By John H. Foote
Time is a very strange thing in our minds is it not? I often wonder if it is entirely possible to even comprehend. I look at my daughters now 28 and 20 and wonder how the years slipped by so fast, where did they go? There are things from my past that I remember with absolute clarity, as though they happened moments ago instead of year, while there are other moments I am told about that I do not even have a shred of remembrance . Important things unfold in my mind like built in YouTube clips in the landscape of my mind. The first time I saw a film that moved me, the last time I spoke to my grandmother, the first time I saw Sherri, watching her walk down the aisle to me the day we were married and knowing there was no other place I was supposed to me, seeing my girls for the first time and that instant, near overpowering feeling of love, losing Sherri, the accident, Dann, Steve and I in the room last year waiting for Dad to pass, seeing Dad four days later, very much alive. The scenes from my life play out like a greatest hits compilation, just as the great movie moments do in my mind.
The first time I saw Raging Bull I was with my friend Kevin McDonald who went on to great fame as one of The Kids in the Hall comedy troupe. It was strange, but meeting those people in college was extraordinary because within weeks I knew that I would know them forever, we were forged together like the strongest steel. Kevin was unique and obscenely talented. Quiet and unassuming until he stood up to do a scene in Improv class at which point the talent just exploded out of him. He has since done voice over work for Disney, guested on Seinfeld, Friends and That Seventies Show, written pilots and written for Saturday Night Live. Kevin and I are still in touch. We both still remember that chilly November night when we hopped the subway to go see Scorsese’s new film, because we were film junkies and suspected it might be something special. We were acting students at the time, me with no desire to act, an eye to being a director, Kevin with comedic talent unlike anything I had ever seen before. Incredibly Kevin was removed from the Humber College Theater Program, though on theranker.com they have him ranked as their most famous student, I came in a measly eighth. I did direct for a number of years and never again encountered a talent like his, that explosive comedic gift. We saw each other a year ago at a stand up one man show he was doing, and it was like no time had passed, we were still those young film junkies we had been in 1980.
Who knew we would walk through our lives in very different worlds, forever linked by watching this masterpiece back in 1980? We still discuss that night and the staggering impact that film had on our lives.
I became a film critic professionally in 1990, the co-host and co-producer of a television program called Reel to Real which I worked on until 1999. Moving on to print criticism and teaching, I have never been out of criticism, managing to work as a critic and lecture film history as the Director of the Toronto Film School. From print I moved to Internet and that is where I am today.
For just the fifth time in my life today I watched Raging Bull having not seen it for maybe eight years. There is no doubt in my mind today, as there was no doubt then, Raging Bull is a stunning piece of cinema, a masterpiece, acted with magnificent ferocity and rage by Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty, directed with intense genius by Scorsese, edited by the gifted Thelma Schoonmaker and shot by the superb Michael Chapman. The film is without question a work of art, however make no mistake, it is dark art, the cinematic companion to Munch’s painting The Scream. It might be the most punishing film I have ever experienced, exploring the life of a deeply flawed man, who could not control his rage in or out of the ring and his family often became his opponents in life.
From the opening frames, a slow motion title sequence of La Motta (De Niro) shadow boxing in the ring, a metaphor for the film’s narrative, a man at war with himself, through to the end one cannot deny the seething, visceral power of the film.
However, all accolades considered, Raging Bull is a difficult film to watch, a demanding film to experience and sit through with unpleasant characters, the lead one of the most repellent in movie history. The film was well reviewed, De Niro’s performance hailed as one of the greatest ever given (true that) but anyone who has seen it knows that it is hardly a date movie, not a film to be enjoyed, though it is widely expected.
When Andy Albeck, the head of United Artists, first saw the film he was mired in the hell that was Heaven’s Gate (1980), his every waking moment taken up by the war that began with Michael Cimino, yet he watched the film, walked to Scorsese, shook the hand of the director and said to him “Mr. Scorsese, you are an artist.” Albeck left Scorsese alone to make the film he wanted to make, provided an $8 million dollar budget for a period film that needed to be shut down for six months while the lead actor gained 80 pounds. The accomplishment of Scorsese remains remarkable, the work of De Niro astonishing.
Scorsese did not initially want to even make the film, not believing he had anything to say about a boxer. Rocky (1976) had won Best Picture, there was a sequel on the way, what could he possibly offer the genre? Yet he and De Niro huddled and decided it was less a boxing film than a character study of a man who could not control his rage outside the ring and was lethal in it. His problem was he treated everyone in his life like an opponent and battered them accordingly.
Raging Bull remains a searing, unrelenting study of a troubled man, Jake LaMotta, the one-time middle weight champion of the world. Through the course of the film we watch him struggle through various battles in the ring, vicious punishment, compromise with the mob to get that championship fight, and through the demons that rule him a disintegration into an overweight, comic wanna be, who loses everything.
Obsessively jealous, violent to a fault, LaMotta alienates everyone in his life who even remotely cared about him until he is alone in a jail cell bashing the walls because it will bring a different pain than he is feeling. Emotional pain can be overcome only by physical, and Jake knows that. When his wife makes a flippant comment that his opponent is good looking, he beats the man to a pulp, putting his nose on the other side of his face, just because he can. As the man drops to the canvas, it is Vicki LaMotta who gets the glare, and the point is made. Yet somehow, deep in his psyche, LaMotta knew his behavior was wrong, though he had no control over it. Perhaps this was the reason he allowed Robinson to beat him to a bloody pulp, and then jeered to the winner, “You never put me down Ray.”
Like Christ crucified LaMotta holds the ropes to support himself and allowed the fighter to weigh in and deliver a punishment unlike any he has had before. The image of the blood dripping off the ring is stunning, and alarming. Somewhere in his twisted mind, LaMotta believed taking that punishment helped him atone for his bad behaviour, but he was seen as an animal nonetheless.
Scorsese made the decision that the boxing sequences would place the viewers of the film in the ring, so we would see and hear what the fighters do. Unlike any film before this, Scorsese made a boxing film that was brutal in its honesty, that showed every punch, every cut, every drop of blood spilled in the ring and the consequences of it. He chose to shoot in black and white for various reasons, first and foremost to match the existing footage of LaMotta in the ring, to romanticize New York, which always looks better in black and white, and to sweep us into the past. It brought to the film an almost expressionistic feel, especially in the ring with the various camera speeds and angles and close ups.
Yet for all Scorsese’s genius as a director it is the towering performance of Robert De Niro that gives this picture its overwhelming power. We watch him climb to the top of the corrupt world of professional boxing, doing what he has to do, but it his own personality that bring about his ruin. Controlled by the mob, LaMotta was forced to throw a fight to get his shot at the title, a move which shamed and devastated him. He refused to go down, choosing instead to walk out of the ring, which made a statement to all, including the mob.
Jake LaMotta helped train De Niro for the boxing sequences and stated that the actor could have stepped into the ring with anyone and gone toe to toe with them. And De Niro being De Niro trained relentlessly, non-stop, taking a beating and giving a beating to those he fought in the ring for the film. And when the early sequences were finished, the entire production shut down for six month to allow the actor to gain 80 pounds, as he refused a fat suit and make up, he wanted to feel the weight for the performance, he wanted the audience to feel it as well. One of the assistant editors and producers felt that the scenes of De Niro overweight should be saved for the end of the film for shock value, whereas Scorsese felt that the audience should see him early in the film so they would focus on the story. And, of course, he was right. We see him in the dressing room preparing for his “comic” act, he delivers his last line and we cut at once to a shot of him in the ring taking a punch, his body corded with muscle, light years away from the overweight slob we had just seen, and then beating his opponent to a pulp.
Portraying an intensely dislikable character, arrogant, jealous, brutal, even hateful, this is not a character audiences are going to like. But the film is not about liking him, it is about understanding him. Whether he intended to or not (and of course he did) the first shot of the movie, with LaMotta shadowing boxing in the ring, tells us everything we need to know about LaMotta: he was always at war with himself, always and it was simply inescapable. His Jake is an accurate portrayal of a man seething with anger, unable or unwilling to control the explosive rage within him.
De Niro swept the Best Actor awards that year, winning his second Academy Award, one of two awards the film took home on its eight nominations. All the actors in major roles were nominated, but shockingly the screenplay was snubbed! Ordinary People (1980) won Best Picture with Robert Redford taking Best Director for the first film he helmed, a popular choice. It is a rare Best Picture to not win Best Film Editing, which Raging Bull won. For me it should have swept the Oscars, winning ten awards in all, the screenplay and make up added to the nominations received, winning everything. By the end of the decade, Premiere Magazine conducted a poll of North American film critics choosing the best films of the eighties and Raging Bull was selected the decade’s best film. It holds up as that but still is not an easy film to watch.
I will likely watch the film again, in about eight years, struggling to experience such a self-destructive, self-loathing man for more than two hours, and always argue for its mastery and absolute genius.
It is a work of art.
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.