By John H. Foote
2. RAGING BULL (1980)
As I stated in the previous piece, I agonized over my top three choices and the order I would place them in. It is generally regarded that Martin Scorsese’s exhaustive, fearsome masterpiece Raging Bull is the greatest film of the eighties, and while I might agree on another day, not today. There remains one film that has surpassed it, today and tomorrow at least. Some history first.
The first screening of Raging Bull I attended was in 1980 with my good friend Kevin McDonald, who went on to fame as one of the Kids in the Hall comedy troupe, an actor on episodes of Friends, Seinfeld (Denim vest guy), and a recurring role on That Seventies Show, in addition to tons of voice work. Kevin and I bonded very quickly in college, both studying acting, due to our deep obsession with film. My God we were obsessed with movies. In fact, Kevin is the only person who matches me in his love of cinema. We headed to downtown Toronto one night to see Raging Bull which had just opened, it might even have been opening night. It was playing at the grand old Uptown Cinema, one of the city’s greatest movie palaces, now gone to progressive building in the city. Such a shame. Still getting to know one another, though our friendship was solidified very quickly, hell still is, we speak often, we settled into our seats and waited for Scorsese to work his dark magic.
A little more than two hours later the film ended and we sat watching the end credits unable to budge. Scorsese’s soul sucking film was an astonishment, with performances from Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci too remarkable to describe, too miraculous to truly do justice with mere words. Acting? These performances were beyond acting, far beyond any acting I had seen in my lifetime. If this was what would be expected of me an actor, I was out, I knew I could never do anything remotely like this, and should go after my first true passion, to write about film.
Yet I knew Kevin could achieve what De Niro had on the screen. I knew he would be a comedian first and foremost, but years later when I saw Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers (1994), Kevin popped into my mind … he could do that part. He had the range, no question, and the gifts, but back then he was an insecure young guy. That would improve with time, and he could easily portray a part like this if given the chance.
Robert De Niro altered the landscape of American acting in Raging Bull, doing something more than mere performance. He allowed the character to take over his entire being, body and soul, and we were not watching a performance anymore, we were seeing a complete inhabitation of the role. He owned the role because he became Jake La Motta, just as Joe Pesci, almost completely unknown, would do with his brother Joey La Motta. The two men were in absolute synch in their portrayal of the two characters, offering two of the most ferocious, intense portrayals I had ever seen at that time. It was not the last time they would offer such extraordinary work together for Scorsese. Ten years later they were incredible together in Goodfellas (1990), for which Pesci won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and in 2019, they excelled in his masterful The Irishman, for which Pesci again deserved to win the Oscar for Supporting Actor but sadly, criminally, he lost.
The opening scenes of Raging Bull tell us everything we need to know about the boxer Jake La Motta and his brother Joey, his manager. Over the opening credits we watch La Motta shadow box in slow motion, alone in the ring. That tells us he will spend much of his life fighting his own demons, at war with himself in a fight he will never win. We then cut to a comedy club and see a bloated, overweight, near grotesque La Motta years after his fighting career is over. Acting into a mirror, badly, he goes over his act before being called to the stage. The camera moves in close on him and we catch a look at him close up, near obese, huge, his eyes slits surrounded by flesh. Then there is a cut to La Motta in peak condition fighting years earlier. Muscles ripple over his body, sweat comes off him making him glisten. Down on points he is told by Joey he needs a knockout to win. Back into the ring he goes and pounds his opponent with the ferocity of a rabid animal, unleashing a beating that would kill most.
This was Jake La Motta. Robert De Niro is absent; Jake has taken over.
The film traces La Motta’s career from the early days in the Bronx where he hammers away at his opponents, waiting for his shot at the title, refusing to bend to the will of the mob, who he knows controls the fights. La Motta knows he must bend to their will to get his shot at the title, but only agrees after Joey does some fast talking. He takes the fall, poorly, everyone watching knew a fix was in and was suspended from fighting for a time. When he comes back, it is for the title and he unleashes hell on the other fighter, finally winning the middle weight championship of the world. But as high as he soars, Jake cannot control his demons. After divorcing his first wife, he marries the local beauty Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), a statuesque blonde knockout but he never trusts her, dreaming of ways to accuse her of being unfaithful to him. She never is or was, but that did not stop Jake from accusing her every second of every day. She tries to make it work with children, doing everything he asks but she just cannot do it. Not even Joey is spared from the wild accusations and after Jake bursts into his brother’s home and beats him senseless, Joey quits as his manager, leaving Jake more alone than ever. An example of his madness? Vicki makes a casual comment about the other fighter, saying “he is young, good looking…” and knows at once La Motta has locked onto her like a shark to its prey. He berates her, slaps her around, and then destroys the young boxer that night, putting the man’s nose on the other side of his face. The old mobster in the crowd proclaims the obvious, “He ain’t pretty no more” as Jake stares directly at Vicki as if to say, “You made me do that.”
Without Joey he becomes less effective in the ring, and keeping his weight down becomes a terrible problem, but he carries on winning and losing. Eventually there is no one left to fight except Sugar Ray Robinson, so they go at each other time and time again. In their last bout together, as though to atone for his sins against the people who love him, he allows Robinson to pound him senseless with blistering punches, one of which would drop most men, but standing crucified on the ropes, La Motta takes everything Robinson can throw at him, covered in his own blood, still standing. Vicki bows her head in horror, the audience in the front rows are splashed with La Motta’s blood, and Jake follows Ray around the ring stating over and over, “You never got me down Ray … you never got me down”.
His life after boxing was one of erratic behavior and one arrest after the other. His nightclub Jake’s was hit several times for serving minors, beautiful girls of course, he is charged with working with prostitutes, and his comedy routine is terrible, just another reason to get before an audience. Vicki finally kicks him out, ending their marriage, and Jake struggles financially, no longer able to use his celebrity to get him out of legal troubles. He tries reconciling with Joey to no avail, Joey never going to forgive him for the accusation he slept with Vicki. And finally Jake ends up where we see him going all along, to jail. Hammering the walls with his fists he wails “Why? Why? Why?” though for the last two hours we have seen every possible reason.
La Motta was an advisor on the film and personally trained De Niro for the fighting sequences, so he clearly was aware of how he was being portrayed, asking only that Scorsese be honest in presenting him as repellant.
Raging Bull was never Scorsese’s project until he became obsessed with it, it was brought to him by Robert De Niro who thought they might make a great film together. Scorsese had no real interest as he was mired in the nightmare that had become New York, New York (1977), his surrealistic musical that bombed after the studio hacked it to pieces. Restored years later by Scorsese, it is a magical film, despite the dreadful De Niro performance, his limitations apparent for the first time. Hospitalized for cocaine addiction in 1977, Scorsese nearly died before he and De Niro retreated to the tropics to write Raging Bull or rather to re-write what Paul Schrader had already written. Their persistence paid off and United Artists agreed to make the film for $8 million dollars. What was interesting about United Artists that year was they had two massive prestige projects in the works, each a period piece, which are generally more expensive. Scorsese’s Raging Bull was set during the forties through the sixties, therefore a period piece which meant scouting the locations in New York that still looked relatively the same in 1979-80. The film would be shot in black and white, more expensive than color film stock, and most crucial was that shooting would shut down for six months while De Niro gained 60 to 80 pounds to portray the older, wasted Jake. All cast and crew were still on payroll when this shut down occurred, and still Scorsese came in on time and on budget.
No such luck with Michael Cimino and his bloated western Heaven’s Gate, which the UA executives permitted to soar to a budget of $44 million dollars for a four hour plus western. We all know how that ended.
Upon the first screening to UA of Raging Bull, the president of the studio walked to Scorsese, sitting in the back and shook his hand saying “Mr. Scorsese, you are an artist.”
Reviews said the same, absolute raves, though all conceded it was a punishing film, the kind people see once and only once. Home video was just emerging at the time Raging Bull was released, and no doubt helped the film immeasurably, because even today it is a difficult watch. There are films I have seen in excess of 20 times and would watch right now if I were not writing but Raging Bull in the 40 years since its release, I have screened just five times.
Brilliant in its visceral power, agonizing in its study of dysfunctional relationships, it is hyper realistic and demanding on the viewer to sit through. Like being in a room with a couple at war, that describes Raging Bull. The boxing sequences are the most intimate and personal aspects of the film, getting inside the head of the boxers so we see what they see, we hear what they are hearing. The punches land with great power, splitting skin, opening wounds, breaking bones and incredibly they continue to weigh in. The boxing scenes in Rocky (1976) look gentle compared to what Scorsese created here, it was truly astonishing. And here is where the film might have lost audience, as the boxing sequences are so brutally punishing, Raging Bull was seen by very few women. It was very much a film made for men, because Jake La Motta was a misogynistic nightmare of a man. Scorsese was very clear in displaying that La Motta’s behavior was wrong on so many levels, yet as an artist portrayed it with absolute realism. In many ways the film felt like an Elia Kazan film from the fifties, with profanity and brutal violence permitted.
De Niro’s performance, as previously stated, was something beyond acting, more of an inhaling of La Motta’s entire being to be manifested on film. An extraordinary achievement from the actor who emerged in the mid-seventies with an Oscar winning performance for Supporting Actor in The Godfather Part II (1974) and then two Oscar nominated performances for Best Actor in Taxi Driver (1976) and The Deer Hunter (1978). For his work in Raging Bull he won every single acting award available to him in 1980, including the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, both the LA and NY Film Critics’ Awards, and awards from the Boston critics. One of the most acclaimed film performances of all time, De Niro at once became one of the cinema’s greatest actors and had he never given another performance, that would still stand. His towering performance was matched by Joe Pesci, as his volatile brother Joey, no slouch on his own in the fighting department. He does not hesitate for a second to attack a larger man than himself when he believes Jake’s wife is stepping out on him. He knocks the larger down and begins crushing and slamming him with a car door, seriously hurting the man, who he knows very well! Both performances have become legendary and each placed Method Acting back in the spotlight.
Cathy Moriarty was a newcomer when she took the role of Vicki La Motta, Jake’s second wife. A tall, beautiful blonde with a husky voice she was wonderful in the film, the only questioned raised being why? Why would she choose to be with this monster? How could someone love Jake? Be with him knowing what he was? Age old answer being of course, we do not choose who we fall in love with. Lucky for her she got out of that marriage before he killed her, because he almost certainly would have.
Scorsese had an easy time with the studio, who left him alone to make his film the way he wanted to make it. There was one small issue that the director fought for, and won, the revealing of Jake as an older, overweight slob of a man. The studio executives, three of them, believed it should be a gradual reveal, hoping to keep the audiences in the seats given the violence in the film, and expecting walkouts. Scorsese disagreed, decided to show at the beginning of the film as overweight Jake, getting the anticipation over with so the audience could fall into the story, focusing on the narrative. Of course Scorsese was correct knowing something about storytelling by that point in his career.
He filled the screen with many overpowering images but the one I have thought about for years, which for me defines the sport of boxing, is La Motta like Christ crucified, holds onto the ropes, barely able to stand, his upper torso splattered thick with his blood. It has dripped down onto his shorts, to his boots and Scorsese’s camera tracks along the ropes of the ring, as they too are thick with La Motta’s blood. Finally the camera ceases to move to show the drops of blood dripping from the ropes. A blood sport indeed. Finally, La Motta had admitted his sins towards his brother and wife and allowed himself the punishment he knows he deserves, in his twisted and tormented mind, atoning.
The cinematography of Michael Chapman on Raging Bull is often hailed as being among the finest ever put on the screen. I agree whole heartedly with that statement and remain shock Chapman did not win the Oscar for his work. New York always looks better in black and white and Chapman makes it shimmer with a rare beauty in this film, then captures the events in the ring with the ferocity of a Universal horror film.
Raging Bull was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but Scorsese stated publicly he did not expect to win. He knew when he lost to Robert Redford and Ordinary People (1980) he was forever an outsider in the Hollywood community. The film won two Academy Awards – Best Actor for De Niro and Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, the first of several Oscars she would win for Scorsese in their long association together. Nominations came for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Pesci) and Actress (Moriarty), Best Screenplay for Schrader, Best Cinematography for Michael Chapman’s shimmering black and white, Best Sound and of course, Best Picture. Scorsese was nominated for DGA Award as Best Director and won the National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Director. The Los Angeles Film Critics association honored the film fearlessly as Best Picture and Best Actor, while at the end of the eighties, Premiere Magazine held a poll in which Raging Bull was selected as the Decade’s Best Film.
I believe Raging Bull to be among the greatest films ever made and without question one of the finest of the decade. However, it is a punishing film to watch, and while I might appreciate the artistry, I cannot say I enjoy the narrative watching this monster tear apart lives and relationships. On a dark day I might say it is the best of the decade, but not today. There is one film stronger than this absolute American masterpiece. That cannot be denied Raging Bull, it is forever a masterpiece. A work of dark 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.