Raging Bull (1980)

 

Highlights

  • Classic sports drama film starring Robert De Niro and Directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Wildly regarded as one of the greatest films ever made
  • Robert De Niro won the Academy Award in 1981 for Best Actor
  • Movie debuts for Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty
  • Grossed over $23m at the US Box Office

Raging Bull is a 1980 American neo-noir biographical sports drama film directed by Martin Scorsese, produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and adapted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin from Jake LaMotta’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story. It stars Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, an Italian- American middleweight boxer whose self-destructive and obsessive rage, sexual jealousy, and animalistic appetite destroyed his relationship with his wife and family. Also featured in the film are Joe Pesci as Joey, LaMotta’s well-intentioned brother and manager who tries to help Jake battle his inner demons, and Cathy Moriarty as his wife. The film features supporting roles from Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, and Frank Vincent.

Scorsese was initially reluctant to develop the project, though he eventually came to relate to LaMotta’s story. Schrader re-wrote Martin’s first screenplay, and Scorsese and De Niro together made uncredited contributions thereafter. Pesci was an unknown actor prior to the film, as was Moriarty, who was suggested for her role by Pesci. During principal photography, each of the boxing scenes was choreographed for a specific visual style and De Niro gained approximately 60 pounds (27 kg) to portray LaMotta in his later post-boxing years. Scorsese was exacting in the process of editing and mixing the film, expecting it to be his last major feature.

Despite receiving mixed initial reviews (and criticism due to its violent content), it went on to garner a high critical reputation, and is now often considered Scorsese’s magnum opus and one of the greatest films ever made. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. The film won two: Best Actor for De Niro (his second Oscar) and Best Editing. In 1990, it became the first film to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility.

Cast

  • Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta
  • Joe Pesci as Joey LaMotta
  • Cathy Moriarty as Vickie LaMotta
  • Nicholas Colasanto as Tommy Como
  • Theresa Saldana as Lenora LaMotta (Joey’s wife)
  • Frank Vincent as Salvy Batts
  • Johnny Barnes as Sugar Ray Robinson
  • Coley Wallace as Joe Louis
  • Lori Anne Flax as Irma LaMotta (Jake’s previous wife)
  • Martin Scorsese as Barbizon stagehand (voice only)

Raging Bull came about when De Niro read the autobiography upon which the film is based on the set of The Godfather Part II. Although disappointed by the book’s writing style, he became fascinated by the character of Jake LaMotta. He showed the book to Martin Scorsese on the set of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in the hope that he would consider the project. Scorsese repeatedly turned down the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair, claiming he had no idea what Raging Bull was about, even though he had read some of the text. Never a sports fan, when he found out what LaMotta used to do for a living, he said, “A boxer? I don’t like boxing…Even as a kid, I always thought that boxing was boring… It was something I couldn’t, wouldn’t grasp.” His overall opinion of sport in general is, “Anything with a ball, no good.” The book was then passed onto Mardik Martin, the film’s eventual co-screenwriter, who said “the trouble is the damn thing has been done a hundred times before—a fighter who has trouble with his brother and his wife and the mob is after him”. The book was even shown to producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler by De Niro, who were willing to assist only if Scorsese agreed. After nearly dying from a drug overdose, Scorsese agreed to make the film, not only to save his own life but also to save his career. Scorsese began to relate very personally to the story of Jake LaMotta, and in it he saw how the boxing ring can be “an allegory for whatever you do in life”, which for him paralleled moviemaking, “you make movies, you’re in the ring each time.”

Robert De Niro in training with the real Jake LaMotta

Preparation for the film began with Scorsese shooting some 8mm color footage featuring De Niro boxing in a ring. One night when the footage was being shown to De Niro, Michael Chapman, and his friend and mentor, the British director Michael Powell, Powell pointed out that the color of the gloves at the time would have only been maroon, oxblood, or even black. Scorsese decided to use this as one of the reasons to film Raging Bull in black and white. Other reasons would be to distinguish the film from other color films around the time and to acknowledge the problem of fading color film stock—an issue Scorsese recognized. Scorsese went to two matches at Madison Square Garden to aid his research, picking up on minor but essential details such as the blood sponge and later, the blood on the ropes (which would later be used in the film). According to the brief comments on the inlay card of the Raging Bull DVD, Scorsese was not—and still is not—a fan of sports or boxing, which he describes as boring. When he saw the blood-soaked sponges being dipped in a bucket, he recalls thinking to himself, ‘And they call this sport.’

One of Scorsese’s trademarks was casting many actors and actresses new to the profession. De Niro, who was already committed to play Jake LaMotta, began to help Scorsese track down unfamiliar names to play his on-screen brother, Joey, and wife, Vikki. The role of Joey LaMotta was the first to be cast. De Niro was watching a low budget television film called The Death Collector when he saw the part of a young career criminal played by Joe Pesci (then an unknown and struggling actor) as an ideal candidate. Prior to receiving a call from De Niro and Scorsese for the proposal to star in the film, Pesci had not worked in film for four years and was running an Italian restaurant in New Jersey.

The role of Vikki, Jake’s second wife, had interest across the board, but it was Pesci who suggested actress Cathy Moriarty from a picture he once saw at a New Jersey disco. Both De Niro and Scorsese believed that Moriarty could portray the role after meeting with her on several occasions and noticing her husky voice and physical maturity. The duo had to prove to the Screen Actors Guild that she was right for the role when Cis Corman showed 10 comparing pictures of both Moriarty and the real Vikki LaMotta for proof she had a resemblance. Moriarty was then asked to take a screen test which she managed—partly aided with some improvised lines from De Niro—after some confusion wondering why the crew were filming her take. Joe Pesci also persuaded his former show-biz pal and co-star in The Death Collector, Frank Vincent, to try for the role of Salvy Batts. Following a successful audition and screen test, Vincent received the call to say he had received the part. Charles Scorsese, the director’s father, made his film debut as Tommy Como’s cousin, Charlie.

While in the midst of practicing a Bronx accent and preparing for his role, De Niro met both LaMotta and his ex-wife, Vikki, on separate occasions. Vikki, who lived in Florida, told stories about her life with her former husband and also showed old home movies (that later inspired a similar sequence to be done for the film). Jake LaMotta, on the other hand, served as his trainer, accompanied by Al Silvani as coach at the Gramercy club in New York, getting him into shape. The actor found that boxing came naturally to him; he entered as a middleweight boxer, winning two of his three fights in a Brooklyn ring dubbed “young LaMotta” by the commentator. According to Jake LaMotta, De Niro was one of the top 20 best middleweight boxers of all time.

The brew of violence and anger, combined with the lack of a proper advertising campaign, led to the film’s lukewarm box office intake of only $23 million, when compared to its $18 million budget. It only earned $10.1 million in theatrical rentals (about $27 million in 2013 dollars). Scorsese became concerned for his future career and worried that producers and studios might refuse to finance his films. According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed $23,383,987 in domestic theaters.

By the end of the 1980s, Raging Bull had cemented its reputation as a modern classic. It was voted the best film of the 1980s in numerous critics’ polls and is regularly pointed to as both Scorsese’s best film and one of the finest American films ever made. Several prominent critics, among them Roger Ebert, declared the film to be an instant classic and the consummation of Scorsese’s earlier promise. Ebert proclaimed it the best film of the 1980s, and one of the ten greatest films of all time.

The film has been deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990. The film currently holds a 95% “Certified Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 9/10. The similarly themed Metacritic rates the movie 92/100 which represents “universal acclaim”.

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