

Raging Bull: Jake (Robert de Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci).

Upon watching Raging Bull last weekend for the first time in about nine years I was astonished—not just by Martin Scorsese’s direction and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing work, which remain as stunning as ever, but by Joe Pesci as Joey La Motta, which seems to me as just about as note-perfect a screen performance as any I’ve ever seen, and by the realization that the film is, more than anything else, about the tragic unraveling of the relationship of the brothers Joey and Jake.  Like so many films in the straight-guy film canon, Raging Bull is a buddy picture, a homosocial love story in which we are vastly more invested in the bond between the two men at the heart of the film than we are in any of its ancillary male-female relationships.  The last time I saw the film (in 2008) it struck me as “revealing the extent to which patriarchal systems destroy men as well as women,” and it still seems to me relentless in its exposure of what Internet critics today would probably call toxic masculinity—a heady brew of homophobia, misogyny, and fear of inadequacy, in which men’s tightly coiled fears about gender and sexuality repeatedly explode in scenes of violence.  It’s all there from the very first dialogue scene between Jake and Joey, where Jake confesses that he’s self-conscious about his “girl hands,” and then commands Joey to punch him in the face, over and over again, in order to prove (to Joey? To himself?) his toughness.   

Jake and Joey at table: "girl hands."

The relatively grounded Joey frequently serves as a voice of reason to Jake’s paranoia and emotional volatility.  In the “girl hands” scene, Joey tells Jake “I got ’em too” and when Jake complains that he’ll never get to fight Joe Louis, he says “He’s a heavyweight, you’re a middleweight.  It’s impossible.  It’ll never happen.  So why go crazy thinking about it?”  Throughout the film he tries to call Jake on his irrationality, his abusiveness, and his jealousy.  Other scenes find Joey doing something more complicated; like Jake, he is quick to assert his masculinity whenever it gets called into question, often by imitating Jake’s behavior.  Immediately after Jake reprimands his wife Vickie for talking back to him and orders her to take their child and leave the room, Joey does the same thing to his own wife—though there’s less raw anger coming off of him, because he’s only posturing. 

Jake reprimands Vickie (Cathy Moriarty); Joey reprimands Lenore (Teresa Saldana).

Much to his credit, Joey is never overcome by the same violent rage that’s always seething inside of Jake.  But he has to pretend it’s there.  Joey is always, often comically, falling short of a masculine “ideal” that Jake establishes.  (The one exception to this occurs when Joey, again acting as a kind of proxy for Jake, upbraids Vickie for coming to the Copacabana with Jake’s nemesis Salvy…and proceeds to beat Salvy to a pulp.)  What’s ironic is that Joey’s “failure” to be governed by that same violent rage—his level-headedness, his sense of humor, his willingness to shrug things off—is what saves him from spiraling into obsession and self-destruction the way that Jake does.

Whether or not it was ever the conscious design of Scorsese and his co-screenwriters, Raging Bull is as maniacal and punishing a film about the codes of male behavior as it is about boxing.  It’s a film populated entirely by men who are prisoners of an ideology that causes them to police their every action—and those of everyone around them.  Hence the homophobic insults that punctuate nearly every scene of the film (“you punch like you take it up the ass”; “what are ya, some sort of fag?”; “I’ll give you both a fuckin’ beating and you both can fuck each other”).  The homophobic discourse in the film is predicated on the ultimate fear of being fucked by another man—to “take it up the ass.”  And yet at its core the film is a homosocial romance about bonds between men being sundered, the penultimate scene of which finds Jake begging Joey to “give [him] a kiss,” clinging to him in desperation, looking for all the world like a heartsick lover.

The final embrace: "Give me a kiss"

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