Thirty years ago, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro took a gamble when they joined forces to make the boxing drama Raging Bull. The film chronicled middleweight champion Jake La Motta, an antihero for the ages. On the tail of the success of Rocky, this was a risky and much darker take boxing tome. Scorsese admitted to never really understanding sports, and the movie was shot in black and white, hardly the norm in 1980. Eight Oscar nominations and two wins later, Raging Bull is an American film classic.
Back then, Scorsese had a habit of casting unknowns, like a short, stalky firecracker named Joe Pesci, and Frank Vincent, who became a Scorsese regular. One night, Pesci and Vincent met Cathy Moriarty at a Bronx nightclub and passed her photo along to Scorsese. A doppelganger for the real Vickie La Motta, Moriarty was cast in her first acting role at 18 years old, as the wife of Robert De Niro’s lead.
La Motta was ferocious in the ring, but nothing compared to the rage, obsession and paranoia he had over his wife Vickie. What made Moriarty’s acting so powerful in the film was that she got her point across with very little dialogue, and projected a sexual confidence well beyond her years. Moriarty earned a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her efforts. To celebrate this month’s 30th anniversary of Raging Bull, we spoke to Moriarty about her on-screen debut three decades ago. Also, check out the photo gallery from the private collection of the film’s original on-set photographer, Brian Hamill.
You were so young when you first met De Niro and Scorsese. What was that experience like? I first met with a lovely woman named Cis Corman, who was the casting director. She brought me into a room to meet Bobby and Marty. I was only seventeen and I didn’t have much fear, which was probably a good thing. They asked me to read some sides and I guess that since I wasn’t nervous, I did really well. If I had to do it today, I would have blown it!
Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent and yourself were unknown actors when you were cast in Raging Bull. Do you think that added to the realism of the film? I probably took more advice and guidance because I didn’t really know anything about the character I portrayed. I knew where she came from and what she looked like, but the movie was not shot through her eyes. Scorsese and De Niro, God bless them, were absolute saints. They walked me through every little step of the way. I have done two other movies with De Niro and for the rest of my life, I will be forever grateful to these people for all they did.
Did Scorsese give you acting advice? No, he would just say, “What if it was this way?” I admit that I was stuck there for a while, not knowing exactly what to do. For example, I thought my screen test was going to be shot with a video camera. What did I know? I didn’t know there was going to be a whole entire crew present. Right before we shot the first scene during the screen test, I was waiting for the crew to leave. Marty told me that they weren’t leaving. I said. “Okay, why didn’t you tell me that? Let’s go.” Another actress was scheduled to come into screen test right after me and they wound up canceling her.
Were your parents worried about you traveling and doing this part? They were panic-stricken and I wasn’t. I’ll never forget the last look on my dad’s face.
The movie must have definitely been a boys club on-set. How was that experience for you? I was a glowing 18-year old blonde girl in a boys club, but I had my moments. All in all, they were very protective and caring of me. If I had a boyfriend, they would say, “You can’t go out with him!” They were more fatherly than anything.
Did you meet Vickie La Motta for research? We had sent each other letters back and forth, but they didn’t want us speaking because the movie was shot through Jake’s eyes and not hers. Since the movie wasn’t really about her, maybe they felt that I wasn’t ready to handle meeting her. If she came to the set, they made sure I wasn’t there. They definitely did not want me speaking with her or meeting her. Once the movie was over, I flew down to Florida and stayed with Vicki for a couple of days. We stayed great friends until she passed away a week or two before the twenty-fifth anniversary of Raging Bull. She did say to me, “I’m very proud. You did a good job. I liked me.”
You are so natural in the role. Do you think it was the non-experience and naiveté that helped you pull that off? I learned one thing from De Niro: He taught me to listen. Nobody says anything strictly from the script. It’s improvised. It was the best piece of advice I have ever gotten in my life. It has helped me through the past thirty years.
How difficult was it physically, to do the infamous “Did you fuck my wife?” scene with De Niro? It hurt. Definitely hurt. It was probably one of my hardest scenes. It was not only very physical, but then to top it off, the movie was seen through Jake’s eyes and how he visualized what happened. So I had nowhere to go in order to do any research. I could talk to the real Jake La Motta all day long, but it didn’t make a difference as far as my own character was concerned. I grew up with my parents adoring each other. We didn’t have physical brutality and I had no life experience with that. The love scene was definitely hard, too.
Did De Niro always stay in character? He was always in character, which made it very scary. Thank God that I trusted him and I knew he would never hurt me. He was the one who taught me how to create a character and stay in character.
After delving deeper into the life of Vickie La Motta, do you feel there was any truth in Jake’s constant paranoia about her cheating on him with Tommy, Salvy or his own brother, Joey? Or, do you think that it was all conjured up in his own mind? I think it was due to his own insecurities. He was a paranoid person. A lot of delusional stuff was happening, I would imagine. Vickie was always walking on eggshells because she didn’t know what Jake was going to do or what he was thinking. The next minute something would snap in his head and he’d go into a rage. He worshipped Vickie and wanted to make sure he was the only one who did.
De Niro went through that famous transition to the older years of Jake that brought him an Oscar for Best Actor. Was it difficult for you to play an older Vickie? I played her from ages 15 to 35, so it was kind of hard. But it was a hell of a lot harder for Bob to gain all of that weight. As he transitioned, he started drinking milkshakes and eating cheesecake, which I loved having also. Then, I realized my ass was getting fat and I told him he had to gain the weight by himself!
You have gone on to act in over 30 films after your debut in Raging Bull. Looking back on all the directors you’ve worked with, how is Scorsese unique? I got spoiled. Marty is brilliant. He asks your opinion, which makes you feel like you count for something. It helped me because I felt I was part of the whole process as opposed to being an outsider hired to play a role. A lot of times, Marty took my instincts into consideration and said, “That’s good. Let’s go with that.” I will never forget his kindness and his family’s kindness. I hung out with his daughter, Catherine, on set. His mother could make a lasagna like I have never seen!
Speaking of food, you own a few Italian restaurants called Mulberry Street Pizzeria in the Los Angeles area. I have two in Beverly Hills and one in Encino and I’m looking to open a bunch more. I always worked in restaurants in New York and I can cook, so I felt I might as well make money from it. We make a hell of a slice and a damn good meatball.
Did you keep any mementos from the filming of Raging Bull? I still have my original script. It wasn’t even called Raging Bull. It was called The Prize Fighter. When you watch Raging Bull thirty years later, what do you think of the experience of making that movie? I think I had the opportunity of a lifetime. If I knew the importance of the role, the movie and the people involved I might have had a different take on it back then. Being so young and having no fear and because of the kindness that Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci and Frank Vincent expressed to me, I felt secure enough that I could hold my own. I never really felt intimidated. I will always be grateful for what they did for me. It’s nice to be part of history. My biggest accomplishment in life is being a mom and I will put Raging Bull down as a close second.