The 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 theAcademy 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.