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From Unknown to Oscar Contender, the Real Raging Bull Knockout Is Cathy Moriarty

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‘I’m a star,’ says the Bronx-born bombshell, ‘because my mother and my father say I am’

Three years ago Cathy Moriarty was a 17-year-old New York garment district receptionist whose idea of the big time was a weekend boogie at a suburban disco. Then actor Joe Pesci happened to see a photo of Cathy winning the nightspot’s swimsuit contest. And what happened next is the most hyped and unlikely Hollywood discovery story since Lana Turner left Schwab’s. Pesci tipped director Martin Scorsese, who cast Cathy opposite the formidable Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, his riveting movie about 1940s middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta. Though she had not a shred of acting experience, she conquered as LaMotta’s beautiful but battered wife, Vickie. And on Oscar night, with fellow contenders Scorsese, DeNiro and Pesci (who played LaMotta’s brother), she’ll be awaiting the envelope as a candidate for Best Supporting Actress.

It should be an easier evening than attending the film’s premiere with her strict Irish-Catholic parents. “I couldn’t watch the movie—just them,” recalls the 5’10” honey blonde (dyed platinum for the role). “I thought my father would hate me,” she says of her erotic, brutal and foulmouthed bedroom scenes. “Dad kept crumpling his program and telling my mother, ‘It’s only acting, it’s only acting.’ ” True, but as Pesci notes, “Cathy was a dead ringer for Vickie” (though Moriarty admits her voluptuous bosom was “mostly padding”). Even the taciturn DeNiro lauds the neophyte’s powerful “naturalness.”

That’s a quality she hasn’t lost. After finishing Raging Bull, Cathy, who still lives with her parents, took a job as a hash house waitress to pay for demolition lessons on her thick Bronx accent. She typically passed up the glittery Manhattan premiere party—preferring a cacciatore celebration at home with family and Yonkers neighbors. As for working with heavies like Scorsese and DeNiro, Cathy 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 DeNiro 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.”

The gutsy “black sheep” of the Moriarty clan was born to a housewife and a warehouseman who worked odd jobs to send their seven kids to good Catholic schools. Cathy graduated from high school, but excelled in sneaking out to clubs at 14. “I was wild but not bad,” Cathy defends. “I didn’t go to make pickups; I wanted a good time.” Lately DeNiro warned her about stardom: “The friends you don’t spend time with will badmouth you.” Cathy agrees. “A lot of people think I’m snotty. So what? They never asked me out when I was serving cheeseburgers.” Mom doesn’t approve of any of her boyfriends. “She’s found a new angle,” adds Cathy. “Now when guys call, she tells them I’m dead.”

She hopes to get back to acting after the Oscars, because most of her Raging Bull loot (“I’m not a millionaire, not even a thousandaire”) went for a down payment on a Catskills retreat for her family. Cathy also longs someday to take the clan to visit Ireland. But she’d rather not work and go broke than be typecast. “My mother says she’ll always feed me. That’s my security,” Cathy says, but there’s a family schism over what she should play next. “A nun!” chorus her parents. “In the remake of Bells of St. Mary’s.” Cathy thinks otherwise. “Maybe The Mae West Story,” she grins slyly. “I still have the falsies upstairs.”