“So give me a stage, Where this Bull here could rage..”
The 1980 classic Raging Bull is one of the greatest biopics of all time. Nowadays we are fed one after another, and the genre is soaked with uneven, unbalanced outings. Above all of these, Raging Bull stands as a masterpiece in storytelling, a low-budget noir that tells a true story with a gritty style that is daring, and with a realism not found in other biographical films. Not only does it remain a watershed moment in cinema, but also that of the movie’s lead Robert De Niro.
In truth, Raging Bull is Robert De Niro’s film. Yes, it was directed by the revolutionary director Martin Scorsese (also Goodfellas,Taxi Driver), but it was De Niro’s project. This fact points to how De Niro approached Scorsese with the idea of bringing the story of legendary boxer Jake LaMotta to the big screen. The story goes that, at the time, Scorsese was hospitalised recovering from a cocaine overdose, and it was the actor who reached out to the filmmaker and friend.
De Niro’s passion to make this movie finally struck a chord within Scorsese, and the battle within the boxing ring came to represent the director’s own battles on set and in his own life. “The ring became an allegory for whatever you do in life,” Scorsese observed in a Rolling Stone interview. “You make movies, you’re in the ring each time.” At the time, he believed Raging Bull would be his swan song, so every piece of his creativity was summoned, and projected directly into the film.
The story of Raging Bull is not a spectacular one. It is not the rise, fall and comeback tale that leads to a happy ending. It is the opposite, and explores the strengths, weaknesses and addictions of a man. The subject of the movie, Jake LaMotta, was at one time a middleweight champion, winning 83 of 106 professional fights. Post-boxing he became an actor and stand-up comedian. As a boxer he was nicknamed the Bronx Bull, or Raging Bull, due to his technique of brawling, stalking and beating opponents senseless in the ring. For the movie based on his life, Scorsese concentrated on his out-of-the ring exploits as much as what happened within it. Raging Bull is a dark-styled affair, filmed in black and white, not just for the authentic 1940’s feel: overall it gives the movie a neutral nuance, and an ageless quality.
The real stand out in Raging Bull is De Niro. This is not the same actor who appeared in the Meet The Parents franchise, or even, more recently Dirty Grandpa. This is a younger, hungrier actor, one willing to push himself further than any other for the sole purpose of art. The movie opens to the sight of an aged, overweight De Niro as LaMotta rehearsing a stand up routine, and everything then is told in flashbacks. From these flashbacks we enter the ring alongside a trim, almost recognisable De Niro as the famed boxer.
For the role he was taught to box, got in shape, and learned the techniques to carry off his aggressive performance. By all accounts De Niro managed to win three out of four actual Brooklyn boxing matches as part of his immersive learning process. The Raging Bull himself, Jake LaMotta, was by his side during some of this training, but he also acted as a technical advisor for the fight scenes. There was a punching bag placed in the middle of the ring, to shoot the attacking, stalking boxing style. The scenes in the ring were the first ones Scorsese shot. Shooting would then take a break for four months.
During this intentional break, Robert De Niro headed to Northern Italy. Here he learned LaMotta’s accent, but also went on a binge. De Niro went from 145 pounds to a reported 215 pounds to replicate the weight of the retired boxer. When filming resumed, the actor unnerved the director, as he developed breathing difficulties due to the weight gain. Along with this, both De Niro and his onscreen brother Joe Pesci – playing Joey LaMotta – lived together to create the bond on screen, making it more realistic. The newcomer Pesci had only starred in one low budget movie, The Death Collector, and at the time was working in a restaurant. Pesci would unintentionally be dragged into De Niro’s world of method acting when, during a sparring scene, De Niro broke one of Pesci’s ribs. It was captured for prosperity as Scorsese included the scene in the final cut.
The violence in Raging Bull was not contained within the ring. This is a no-holds-barred portrayal of an imperfect man. Although LaMotta was present during the initial shooting of the boxing scenes, that was his only input. It is another character, his wife Vicki LaMotta (Cathy Moriarty), who is the victim within the movie. She is also skilfully represented as the obsession that drives the paranoid boxer. There is nothing heartwarming about the film: it is not a love affair, instead a case of survival. When Vicki makes a comment about Jake’s next opponent, Tony Janiro, LaMotta brutally beats the boxer in the ring in front of Vicki and a local Mafia boss. He also enacts violence on Vicki, and at one point his jealousy and insecurities lead him to leave her unconscious with a punch. This enables the film to explore Vicki’s bravery, who left with three children when LaMotta could not adjust to a life of retirement.
Robert De Niro won his second Academy Award at the 53rd Academy Awards in 1981 for this performance: and rightly so. Along with this came a Golden Globe win for De Niro, and a Bafta for Pesci as best newcomer. The revitalised Scorsese once again was the toast of Hollywood, as Raging Bull gained a best picture win from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
The overriding feeling of Raging Bull is that it is the perfect film about an imperfect person. For Jake LaMotta himself, the film did not instill a proud sense of achievement. Instead, by all reports, it brought him to tears. Raging Bull took the retired boxer face-to-face with himself and his faults, leading him to ask his ex-wife Vicki LaMotta: “Was I really like that?” To which Vicki replied: “You were worse.”