'Raging Bull' Premieres, at Last

'Raging Bull' Premieres | Remembering a Survivor

'Raging Bull' Premieres, at Last

Twenty-five years ago, Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" did not get the kind of premiere movies receive today.

There were no klieg lights or red carpets or press line. Instead, Scorsese said last night, he took the just-finished print to the now-defunct Sutton Theater in Manhattan and they started playing it at noon.

"I was late, too," he said last night when "Raging Bull" — considered by many to be the best film of the '80s, and by some better than anything done in the '90s — finally had its "official" premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater.

That was followed by a big bash at Cipriani 42nd St. in Manhattan that featured a regulation-sized boxing ring and real fighters duking it out while patrons dined on buffet food.

The occasion was the film's 25th anniversary and its release on DVD as part of a Scorsese boxed set of "special" discs from United Artists.

"We took it by hand to the Sutton Theater," Scorsese recalled. "It took us four months to mix [the sound for] the picture, but the projectionist had just bought two new speakers from Radio Shack. He said, 'They're great!'" Scorsese shook his head and got a big laugh.

Times have changed. Scorsese also remembered that "Raging Bull" was the first movie that director of photography Michael Chapman had shot in black-and-white.

"We did some tests, and the first day's rushes were ruined," he said, "because they put them in the color [developer]. We were kind of stricken by that."

The film's Oscar-winning star, Robert De Niro, who played boxer Jake LaMotta, was there, but couldn't be persuaded to say more than his customary, "Hello and enjoy the movie" when given the mike.

Scorsese thanked his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker in absentia, mistakenly thinking she was still in Los Angeles working on the DVD of "The Aviator."

"Is she here?" he asked when audience members around her started screaming to the front of the theater. "Is it finished?" a surprised Scorsese asked, laughing, when he found out Schoonmaker was in the room.

Publicist Marion Dougherty, actress Cathy Moriarity (who played Vickie LaMotta), producer Irwin Winkler and a number of New York actors, such as Christopher Walken and John Turturro, were also in the audience.

(Keen-eyed viewers of the film will spot a very young Turturro in an uncredited bit, as well as "The Practice" star Michael Badalucco. Blonde soap actress McKenzie Westmore played LaMotta's very brunette 3-year-old daughter.)

But there was no sign of Joe Pesci, De Niro's co-star, who gives the performance of a lifetime in "Raging Bull" as LaMotta's brother and doormat. Pesci hasn't made a movie since 1998 and continues to be conspicuously absent from the scene.

Also missing were screenwriter Paul Schrader, who's out of town working on a new film. Nicholas Colosanto, better known as Coach on the TV series "Cheers," passed away in 1985.

Nevertheless, both Jake and Vickie LaMotta, plus their kids and a big contingent of family and friends, helped fill the grand Ziegfeld Theater to overflowing.

In fact, I have never seen the Ziegfeld so packed for an event; during the screening, people sat on the floor in the aisles because there were no seats. Scorsese followers, and there are legions of them, watched the film with reverence and awe.

When the screening was over, most of them talked about the shocking fact that Scorsese still does not have an Oscar for Best Director. The timing of this boxed set may help his chances with "The Aviator," which is now considered first in the running for Best Picture this year.

Ironically, Scorsese's biggest competitor is "Million Dollar Baby," a boxing movie which is descended from "Raging Bull" and couldn't have been made unless the Scorsese film had preceded it.

And what of "Raging Bull?" De Niro, Scorsese said, worked out all through the shooting of the pair's preceding picture, the underrated classic "New York, New York," so he could be in shape for "Raging Bull."

De Niro, as legend now certifies, gained about 50 pounds to look like the aged LaMotta after playing him in top shape as the middleweight champion of the world.

Scorsese added, "He had trouble getting rid of it."

But it started a whole generation of actors changing their appearance for roles.

The whole experience of watching "Raging Bull" last night on a big screen, I think, was for everyone quite astounding. Not only does it hold up beautifully, but "Raging Bull" remains the same sort of timeless piece of art as does "Citizen Kane." Schrader's dialogue as spoken by De Niro and Pesci in countless exchanges has a musical, lyrical quality that is almost operatic.

Scorsese's shots and Schoonmaker's cuts — especially in the boxing sequences — remain unmatched for realism and excitement even today. Even the attention to little details, which are so numerous, contributes to the power of this nearly perfect movie achievement.

Holocaust Anniversary: Remembering a Survivor

Yesterday, the world marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on what is now known as Holocaust Memorial Day.

Many stories have been told about the remarkable survivors, but one incredible saga is rarely shared. It's so incredible I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't snatched it up.

I wrote about Siggi Wilzig, a self-made multi-millionaire and close friend of writer Elie Wiesel, in The New York Observer in January 1999.

His sons were then the talk of the Hamptons for building an actual castle on the beach with a ballroom that was being used for fabled parties. His eldest son, Ivan Wilzig, was recently profiled in The New York Times for wearing a cape around town and recording disco songs.

Sadly, Siggi Wilzig passed away two years ago at age 76. But his story is one of incredible triumph over the worst possible conditions. I thought it might be apropos to remember him today.

Wilzig was one of the few survivors not interviewed for Steven Spielberg's Shoah project, because he hoped to write his own book. But what a story he had: At Auschwitz, he watched in horror as 59 members of his family were killed over a three-year period.

When he arrived in America, he had nothing and knew no one. But when I met him, he was presiding over the Trustcompany Bank of New Jersey, a business he had built from scratch into an empire.

His credo was carved in marble above a fireplace in one of his offices: "Free men who forget their bitter past do not deserve a bright future."

At Auschwitz, Wilzig told me, "I went through 18 to 20 selections. Standing naked with a bundle under my arms. But I tell you this: I never thought I was going to die."

His voice — accented still in tenor-ish German — rose to shrillness at this point.

"It was such a will to survive, it would have been impossible to me not to survive!" ("Are you getting this down?" he asked me several times during our lunch. "Is that thing taping?")

How did it happen? The Wilzigs were an old German family with a 200-year investment in the country. Nevertheless, in early 1943, they were removed to Auschwitz because they were Jews. Siggi was then 16 and had already spent two years doing forced labor.

Two days after her arrival, Siggi's mother was murdered. On April 8, 1943, his father was killed in front of him.

"I remember every single day I was there," Wilzig said.

One brother was beaten to death right away. Two others were killed by the Nazis two days before the camp was liberated.

"And they were buried two days after the war was over," he said.

His last four months in Auschwitz were spent working in a laundry, where the clothes of murdered Jews were washed and redistributed to the Germans.

"I found in the middle of August my late mother's mishpocha [family]. They all fled to Holland. They got caught and came with the last transport in the beginning of August two months after D-Day, from Holland to Auschwitz, and I found the laundry marks on the clothes."

In the camp, he learned to survive. He squirreled away valuables like jewelry inside massively high rolls of toilet paper for use in the camp's black market. And he saw a lot.

"In 1943 and '44, they took blood from the stinking Jewish people and gave it to the wounded soldiers on the Russian front. No one ever recorded that. I did it twice. [As a reward] they gave me an extra piece of bread and one time a bone. Like special soup from horse meat."

He paused, surprising himself. He had never told his children this story.

In January 1945, Siggi — whose forearm bears the number the Nazis tattooed him with, 104732, in addition to a triangle denoting his nationality — was forced to leave Auschwitz on a "death march."

He was rescued on May 5, 1945, in Mauthausen, Austria, by the U.S. Army.

The first years in America were not so easy: After emigrating here in 1947, he worked as a bow-tie presser, then sold school notebooks to reluctant university bookstore managers.

"I was the original 'Death of a Salesman,'" he said. "My fingers got arthritis from holding the cases."

But whatever he touched turned to gold. In the early '60s, he got the idea to play the stock market. His father-in-law used to lend him the money. He always came back a winner.

"I bought [cheap] Canadian oil and gas stocks. I found one that had more cash in the bank than stock was selling for."

When he took over the Trustcompany Bank in 1968, there was a lot of irony. The bank had been founded by a German military man.

Siggi said: "When two officers in this bank heard the Nazis took Paris, they played Nazi songs and danced in the main branch. That's how German it was here."

Nevertheless, he persevered much the way he had with the oil company. Wilzig's determination and drive would prove to be more powerful than anything the Germans could do to him.

At the end of 2003, nearly a year after he died, the bank was sold to North Fork Bank for $726 million in an all-cash transaction.

Still, I remember the last time I saw him, 72 years old and never stopping for a minute. It was 4 p.m., midday for him.

"I think that maybe I don't feel my age," he said. "I feel much younger. I need survival."