Icons / September 2017

Cathy Moriarty: The Bronx Knockout

Cathy Moriarty was perfectly cast as the doe-eyed wife whose cheekbones were no defence against Jake LaMotta’s temper. Raging Bull, the 1980 classic, made Moriarty an overnight success, but Hollywood has not been kind to her since.

Moriarty played Vikkie LaMotta opposite Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, 1980.

We open on a wide interior shot of the Hoops nightclub in the Bronx on a Saturday night in 1978. Perhaps the smash hit of the day, Le Freak, is playing. The camera pans to a young actor with a big future and swagger to match at the bar. His name is Joe Pesci, and he is about to be distracted from his Jack Daniel’s by a photograph pinned to the bar. Flash backwards a few weeks to backstage at the same venue, where a 17-year-old blonde Bronx native is shivering in a bathing suit but determined to take out first prize in a beauty contest — a pair of black high heels with an ankle strap. She wins more than footwear. Or to put it in her words: “So this Italian guy comes up and asks if he can take my picture, and I say, ‘Sure, go ahead’, ’cause he’s gonna take it anyway. And whadd’ya know, this same guy calls me three weeks later, says his name is Joe Pesci and asks if I’d like to test for a part in this movie about a boxer named Jake LaMotta.”

The film, of course, was Scorsese’s 1980 monochromatic masterpiece Raging Bull, and Moriarty played LaMotta’s neophyte wife, Vikki, opposite Robert De Niro. As for the pedigree of her colleagues, Moriarty says bluntly: “I had never heard of them. I figured if they thought they were better than me, I’d just get mad and leave.” And after De Niro bruised her face in 12 takes of a fight scene, Cathy says: “I got him good later. I dug my nails into his back and pounded him. That wiped the smile off his face.”

Brittle to his brutal, angelic to his lumpen, and fine-boned to his bruising bloat, she was perfectly cast as the pretty possession whose cheekbones were no defence against the intimidation, temper and chauvinism of a man who spoke with his fists. If the director and leading man’s strategy was to cast a doe-eyed ingénue out of her depth, it worked. Though only to a point: deeper currents flowed within the teenager, who as one of seven in New York’s toughest borough knew a thing or three about not merely surviving but winning. Her debut film scored best supporting actress nominations at the Golden Globes, Baftas and Oscars, and did so because it was shot through with struts of foul-mouthed steel, fire and dignity in the face of one of the most violent men ever committed to celluloid.

In a film about bloodlust, Moriarty clearly supplied the lust. The sex scenes are so visceral, animalistic and just plain filthy that her father reportedly shredded a handkerchief during the first screening while muttering, “It’s just acting, it’s just acting, it’s just acting." Take a look at the poolside scenes, and LaMotta’s suspicion that everyone would take a crack at his platinum Lolita (most famously in the line to his brother Joey, “Did you fuck my wife?”) becomes almost understandable.

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David Smiedt