Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980)

Academy Award Wins: Best Actor, Best Editing

Inducted into National Film Registry: 1990

Every director, no matter how good he or she may be, will have to face failure at one point in his or her career.  It’s an inherent part of making art—the personal nature of expression doesn’t necessarily translate to a positive, objective impression on the receiving end.  Thus, true artistic success or failure cannot be measured by financial or cultural metrics; it is how the director handles praise or rejection that decides his or her fate as an artist.  By all accounts, Martin Scorsese in the late 1970’s was decidedly failing.  The cold reception of 1977’s postmodern musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK sent his career into a tailspin—a dive worsened by an escalating cocaine addiction.  He retreated into the world of documentaries, releasing THE LAST WALTZ and AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE in the same year (1978) and toying with idea of retiring from feature filmmaking forever.

Scorsese no longer felt the burning passion for narrative film that had fueled the likes of MEAN STREETS (1973) and TAXI DRIVER (1976), so when his frequent collaborator Robert De Niro pitched him a movie based off the tumultuous life of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, Scorsese shrugged with ambivalence.  It would take Scorsese nearly dying from a cocaine overdose for him to come around to the idea—when De Niro visited him in the hospital and repeated his plea to take on the job, Scorsese suddenly found himself connecting to Jake La Motta’s story of glory and ruin.  In relatively short order, Scorsese and De Niro turned to trusted writing collaborators Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader to translate the book to a script they called RAGING BULL.  They set the project up through United Artists, an independent studio noted for its director-friendly approach to filmmaking—an approach that led their 1976 film, ROCKY, to Oscar glory.  To further cement their boxing bonafides, Scorsese and company brought the producers of ROCKY—Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler—onboard.  And so it was that Scorsese found himself with the opportunity to redeem his narrative feature career, and if by chance he went down for the count, it would be on his own, uncompromising terms. 

RAGING BULL tells the story of champion boxer Jake La Motta (De Niro) during his rise to glory in the New York boxing scene during the 1940’s.  He’s a relentless fighter, and he won’t stop until he achieves greatness.  However, his proclivity for violence extends outside of the ring, affecting his wife and his brother and manager, Joey (Joe Pesci).  His eyes are dead set on winning the title belt, but it isn’t long until those same eyes wander towards a young neighborhood girl named Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) and he sets about claiming her as his own as well.  Soon enough he has both and retires to a life of luxury in Miami in 1956—but just like the hardscrabble New York life he left behind, Jake finds that retirement isn’t all daiquiris at the poolside.  Once the very image of fitness, Jake is now flabby and too complacent to fix his life as it crumbles around him.  Ultimately, RAGING BULL is a cautionary tale as old as time, about the rise and fall of a man whose dreams exceed his grasp.

De Niro soars in his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, arguably delivering the best performance of his career (and one rightfully recognized by the Academy with the coveted golden statue).  As Jake La Motta, De Niro ably channels the Bronx Bull’s brutish charisma and explosive fury.  De Niro has a history of extensively preparing for his roles, and with RAGING BULL he trained with the real La Motta until he was up to professional boxing standards, and subsequently ruined it all when he put on the significant amount of weight required to play an older, obese La Motta in retirement.  La Motta is a fundamentally unlikable character, but De Niro imbues him with a relatable pathos, giving the audience a window into our own ambitions and the lengths at which we’ll go to achieve them.  Joe Pesci, who would go on to become a regular Scorsese cast member in his own right, finds his career breakout here through the role of Joey, Jake’s brother and manager.  A character actor who had struggled in obscurity for decades and was just about to call it quits, Pesci’s anxiously combative performance in RAGING BULL is a revelation.  To portray the role of La Motta’s duplicitous wife Vicki, Scorsese found an unknown named Cathy Moriarty, and her chilly, tough (but no less feminine) performance here rocketed her straight to an Academy Award nomination.  Out of all of Scorsese’s leading ladies, Moriarty is arguably the purest example of the “Scorsese blonde” archetype—a beautiful, calculating woman who knows how to manipulate the men around her to get what she wants.  Finally, there’s Frank Vincent in the bit role of Salvy, a neighborhood thug and a rival of Jake’s for Vicki’s affections.  He was a non-actor when he was cast, but his compelling performance in RAGING BULL was enough to turn him into the go-to actor for Italian/Mafia type characters.

RAGING BULL is infamous for its revival of black and white cinematography in a time dominated entirely by color.  This was done to give the film some period authenticity while also differentiating it from ROCKY.  Scorsese enlisted his regular cinematographer Michael Chapman to lens the film, and together they create a hybrid aesthetic that deals in both documentary-style realism and impressionistic experimentalism.  They save the naturalistic cinematography for La Motta’s life outside the ring, punctuating it with documentary-style intertitles to quickly establish when and where we are.  Additionally, they supplement the realism with color 8mm footage meant to evoke La Motta’s home movies.  However, it’s inside the ring where RAGING BULL really distinguishes itself and leaves it mark on the history of cinema. 

Whereas most boxing films prior to RAGING BULL covered the action from an outside perspective, Scorsese and Chapman literally step inside the ring.  In that simple switch from an objective to a subjective perspective, Scorsese grants himself an unprecedented amount of creative freedom.  We first see hints of it during the opening credits, where La Motta is depicted in distant silhouette, pacing around the ring in slow motion, set to the mournful dirge of Pietro Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from the Cavalleria Rusticana.  As the boxing sequences unfold, Scorsese turns the ring into a smoky, molasses-slow hellscape where La Motta must do battle with his own internal demons manifest in physical form.  Scorsese and Chapman’s expressionistic camerawork is complemented by editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s fearlessly dynamic cuts.  Schoonmaker, who had previously worked with Scorsese on his feature debut WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), had been unable to work with the director ever since—barred entry into the editing guild simply because she was a woman.  The guild finally came to their senses in time for Schoonmaker and Scorsese to reunite on RAGING BULL, and the pair has been inseparable ever since. 

Scorsese has a habit of eschewing conventional original scores in favor of needledrops from his own record collection, resulting in films that feel like they inhabit the same world as ours.  Towards that end, RAGING BULL is consistent among Scorsese’s works in that it utilizes a mix of period music from the 1940s through the 1960’s—both popular jukebox tunes as well as traditional folk ballads that flesh out the Italian heritage of La Motta and the neighborhood that surrounds him.  Scorsese also uses a few works from classical composer Pietro Mascagni, most notably the aforementioned “Intermezzo” to add an air of melodrama, subverting the image of a brutish lout with a sophisticated, elegant sound.  Funnily enough, the most powerful aspect of RAGING BULL’s soundtrack is silence.  The film is a master study in the strategic absence of sound during crucial moments, like La Motta’s final fight against Sugar Ray.

Scorsese’s initial reluctance in taking on RAGING BULL stemmed from his distaste for sports and a general emotional disconnect from the psyche of a man who earned his living by knocking people out.  He must have been surprised then to find that RAGING BULL falls right in line with his artistic aesthetic and thematic fascinations.  His affection for the Italian American experience in New York City provides colorful background detail to La Motta’s home life, perfectly capturing the shouting and random fights that constitute the chaos of an urban existence.  This acknowledgement of the messy violence in the streets allows Scorsese to draw compelling comparisons with the disciplined, almost elegant violence inside the boxing ring. 

An archetypical Scorsese protagonist is both saint and sinner, and Jake La Motta is no exception to the rule.  Despite associating with thugs and gangsters and being a lowlife himself, he lives by his own, principled code.  La Motta isn’t outwardly religious, but he shares a similar Roman Catholic tendency for self-flagellation with protagonists like Harvey Keitel’s character in MEAN STREETS.  La Motta takes a lot of abuse in the ring (at one point even giving himself entirely over to his opponent in atonement for throwing an earlier fight), denies himself sexual pleasure, and beats himself up in a jail cell.  Unlike a typical Scorsese protagonist, however, La Motta’s gospel doesn’t come from the bible– it comes from the streets.  Take the ending scene, where a plump, washed-up La Motta gives himself a pep talk in the mirror before going onstage for his nightly lounge act.  He recites Marlon Brando’s seminal “I Coulda Been A Contender” monologue from director Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), a film which no doubt would have struck a profound chord with people of La Motta’s persuasion and background at the time.  On a surface level, the scene could be read as Scorsese paying homage to a cinematic influence of his own, but it really serves to illuminate the inflated “noble victim” mentality that La Motta uses to shield himself from actually changing for the better.    Scorsese couldn’t have known it at the time, but this scene in particular would go on to become one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, rivaling even that of the scene in ON THE WATERFRONT that it references, as well as directly inspiring the final scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)—a film similarly about the rise and fall of a showman whose greatest asset is his own body. 

RAGING BULL is an incredibly significant milestone in Scorsese’s filmography, whereby he demonstrates his maturation as an artist and fulfills the promise of his early work.  It is arguably Scorsese’s most pure and uncompromised film– indeed, he fought tooth and nail over every little artistic choice in a bid to make sure every frame demonstrated his vision.  All this passion wasn’t unwarranted—after the failure of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Scorsese truly thought RAGING BULL would be his last film, so he summoned all his creative energies to make it just the way he wanted.  The result was a cinematic rebirth for Scorsese, who went on to secure Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director, alongside the film’s other nominations for Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, and Editing.  In a stunning display of short-sightedness on the Academy’s part, RAGING BULL was only awarded two Oscars—one for De Niro’s performance and the other for Schoonmaker’s groundbreaking edit.  The film’s direction and cinematography have proven massively influential over the years, completely overshadowing the legacy of Robert Redford’s ORDINARY PEOPLE—the film that the Academy passed RAGING BULL over for.  Thankfully, RAGING BULL isn’t an easy film to forget, and it has stood the test of time.  When it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1990 (its first year of eligibility), RAGING BULL’s cinematic legacy was finally assured, marking it as the point in which Scorsese had emerged as a true master of the art form.    

RAGING BULL is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.

Credits:

Produced by: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler

Written by: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin

Director of Photography: Michael Chapman

Production Designer: Gene Rudolf

Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker