They come out fighting.
"You stand behind the chair," says Jake LaMotta, the ex-middleweight champion, to Vickie, the ex-Mrs. LaMotta, on the occasion of having their photograph taken in a hotel suite.
"Sneaky," she says. "If he liked me, he'd let me sit in his lap."
"Awright already, let the man take the picture."
He talks as if words are something he's trying to clear out of his sinuses, the effect of growing up poor and Italian in the Bronx, and of 106 pro fights from 1941 to 1954: 83 wins, 19 losses and four draws. Plus four marriages, an attempted-burglary conviction and a morals conviction involving a 14-year-old prostitute in the nightclub he owned for a while in Miami after he quit fighting. It's all in the movie about him, "Raging Bull."
Anyhow, Vickie, the ex-wife leans over, pushes her face up next to his. They mug, they tease, they goof. She is beautiful, still a world-class blond at 49 in a corduroy jump suit. She lives in North Miami, she says, "in the same house Jake and I lived in before the divorce."
"That isn't the house."
"It's the same house we had since we got married," she says, pointing out to a visitor that "This is a family argument."
"You argue," Jake says holding up a fist which for all that it scored 30 knockouts is surprisingly small, even delicate.
"C'mon, I'm started, lemme talk, I'm talking. He asked me. . . "
"You're gonna be argumentative. . . "
"I feel good today," she says, and she recalls that in spite of the nonstop arguments and slapping-around and drunkenness portrayed in the movie, "the majority of the time it was a great marriage. He was very gentle, even when he was training. It wasn't till the end, when he quit fighting and bought the lounge down in Miami, that it got bad."
But what about the relentless berserker jealousy that has him pounding down doors and attacking his own brother in the movie?
She shrugs: "That was always. With Jake it was all-consuming. It wasn't just of men. He was jealous of my family, my girlfriends. You gotta realize, I was 15 1/2 when I met him, he didn't want anybody influencing me, he wanted to teach me."
She holds her hand to her ear as if she's talking on the phone. "Hello, sister Pat? You can't come over, you know how Jake is."
Jake listens. Jake waits. Jake could always take a hard shot, be it words or fists. He recalls that sports columnist Jimmy Cannon once called him "the most detested man in sports" because of the fight he threw to Billy Fox in 1947. And in the 13th round, Feb 14, 1951 -- 18 months after he won the title from Marcel Cerdan -- he hung on to the rope and let Sugar Ray Robinson take it away by blasting his blood and sweat all over the crowd with one undefended punch after another. He wouldn't fall down. The Bronx Bull.The Raging Bull. With a nose now like something that crawled under his skin and fell asleep.
"To become champ I thought you had to be vicious, cruel and mean. The way the picture comes out, somebody thinks I was a mean guy, I don't blame 'em. But that was just the first third of my life. I'm 58, I couldn't live with myself if I was like that now. You get in training and it takes you years to get out, you know what I mean. Sexually, you were in training, you had to stay away from it. Subconsciously I thought I was depriving her of something she needed. I would imagine all sorts of things," he says. He looks suprisingly, even ominously meek, small . . . as if you might look down from his chair and find that his feet didn't touch the floor.
It's Vickie who comes on strong, bouncing her big blond hair around, flashing toothpaste teeth, offering martyred shrugs as she remembers it all.
"I didn't care if he was jealous like that, it's the truth. If I had no girlfriends, so what, I had my man."
Jake looks at her like he's puzzled, like what-is-this-anyway. "I think he thinks you mean you don't care what I think."
"Let me finish," she says. "He was my man. But at the end, in Miami, he was loud, boisterous, bragging, everything I don't like in a man."
"That reminds me, that reminds me, that reminds me," Jake says, lighting a Marlboro Light with slow-fingered care, as if it were a cigar. "You started getting jealous yourself, you started checking up on me."
"Jake was fooling around," she explains. "The drinking . . . he was crazy . . . I thought it was the punches he'd taken. . . "
"He didn't realize," she says, "it's like a lot of men -- can't do without it, they have to have it once a week. But for women, it isn't the final act -- it's the lovemaking they want. Even when he was in training, we'd be touching and patting."
"What did I know?" Jake says. "I started boxing when I was 17, after I got out of reform school. That's all I knew. I'd been fighting amateur since I was 8. We lived in Philadelphia then, Primo Carnera was the champion, I'd go out on the street, they'd call me Primo."
"Isn't it funny, a little prizefighter? Picture that," she says, with a meditative smile. "Or it's sad."
They're friends now, they say. They've both been working as technical consultants on the movie ever since Robert De Niro, who plays La Motta in "Raging Bull," read his autobiography of the same name three years ago.
"There's periods I blank out, on account of the drinking. I say, 'Ask Vickie,'" he says.
The autobiography blames all his problems on the claim that when Jake was 16, he wrapped a newspaper around a lead pipe and beat a bookie named Harry Gordon to death with it, then robbed him. He felt guilty. He knew he was going to pay. It's a great plot device for a life that had all the pacing of bulldozer, but it's also a bit of what Jake calls "Lterary license."
According to the book, La motta not only learns that Harry Gordon didn't die like the newspaper said, he learned it when Gordon walked into the celebration after La Motta won the title.
Now . . . really.
"Tell him what happened," Vickie inisists.
"I'll tell him."
"I don't think he saw Harry Gordon after the fight. The writers they had on the book, they had it all wrong. There was no party after the fight, there was no hoods and girls in low-cut dresses. That scene was wrong, because the one thing he wanted, he always wanted after any fight was to be alone with me," she says, leaning forward nodding and staring, like she's giving lesson in how to agree with her.
"The Cerdan fight, we had a party," he says.
"We didn't have any hoods."
"I didn't say we had hoods."
"There weren't any low-cut dresses."
Jake looks away, shaking his head. "I don't remember that in the book."
Now she's mad.
"We'll get out the book, we'lll get it out and show him, all right?"
Jake levels a finger at her. "There's a lot of truth in that book."
She backs off. Shuts up. Waits.
Whatever the facts, both the book and the movie describe a world of violence and corruption unimaginable to anyone who didn't grow up in it. And this world has largely vanished, for Italians, he says.
"The race that's persecuted is the one in boxing," he says. "First you had the Irish and the Jews. Then the Italians. Now the blacks, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans. . ."
"I hope you don't mind," Vicki interrupts politely. "Sometimes I get a thought."
"Who asked you?"
"I get a thought that it's like rats -- you put two rats together in an experiment, they're okay, but you put six, you get them overcrowded they get violent, they. . ."
"Vicki, I explained that when. . ."
"You explained it but I was . . . I was analyzing it as a truth," she says, watching him to see if he believes her.
"Okay. Now I'll continue, before I was so rudely interruped. The Irish guy would train 50 rounds for every one he'd fight. I'd train 500 rounds."
"That's how you get to be champion," says Vicki.
The problem, of course, was that to get to be champion La Motta also had to first throw the Billy Fox fight for the benefit of certain bettors who dumped so much money on Fox the bookmakers wouldn't take any more of it. Fix: The papers were full of it. Also, La Motta was a brawler, not a boxer, a graceless ex-con, a raging bull.
In the book, La Motta says there were boos before and after he beat the Frenchman, Cerdan, for the title.
"I didn't hear it, if it was," says Vicki, bristling.She'll go after him, but don't anybody else try.
Then again, who asked her? "So what," Jake says to her. "There's booing in every fight."
"What I'm saying is that the adulation drowned it out," she says.
They glower at each other.
Vicki purses her lips and pops them apart in a big kiss through the air at him.
He lifts his fist again. "You're gonna get it."
"That's why I gave you the kiss," she says. She looks sly, happy, certain. She's gone a million rounds with him. She can do it and paint her fingernails at the same time, which she does.
He's been up, he's been down, she's seen it all.
"I made a couple million fighting, I went through everything. When De Niro came into my life I was just managing, paying expenses. It's been a steady climb, slowly, two steps up, one step down. I'd like to do legitimate theater. When I left Miami [in 1958, after a six-month jail term for the morals offense] I went to dramatic school for two years. Two years. I played the lead in four different plays. I did 14 movies, mostly B-types."
"He had a small part in 'The Hustler,'" Vickie says. "And you had one in 'Splendor in the Grass,' what were you in that?"
"I was behind the bar."
"I saw it and I said 'What is he?'"
He holds out his hands. "Everybody looks at these hands and says 'Artistic. Delicate.' It makes me think I wasn't meant to be a fighter. I have fine talents."
He once even put on "An Evening With Jake La Motta," in which he did a one-man recitation from the works of Shakespeare, Paddy Chayefsky, John Steinbeck and Budd Schulberg . . . the Schulberg script from "On the Waterfront," in which Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, the punch-drunk loser who gives the famous taxi-cab soliloquy to the brother who convinced him to throw a fight, and his career, down the drain "for the short-end money."
"You want me to do it for you now?" Jake asks.
He hikes his shoulders, looks away, and then turns back to deliver it, word for word. . . "You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda took care of me a little bit . . . you said: 'Kid, this ain't your night' . . . I coulda took Wilson apart . . . but what happens? He gets a title shot outdoors in a ballpark and I get a one-way ticket to palooka-ville."
He flares his hand from his chest, he frowns, he pleads, he slumps.It's not Brando but it's all right.
"I coulda been a contender."
And think of it: Jake La Motta was champion of the world.