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In 1978, director Martin Scorsese had weathered a bout with self-doubt and depression in the wake of the indifferent critical and commercial response received for New York, New York (1977). The filmmaker was desirous of a project that would allow him to examine a protagonist with a self-destructive lifestyle, and how such a character could come to terms with his existence. He turned to a boxer's autobiography that Robert De Niro had been recommending to him for years, and the end result - Raging Bull (1980) - garnered a pair of Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Film Editing), secured eight total nominations, and still stands as Scorsese's finest hour.
In examining the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta, boxing's middleweight champ from 1949-1951, Scorsese, De Niro and their collaborators subverted the long-standing conventions of the sports biopic that a great athlete has to be depicted as a good person. While acknowledging the disregard to physical punishment and unquellable ferocity that made LaMotta such a force in the ring, Raging Bull does not look away from how the boxer's surrender to such animal drives made his personal life a shambles.
After reworking Mardik Martin's original screenplay draft and Paul Schrader's rewrite, Scorsese and De Niro had to sell the film's backers on the notion of shooting in black and white. The director had wanted Raging Bull to stand apart from the sequels to Rocky (1976) and the rest of the spate of boxing films prevalent in the late '70s. "On top of that, though, it would also help us with the period look of the film," Scorsese recalled for Mary Pat Kelly in Martin Scorsese: A Journey (Thunder's Mouth Press). "We had an idea of making the film look like a tabloid, like the Daily News, like Weegee photographs. That was the concept, so they talked about that, and said, 'Okay, all right.'"
As a result, Raging Bull offers an impeccable recreation of the look and feel of the Bronx in the WWII years, where LaMotta (De Niro) has established himself as one of the up-and-coming club fighters. His brother/handler Joey (Joe Pesci) essentially has his hands full keeping the volatile Jake in line, while keeping the local mob that wants to be guiding Jake's career at bay. Jake, however, is very much used to having his way, and not just with his ring opponents, as when he turns his back on his tumultuous life with his first wife (Lori Anne Flax) and takes up with Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a striking fifteen-year-old that he spies at a public pool.
As the '40s wear on, Jake's ring dominance continues, as shown through the grueling yet compelling recreations of great bouts that Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman so brilliantly choreographed. While beating, among others, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake marries Vickie and starts a family. By 1947, however, he has laid all opposition to waste, and boxing's corrupt powers-that-be have no interest in offering him a title shot unless he starts playing the game their way. Directed to throw his match against Billy Fox, he complies so unconvincingly that a congressional inquiry results and his career is ultimately jeopardized.
Two years later, things have blown over, and Jake makes the most of his opportunity by stripping the belt from Marcel Cerdan. Though he's reached his professional pinnacle, Jake's home life continues to decline, as his jealous possessiveness of Vickie frays their marriage. His paranoid suspicions build unabated, and having wrongly suspected an affair between Vickie and Joey, he gives his brother a vicious pummeling that ends their relationship. With Joey no longer in his corner, Jake loses his title to Robinson in 1951, and is out of the sport within three years.
An increasingly overweight Jake opts to spend his retirement in Florida, operating a chintzy nightspot in Miami. Vickie soon takes the kids and leaves, and after a decidedly mature-looking teenage patron gets him in trouble with local law enforcement, the Bronx Bull finds himself in the slammer, raging against his own self-destructive behavior. Raging Bull closes as it opens, on a 40-year-old LaMotta rehearsing a nightclub novelty act where he intersperses dramatic readings with sadder-but-wiser commentary on his professional and personal failings.
Much has been made of the reportedly 50+ pounds that De Niro gained and shed in order to portray LaMotta in his middle years, but the caliber of his Oscar-winning craftwork should not be obscured by that aspect of his preparations. From the obstinate refusal to show his opponents his pain, to his paranoid venting with his fists to those closest to him, to the rending displays of humiliation and anguish in the wake of the thrown bout, De Niro ran a harrowing gamut of emotions in his performance. "I think of Jake as someone just battering along, doing all the wrong things, getting banged around," De Niro stated to Baker. "He made all the wrong choices about things, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes, maybe, just because he didn't want to be told what to do."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also handed out supporting nominations to the pair of unknowns that had made such indelible impressions. Pesci, who had worked on the stage since he was a child, was about to throw up his hands with acting when Scorsese and De Niro contacted him on the strength of his work in an obscure "B" shocker, The Death Collector (1975). The coiled-spring intensity that he brought to the role of Joey sparked a litany of supporting efforts and character leads in the years since, including his Oscar-winning turn in Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Moriarty, a Bronx teenager recruited for her striking resemblance to the real Vickie LaMotta, held her own against the imposing presence of De Niro with a remarkably assured performance. Her on-screen appearances since Raging Bull have been sporadic, but uniformly worthwhile (Soapdish (1991), Cop Land (1997) and Analyze That, 2002).
The Academy gave its prize for editing to Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's NYU schoolmate who spliced his student feature Who's That Knocking At My Door? and every feature the director has made in the wake of Raging Bull. "When I won the Academy Award, I felt it was Marty's," Schoonmaker stated in an interview. "He should have won as director. I felt that my award was his award because I know that I won it for the fight sequences, and the fight sequences are as brilliant as they are because of the way Marty thought them out." In addition to being up for Best Picture, Raging Bull also secured nominations for Chapman (Best Cinematography) and the sound crew (Donald O. Mitchell, Bill Nicholson, David J. Kimball and Les Lazarowitz).
Producer: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin, based on the Autobiography of Jake LaMotta
Art Direction: Kirk Axtell, Sheldon Haber, Alan Manser
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Robbie Robertson
Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey LaMotta), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Teresa Saldana (Lenore La Motta), Mario Gallo (Mario).
BW-129m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg