Remembering ‘Raging Bull’

Posted by · 8:08 am · July 31st, 2009

Robert De Niro in Raging BullThe first time I saw “Raging Bull” was in 1980, the second day the film was in theater after release. I was an acting student at the time, heading to the theater with my friend Kevin McDonald, who went on to fame as one of the “Kids in the Hall” stars and film roles in “Galaxy Quest,” denim guy on “Seinfeld” and loads of voice work.

Like me, Kevin was a film junkie, and we both had been looking forward to the new Scorsese film. Our paths went very different ways, but I know for a fact he recalls this evening with much fondness as what we saw changed our lives forever.  Two and a half hours later we left the theater exhausted, drained and stunned by the event.  We talked incessantly about the film on the subway as we headed back home and convinced our classmates to see it with us the next night, if I recall correctly.

There was little doubt Robert De Niro would win not only the Academy Award for Best Actor but every other acting award n the planet as well, but I remember being shocked when Scorsese himself did not follow suit. When the Oscar nominations were announced, Scorsese and his film were up for eight, but the writing was on the wall: Robert Redford‘s “Ordinary People” was going to win the lion’s share, no doubt about it.

In fairness to Redford’s film, it is an excellent work filled with superb performances, and the best performance Canadian actor Donald Sutherland has ever given.  And sure enough, on Oscar night, delayed that year due to John Hinckley Jr.’s botched assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, “Ordinary People” won Best Picture and Best Director, while Timothy Hutton took Best Supporting Actor and the film won for its adapted screening.

“Raging Bull,” meanwhile, one of the most cherished movies of the decade, won two Oscars: Best Actor and Best Film Editing.

Scorsese’s film is a startling, demanding work of art, but even then I understood the difficulty in accepting it as such. Hardly a date movie, it was not the sort of film you cozied up to, and to this day I am not sure my wife of 19 years has even seen it. For two and a half hours we live with a punishing, brutal man who cannot control his demons, allowing them to spill out of the ring (where they serve him best) into his personal life.

Scorsese tells us what the film is about over the title sequence as La Motta shadow boxes in the ring. He spends the rest of the film fighting himself, never victorious. A film like this may be art, but it is never going to be popular, and so “Raging Bull” was not a box office smash. Not that it failed per se, as Scorsese had managed to keep the budget down, but it did not put up head-turning numbers either.

Upon seeing the film for the first time, the president of United Artists, in the midst of the “Heaven’s Gate” nightmare, stood as the lights came up, silently walked to Scorsese, placed his hand on the diminutive filmmaker and said, “Mr. Scorsese, you are an artist,” and left the room.

De Niro’s performance was less a work of acting than an extraordinary transformation into a nilhistic character so utterly complete you wonder sometimes if we are not somehow watching La Motta through a time machine device…it is that great a performance. Go beyond the weight gain, beyond the whipping himself into shape to portray La Motta the boxer, the makeup, watch the intensity in his eyes, never absent, and the manner in which you know what he is going to do, you know it, you see it coming, are powerless to just say, “Don’t do it,” as his brother did…often.

De Niro’s creation is one of the most repulsive characters in film history, yet we cannot help but watch his every move. This is a man who was always raging, who did not know how to live without that rage, and watched somewhat helplessly as it ruined his life. De Niro knew what kind of man he was portraying and threw himself into the role with wild abandon.

In recent years I have become disenchanted with De Niro’s work, as he has become lazier and lazier as an actor, to the point he has become embarrassing. That said, there was 10-year spell between 1974 and 1984 when he was simply the most electrifying actor in movies; there was no one to match him. I miss this De Niro terribly.

In superb supporting roles were Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty, both Oscar nominated, while Paul Schrader’s screenplay, rumored to have been doctored by De Niro (who took no credit), was a descent into hell.

Scorsese’s direction is among the finest in the history of the cinema, to my mind, and remains the finest of his career to date as he allows for this dark character study to be as close to reality as anything he has ever done.  The sequences inside the ring seem to get into the fighters’ heads, as we hear the cluttered sounds of punches landing, the roar of the crowd, all distorted as the fight goes on, and they become less and less coherent.

The director had one disagreement in making the film with UA and to the studio’s credit, the suits stood by their director.  UA felt it would be better to see De Niro with all this massive weight gain at the end of the film, thereby giving the audience something to build towards. Scorsese, rightly, disagreed, submitting that if he showed De Niro as the much heavier La Motta at the beginning of the film, then cut to him in peak condition, the audience would focus on the film and follow more closely his downfall.

The decision was brilliant because at the beginning, when we first encounter La Motta long after his retirement, 70 pounds overweight, flabby, his face scarred, his nose bulbous, and then it hits us like a lightning bolt that the character we are watching is being portrayed by Robert De Niro. Then we cut to a ripped De Niro in the ring, his character 25 years younger, and the transformation takes our breath away. No computer generated images, no trickery, just a group of people in search of the ultimate truth in their characters and the film using only their own gifts and the energy each brings to the job.

What haunts me about “Raging Bull?” The blood dripping off the rope after the last fight with Sugar Ray Robinson, during which, perhaps to atone for his sins, to punish himself, Jake La Motta yields to the other fighter and gives over his body for punishment, taking a terrible beating. Blood sprays onto the audience, runs down La Motta’s chest and onto the floor of the ring, then we see it dripping off the rope, perhaps the greatest metaphorical image for boxing ever put on film.

It seems silly now that “Raging Bull” did not win Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, one of the biggest revisionist gripes of the cinema’s top honor for many fans.  But I think we also should understand why.  Like us, the members of the Academy were assaulted with the film the first time they saw it and did not know quite what to think. Scorsese gave them something very different, not something merely to watch, but something to experience, and they were not ready for the film. Nobody was.

By the decade’s end it was widely considered the best of the 1980s and now is considered among the greatest films ever made.  To this day, thinking about the picture gives me chills.  And every time I watch it, I’m reminded again of why I love movies.

→ 17 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

17 responses so far

  • 1 7-31-2009 at 10:49 am

    Clayton said...

    I wish I felt as strongly about it as some folks. The cinematography is great, and the acting is strong, the score is memorable, but it focuses so much attention on repetitious behaviour and dialogue (“Did you f**k my wife…did you f**k my wife?”) that I find it a bit of a chore to watch. It’s nowhere near my favourite Scorsese (at the very least, I prefer Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The King Of Comedy to it). To me, it’s one of those films that’s notably less than the sum of its parts. I admire much of it, but though I own it on DVD, it’s not a film I revisit often.

  • 2 7-31-2009 at 11:00 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    Great piece John thanks, now Im inspired to go back and watch it, Deniro really has embarassed himslef as of late, shame. Dicaprio is stepping up to fill his shoes though

  • 3 7-31-2009 at 11:20 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Clayton — interesting point though I would point out that the repitition was very much part of his obsessive psychosis regarding his wife — he so loathed himself, was full of so much hate for himself he quite literally saw her with anyone else, knowing that anyone could and would have treated her better than he did…he was a monster.

  • 4 7-31-2009 at 11:59 am

    Clayton said...

    Oh, I don’t deny that it’s built into the psychology of the character: I just find it really tedious to watch. After the third or fourth time, it’s like, “We get it, move on”. And Scorsese did use that trick on a few other films, though perhaps to a lesser degree.

    Though there are certainly many individuals out there who suffer from a similar psychosis, it’s just not something I find to be personally compelling. I think his tender moments with Moriarty have more dimension than those full of macho bluster.

  • 5 7-31-2009 at 1:36 pm

    BerkeleyGirl said...

    You’re making me cry!!! Yes, it’s that great, but I still hold the greater Oscar injustice was Scorsese’s loss 10 years later to Kevin Effin’ Costner. Much as I love “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” is my favorite film, period. Partly because I simply can’t articulate why it brings me such unadulterated joy – or is there my answer? I’d also hold that the film has de Niro’s last truly great performance, specifically, the look on his face in phone booth when he realizes that Joe Pesci’s been whacked.

    Am I alone in wondering what would happen if those two NY Italians reunited on film? Could Marty bring back the de Niro we once knew and adored???

  • 6 7-31-2009 at 1:45 pm

    JC said...

    I think it would end up being anti-climactic at this point, but who knows…

    Re: Goodfellas, it’s my favourite Scorsese, but the one area where it seems to come up a bit short is in visual terms. Even on the Blu-ray (which is nonetheless a significant improvement on the DVD version), it’s pretty washed-out looking. Not one of Scorsese’s prettier films, cinematography-wise, which is a bit of a shame, given its epic nature.

  • 7 7-31-2009 at 3:20 pm

    Chase Kahn said...

    Best moment in the film: …”You never got me down, Ray”…

    A top 10 for me.

  • 8 7-31-2009 at 3:51 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I think “The Aviator” is my favorite Scorsese film. Easiest to love and respond to, purely from an emotional level, and easily one of (if not his most) beautiful films.

  • 9 7-31-2009 at 6:06 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    My favorite Scorsese film is The Age of Innocence- not his most macho offering, but easier to watch than some of his others.

  • 10 7-31-2009 at 9:42 pm

    Silencio said...

    I’m glad that this piece focused on the merits of the movie, instead of trashing “Ordinary People” because it won, which many would have done.

  • 11 7-31-2009 at 10:38 pm

    Glenn said...

    Great movie and a great write-up John, although the films remains outside my top five of Scorsese films.

  • 12 8-01-2009 at 7:58 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Silencio — I like ‘Ordinary People” very much, beautifully acted, but I do not believe it was the years best film.

  • 13 8-01-2009 at 2:44 pm

    Isaac Richter said...

    Sorry to be the lone voice here, but I hate this film with a passion. I understand why others like it, but I’ve seen it twice, and both times it put me in such a mood that I wanted to punch something. I also read the book it was based on for a class, and for some reason, I felt a stronger connection to Jake LaMotta in the book than I did in the film. In the film, he just seemed so stupid and violent, that I wondered why I wanted to spend two hours watching this brute. The book goes into his childhood, his thieving days, his relationship with his best friend Pete Savage (who, by the way, was combined with Joey LaMotta to create a different character and different sets of events for the film) and through the book, I felt I understood him more. In the film, I hated him and felt everyone around him was pathetic. I will admit it’s technically well done, and it has a very moving performance by Joe Pesci (DeNiro is very good too, I won’t deny that), but I hate what the film does to me.

    As for Scorsese, my favorite film of his is a toss up between Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ. These are two films where Scorsese does wonders with his characters’ moral dilemmas and comes full circle with them. Again, I get people like Raging Bull so much, and it was a pretty good film, but I just can’t help hating it with a passion.

  • 14 8-01-2009 at 6:45 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I have to come to Robert DeNiro’s defense and say that another prominent Italian American actor / screen legend is in more embarrassing condition than he is – Al (I can’t stop overacting to save my life) Pacino.

  • 15 8-02-2009 at 7:55 pm

    BerkeleyGirl said...

    /3rtfu11: I almost agreed with you, but I can’t think of a single film de Niro’s made in the last decade that comes close to touching the greatness of “The Insider.”

    Come to think of it, Pacino should stay away from movies unless the director is Michael Mann.

    As for Scorsese, how about some love for Kundun???

  • 16 8-02-2009 at 8:49 pm

    Joel said...

    Astonishing film. Great piece, John. I’ve only seen four Scorsese films, and although GoodFellas is my favorite, I can’t deny that this one has an equal amount of power. De Niro was a tour de force.

  • 17 6-18-2010 at 3:11 am

    bunyan 10 said...

    —Pushing aside for now Scorsese’s last
    two decades of by-the-book sellout and
    pointless, sycophantic 60’s celebrity
    documentaries —

    of course, RB is riveting, esp. for DeNiro’s
    unprecedented screen acting out —er we
    mean acting -BUT!- having FINALLY actually
    read LaMotta’s book —we’re astounded to report Scorsese’s movie just doesn’t hold a candle.

    FACT IS —-Scorsese COMPLETELY misses
    the genuine LaMotta —and falls for the trendiest of chic-bleak —-esp. in the over-studied and contrived final scene where
    even the blatant attempt at his own self-myth
    seeding –falls flat —being NOT memorable —much less haunting.