Martin Scorsese doesn’t really care about sports movies. The idea of making a film about Jake LaMotta would probably never have hit him were it not for Robert De Niro. The actor first read La Motta’s autobiography in 1974 and became fascinated, but when he showed it to Scorsese the director was far from impressed. It took a drug overdose a few years later to make him promise De Niro that he’d do the movie, as a favor to him. The result is a drama consistently rated as the best of the 1980s.
In 1941, middleweight boxer Jake La Motta (De Niro) has just lost a major fight against Jimmy Reeves and spends most of his time nursing wounds and arguing with his wife in a Bronx apartment. Jake’s brother Joey (Joe Pesci) tries to set up a new fight with a little help from a local mobster, Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). Meantime, Jake is intrigued by a 15-year-old girl called Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) and starts pursuing her. Two years later, Jake defeats Sugar Ray Robinson on two occasions… but in the last fight, only because of a controversial ruling.
Jake nevertheless remains a compelling boxer and ends up marrying Vicky. His temper is a problem, but so is Joey’s. When Vicky eventually tells him that she’s had enough of Jake, Joey starts thinking that Salvy is to blame and attacks him in a nightclub…
Fascinating study in decay
And down the drain the LaMotta brothers’ lives go. Not particularly because of the nightclub incident and involvement with the Mafia, but because of Jake and Joey’s complete inability to take care of the things that are good in their lives. Again and again, a poor temper, insane jealousy and stupid pride get the better of them and even end up driving them apart. Jake LaMotta’s career is a fascinating study in decay, as shown already in the opening scene that takes place in 1964 when the increasingly overweight former prizefighter tries to make a living as a comedian.
Since this was a dream project for De Niro, it’s only fair that he should end up investing so much in the role; he famously gained 60-70 pounds for the 1960s scenes and completely commands every scene he’s in as the immensely unlikable boxer. Pesci got his breakthrough as the intensely hotheaded Joey; the two actors keep beating up people and throwing tantrums, but they also make us understand that they’re no caricatures. Their childishness and vulnerability is emphasized. The initial script (by Mardik Martin) was deemed too conventional, but Paul Schrader put some juice into it, even though some of his ideas went so far they would have earned the picture an X rating. Still, he gave the story an edge, and Scorsese would do the same with the boxing scenes, together with cinematographer Michael Chapman and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Together, they created a template that countless future filmmakers would use, a visceral, rapid, bloody portrayal of the sport at its worst, really – a pastime fit for the Roman-era Collosseum.
Those fights are so potent that they disgust and fascinate at the same time; Scorsese treats them as high art, shooting them in raw black-and-white and turning them into opera (literally) by scoring them with Pietro Mascagni’s music.
There’s a scene near the end of the film where Scorsese and De Niro capture the hopelessness of La Motta’s existence, as he keeps banging his head and bare fists against a concrete wall in pure desperation. There are so many other times throughout the movie when you feel like strangling him, but that moving scene shows the Raging Bull for what he was – an animal whose only way to confront the world and his demons is by way of his fists.
Raging Bull 1980-U.S. 128 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin. Book: Jake LaMotta. Cinematography: Michael Chapman. Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker. Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey LaMotta), Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana… John Turturro.
Trivia: Sharon Stone was allegedly considered for a role.
Oscars: Best Actor (De Niro), Editing. BAFTA: Best Editing. Golden Globe: Best Actor (De Niro).
Last word: “You know, they wouldn’t let me meet [Vickie LaMotta] when I was shooting the movie and I had such a guilt trip over it. She had sent me letters and I had sent her letters, and we never received the letters! See, the movie is through Jake La Motta’s eyes. The movie didn’t say what Vickie did. It’s what Jake thought she did. So they figured I was very inexperienced and that meeting her might influence me in certain ways as to how I might play her. So when she came to the set, they made sure I wasn’t on the set. She came to visit for a week. I can understand it now but at the time I couldn’t come to terms with it. I finally got her phone number, and when I finished the movie, I flew myself down to Florida to meet her. We stayed up all night, gossiping and talking. And after she saw the movie, she said, ‘I am very proud of the job that you did’.” (Moriarty, The Hollywood Interview)