By John H. Foote
How did it lose Best Picture, Best Director?
In 1989, at the end of the decade, Premiere Magazine, that wonderful now defunct movie magazine polled the nations top film critics to ask them what was the best film of the eighties? To no ones surprise, they voted Martin Scorsese’s searing boxing biography Raging Bull (1980) the best film of the decade.
The black and white film had stunned audiences and critics with its ferocity when it was released in 1980, hailed for the brilliance of the performances, specifically Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta. For the film, De Niro had trained with the real LaMotta, getting himself into such extraordinary condition it was said he could have stepped into the ring with the man himself. Production then shut down, as De Niro ate his way through Italy, packing on eighty pounds to portray the older LaMotta who let himself go. Left alone to make the film the way he wanted, the only interference Scorsese encountered was during editing when the United Artists executives wanted him to save the scenes with an overweight De Niro until the end of the film in order to have a big reveal. Scorsese saw it a different way. He felt showing De Niro with the enormous girth right away would allow the audience to focus on the story and not wait to see this great reveal. It was amazing in this time before social media that so much was even known about the weight gain De Niro had put himself through to portray the role. In the end, the executives allowed Scorsese to make the film as he saw fit. Upon seeing the film for the first time, CEO Andy Albeck sat transfixed, and as the credits rolled stood, walked to Scorsese, shook his hand and told him, “Mr. Scorsese, you are an artist.”
The idea for the film had been the brainchild of Robert De Niro who read the book in the mid-seventies and took it to Scorsese to ask him to direct the film. Initially he demurred, saying he knew nothing about boxing. But when he got sick, his body battered by his cocaine abuse, De Niro saw to it he was put in the hospital, and then took him away to the islands where they came together on the film, working out the ideas. Paul Schrader wrote a brilliant script, which De Niro then worked on with no credit. United Artists (UA) agreed to make the film, a period piece at eight million dollars. Interesting that at the same time Michael Cimino would burn through forty four million dollars making his grand vision, Heaven’s Gate (1980) also a period piece. How is it Scorsese made a film, a period piece, in New York, an expensive place to shoot, which included a six month shut down for De Niro to gain weight for what he did while Cimino would bankrupt the studio on his film? Shameful.
Critics hailed the film a masterpiece though admitted it was a punishing film to sit through and could not imagine who would want to see it. Raging Bull (1980) was certainly not a date movie, and it was understood it had limited appeal, work of art it might be.
Indeed it IS a work of sublime art. From the opening frame, where LaMotta (De Niro) shadow boxes in the right, a metaphor for fighting himself, waging war against the one opponent he will never beat. LaMotta spends his life at conflict with himself, fighting the demons that made him a killer in the ring. He was paranoid, insanely jealous of his wife Vicki, a stunning beauty, and never trusted anyone around her, not even his beloved brother. If his wife made a comment about a fighter being good looking, LaMotta saw to it his face was a bloody pulp, his nose was on the other side of his face by the time ended. When he finally won the championship, it did not get better, it got worse.
When he left boxing, he was alienated from his brother, who had managed and trained him, he bought a nightclub and ran it nightly, eventually running afoul of the law for serving women under age. There were allegations of statutory rape but nothing could be proved. Eventually Vicki left him, no longer able to put up with the barrage of accusations and beatings, and Jake spirals down, ending up in jail, bashing the walls screaming that he is not an animal, yet we have seen nothing to the contrary.
De Niro shows enormous courage in the role, portraying him as a completely repellant human being. He must have known what the audience would think of him while they were making the film, yet made no effort to bring sentiment to his performance. It remains the most intensely searing performance in the history of the movies and possibly the greatest method acting performance ever given.
Equally good are Joe Pesci as Joey LaMotta and Cathy Moriarty as Vicki, superb in supporting role that brought each Oscar nominations.
The cinematography is sublime, as the camera gets into the ring with LaMotta, up close and personal so we see what he sees. There are countless images in the film that are truly extraordinary, one of the best being drops of blood dripping off the ropes that make up the ring after a fight. Using sound, Scorsese took us deeper into the ring and the mind of a fighter than anyone ever had before. The fight scenes in this film made those in the Rocky films look like square dancing. And of course, Thelma Schoonmaker cut the film for Scorsese, continuing a long relationship that exists to this day.
Come Oscar time Raging Bull (1980) was nominated for eight Academy Awards, sharing the lead with The Elephant Man (1980), however the leader was thought to be Ordinary People (1980) a dysfunctional family tragedy directed nicely by Robert Redford. Directing for the first time, Redford had helmed a beautiful crafted film with stellar performances that had been well reviewed and was doing well at the box office. Audiences seemed to relish seeing Mary Tyler Moore as a cold, near cruel mother dealing with the loss of her most loved child, unable to give her surviving son the love he needs. The entire cast, save the heart of the film, Donald Sutherland, as the grieving father was nominated, making Ordinary People (1980) a genuine threat.
Scorsese himself said when Redford won the Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director he would forever be on the outside looking in, Hollywood, the Academy would never award him because his films were too dark. Two weeks later Ordinary People (1980) won four Academy Awards, Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton) and Screenplay Adaptation, besting Raging Bull (1980) which won Best Actor and Best Film Editing. If it were to happen today, Raging Bull (1980) would pull a sweep, winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Actress, Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. At the time it was simply too dark a film for the Academy to embrace, and frankly, they felt they owed Robert Redford something for having ignored him as an actor. Placing the two films side by side, there is really no comparison, Raging Bull (1980) is by far the greater film, filled with artistic courage and extraordinary accomplishments.
It remains a startling work of art, but I must confess it is a difficult watch. I saw the film with my friend Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall fame the second day it was released in 1980 and was astounded. A few days later I saw it again and then did not see it for many years, ten perhaps. I recently watched it a fifth time for this article and doubt I will ever see it again. The ferocity of the film overwhelms and we are spending time with a nightmare of a human being.
No one said art was easy.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.