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Coulda Been A Contender: De Niro's 'Raging Bull' Quote Of Brando In 'Waterfront'

Entertainment | February 13, 2021

Left: Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in 'On The Waterfront.' Right: Robert De Niro in 'Raging Bull.' Source: IMDB

"I could've been a contender" was a powerful line when Marlon Brando said it to Rod Steiger in 1954's On The Waterfront; when Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) says it in Raging Bull it takes on a new level of meaning. But what does the line mean -- "coulda been a contender," contender for what? And how is it that one of the great movie lines from the '50s could be recycled in 1980? Here's the story of "I coulda been a contender."

In both films, the line is about regret, mourning a career that might have been, though it's not said in exactly the same way. Brando's delivery of the line is sincere; his character Terry Malloy is actually complaining to his brother that he could have been something more successful. When Robert De Niro brings the line back to life decades later as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, he isn't saying it sincerely; he's actually intentionally quoting On The Waterfront as part of a nightclub act. The line is so well known, given the plot similarities -- both characters are former boxers -- that director Martin Scorsese can use the dialogue from On The Waterfront in Raging Bull, completely intact, and layer Terry Malloy's story directly overtop Jake La Motta's.

On The Waterfront Revealed The Consequences Of Mobster Life 

Source: Town & Country Magazine

When On The Waterfront was released in 1954, it was a massive critical success. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won eight of them including Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Director (Elia Kazan). The movie tells the story of the life of Terry Malloy, a dockworker who'd once aspired to be a successful professional boxer. Terry's brother Charley (played by Rod Steiger) had a promising career as well -- in organized crime. Terry was involved in some suspicious activities as the right-hand-man to head mobster Johnny Friendly. Charley forces Terry to lose an important fight on purpose so that Friendly can win a bet against him, which utterly destroys Terry’s boxing career. Because of Charley, Terry becomes indirectly involved in a murder scandal and must pretend he has no knowledge of the crime (acting “D&D” or “deaf and dumb”). Friendly discovers Terry has learned about the killing, and thus attempts to have him killed.

Terry 'Coulda Been A Contender' Had His Brother Not Ruined His Career

Source: LA Times

The famous scene occurs while Terry and Charley are sharing a cab together, and Charley expresses his desire to find Terry a great job to get him out of the mess. However, all Terry ever wanted to be was a successful boxer and he knew this would have been possible had it not been for his brother’s activities. Terry felt like a failure at this point and blamed Charley for ruining his career. 

Charley: Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

Terry: It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night"! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charlie: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley.

Source: Pinterest

“I coulda been a contender” is a line everyone with regrets can relate to. Brando captures the feelings of his character so perfectly and creates an incredibly deep sense of emotion with his expressions. Even Terry’s brother Charley was so moved and immediately understood exactly what he put his brother through. Charley gives Terry a gun and instructs him to just run in order to escape the planned murder. By the end of the film, Charley is killed instead and Terry gains the courage to proudly testify against Friendly for his crimes. Terry’s actions correlate to the real life of On The Waterfront’s director, Elia Kazan. Kazan had received backlash for identifying eight communists in Hollywood and the film was his reaction to the criticism.

Robert De Niro Also 'Coulda Been A Contender' In 'Raging Bull'

Source: IMDb

On The Waterfront would not be the last time viewers would hear the “I coulda been a contender” speech. The line was repeated in another film that involved brothers, gangsters, boxers, black-and-white filming, but a completely different protagonist. Released in 1980, Raging Bull dealt more with the internal struggles and issues of Italian boxer Jake La Motta, played by Robert De Niro, than the actual sport of boxing. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, La Motta creates his own catastrophes through his rage, violent nature (both inside and outside the boxing ring), and his irrational jealousy. His boxing career was initially successful, but everything changed after he would go ballistic anytime his girlfriend Vickie would even look at another man. La Motta accuses her of having an affair with his brother Joey and ends up assaulting him for it.

La Motta Caused His Own Problems

Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci in 'Raging Bull.' Source: Pinterest

The stress and bad decisions take a toll on La Motta’s career, and his life. Vickie calls for a divorce and full custody of their children, and he even winds up in jail. Raging Bull concludes in 1964 where La Motta has transformed into a washed-up ex-boxer who now performs comedy routines. While preparing for his act, he repeats the famous On The Waterfront “I coulda been a contender” speech to himself. While Brando’s character’s regret was instilled by another person and circumstances outside of his control, La Motta exclusively blames himself and his own actions for the life he ended up living. Both boxers dealt with so much guilt that created unsatisfactory lives in the end.  

Tags: Elia Kazan | Marlon Brando | Martin Scorsese | Movie Quotes | On The Waterfront | Raging Bull | Robert De Niro

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.