By John H. Foote
Jay Glennie, if you were standing before me, I would look you in the eyes, offer my hand and say to you, “Mr. Glennie, you are an artist, sir.”
I mean that with every fibre of my being.
Each year I see more than 300 films and read about 50 books written about film. As a film critic, historian and former professor at the Toronto Film School, I hope the book offers a learning experience, though I must confess that is rare. This year, two books have greatly impressed: the exquisite biography of “Mike Nichols” eloquently written by Mark Harris, and the superb “Shoot Midnight Cowboy” by Glenn Frankel.
Towering over them, and likely all film related books this year, will be Jay Glennie’s magnificent book about the making of Martin Scorsese’s masterful Raging Bull, hailed the greatest film of the decade by Premiere Magazine, and gifted with accolades upon release and in the years since. With access to the personal papers of actor Robert De Niro and Scorsese, Glennie had a treasure box of information at his fingertips. The challenge was to glean that which was necessary in letting we, the reader know how Raging Bull came to the screen.
With Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) both huge hits at the box office, the former winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, was another boxing picture really needed? Robert De Niro believed so, and began trying to convince his friend Scorsese to direct the film while the diminutive filmmaker was mired in the post-production war of New York, New York (1977). A dangerous addiction to cocaine would land Scorsese near death in the hospital, and upon check out De Niro loaded him in a plane and took him to the tropics for sun, sand and Raging Bull. There they worked on the film, the script and Scorsese, never interested in sports, found his way into the film.
Light years from the Rocky franchise, the grim story of Jake La Motta would be among the darkest, most ferocious films ever made, alarming in its honesty, savage in its authenticity, a staggering work of art. Left alone by United Artists (UA) to make the film he wanted to make, Scorsese might have benefited by working on his film at the same time Michael Cimino was bankrupting the studio with his $44 million western, Heaven’s Gate (1980). UA had other things to concern themselves with than being concerned with a gifted director and actor working on a dream project. Perhaps the executives trusted De Niro and Scorsese, perhaps the ongoing nightmare of Heaven’s Gate preoccupied their every thought.
Raging Bull would tell the punishing story of Jake La Motta, the middle weight champion of the world, from his early days in the Bronx, through his years as a champion, and ending at rock bottom, overweight, in prison for serving minors (though a lot more than “serving” them went on) in his bar. Scorsese sought to do something no one had ever done with the scenes in the ring by giving us the point of view of La Motta. We hear each bone crunching blow as he would, the sounds of the crowd become abstractions, the senses are suddenly amplified as two men seek to beat one another to bloody pulps. Nothing like the two Rocky films, Raging Bull was angry, raw, visceral, the sort of realism that emerged with the new-Italian movement and had been adopted in the films of Elia Kazan. But this went far past any realism I had encountered on screen before, this was a stunning hyper-reality in which you could feel the cinematic art form evolving before your eyes.
Written with the co-operation of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, the book includes interviews with the two as well as Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, editor Thelma Schoonmaker as well as musings from Francis Ford Coppola, David O. Russell and Michael Mann.
I was 21 the first time I saw Raging Bull. It was opening night, my classmate Kevin McDonald and I were excited to see the film, making the trek via subway down to the palatial old Uptown movie palace in Toronto. We were acting students at Humber College, he hugely gifted as a comedian, me teetering between acting and directing. When the film had ended I knew I would never be an actor as I recognized innately I did not have what it took to achieve the kind of brutal artistry we had just witnessed. Kevin went on to be rather famous as one of the famous Kids in the Hall comedy troupe, a regular on American sitcom TV in the nineties and a voice over artist at Disney. We have maintained contact and often discuss the impact if that galvanizing screening. I emerged from the film forever altered.
In the years since 1980 I have seen Raging Bull only a handful of times, for while I remain in awe of the film and performances, I find the picture too bleak, too punishing to see too often.
Glennie’s massive book is filled with lavish art, photographs from the film and behind the scenes, it is just thrilling. The text is a journey from page to screen and beyond, up to and including the stunning legacy of the film. Utterly masterful.
Tonight, buoyed by Glennie’s infectious love for the film, I will again revisit Jake La Motta’s haunted world. Can I give a greater endorsement for a book than saying it guided me back to the film?
Mr. Glennie previously gave us a similar book entitled “One Shot: The Making of The Deer Hunter”, which despite my misgivings about the film and the director Michael Cimino, who history has proven to be a liar, I thought it was a masterpiece of film writing. The author soars past that book with this new one. Is it possible for a book about cinema, a single film, to be a work of art?
Bravo sir, bravo. Your book ennobled cinema.
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.