‘Raging Bull’: Tracing the History and the Making of a Masterpiece

The first time I saw Raging Bull (1980), I was with my friend Kevin McDonald who went on to great fame as one of The Kids in the Hall comedy troupe. He has since done voice over work, guested on Seinfeld, Friends and That Seventies Show and written for Saturday Night Live. Kevin and I are still in touch, 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,

Who knew we would walk through our lives in very different worlds, forever linked by watching this masterpiece back in 1980.

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 fourth time in my life today I watched Raging Bull (1980) having not seen it for maybe eight years. There is no doubt in my mind today, as there was no doubt than, Raging Bull (1980) is a stunning piece of cinema, acted with magnificent power 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.

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 synopsis, a man at war with himself, through to the end one cannot deny the staggering power of the film.

However, Raging Bull (1980) is a difficult film to watch, a demanding film to watch and sit through with unpleasant characters, the lead one of the most repellant 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 now that it is hardly a date movie, not a film to be enjoyed.

When Andy Albeck, the head of United Artists first saw the film he was mired in the hell that was Heaven’s Gate (1980), yet 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 eight million dollar budget for a period film that needed to be shut down for six months while the lead actor gained eighty pounds. The accomplishment of Scorsese remains remarkable.

He 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 (1980) 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 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 make 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.

Scorsese made the decision that the boxing sequences would place the viewer 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. More 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 boxing, doing what he has to do, but it his own personality that bring about his ruin. 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 eighty 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 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 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.

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 he helmed, a popular choice. It is a rare Best Picture to not win Best Film Editing, which Raging Bull (1980) won. For me it should have swept the Oscars, winning ten awards in all, the screenplay and make up added to the nominations to received, winning everything. By the end of the decade, critics conducted a poll and Raging Bull (1980) 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, but always argue for its mastery and absolute genius.

It is a work of art.

Read More: The Rise and Fall of Robert De Niro