RAGING BULL (1980)

  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writers: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the non-fiction book Raging Bull: My Story by Jake LaMotta
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Johnny Barnes, and Frank Vincent
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#4), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#55), 2 Oscars (Best Actor – Robert De Niro, Best Film Editing), 6 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Martin Scorsese, Best Supporting Actor – Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actress – Cathy Moriarty, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing)
  • Where to Watch: Watch with subscription on Amazon Prime or Hulu, Buy or Rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Of the movies in the Top 10 of the most recent AFI Top 100 list, I would probably say Raging Bull is the one your average American is least likely to have actually seen. It is there because it is beloved of the critics and filmmakers who vote for these things, though not particularly of audiences. Both Roger Ebert and Francis Ford Coppola, for example, always listed it among their all-time favorites. I respect it more than love it. Watching Raging Bull for the first time, I think I see what the people who love it see in it, particularly from a purely technical, filmmaking perspective. From a story perspective, it’s an extremely masculine movie that also takes as its essential subject toxic masculinity and the destruction it wreaks. I can see how that could be the subject matter of a good movie. But it’s also not really the kind of movie I actually want to watch.

Robert De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the champion boxer Jake LaMotta. He spent months getting into the best shape of his life to portray LaMotta during his boxing career, then the production took four months off so he could go on an extended “eating tour” of Italy and France and gain 75 pounds (!) in order to portray LaMotta’s post-boxing dissolution. He becomes completely unrecognizable, without any prosthetics. This seems to me to be almost performative in terms of method acting, but as usual the Oscar voters ate this kind of thing up. Some people like to accuse other people on Twitter of “virtue signaling,” I would say that De Niro here is “acting signaling.”

Raging Bull is a boxing movie, but it is not really about boxing, except perhaps as a metaphor. Director Martin Scorsese himself professes not to be a boxing fan, or a fan of any sports, really. This might have helped him, as he wasn’t tied down, as a lot of filmmakers had been and continue to be, with how sports is portrayed on TV. He puts the camera in the ring, often directly where the boxer throwing the punches would be. To Scorsese, and maybe to LaMotta, boxing is much more about being punched than it is about throwing punches. Nobody has made the act of getting punched more violent than Scorsese does in this movie. He slows it down, unidentified fluids flying everywhere, even the sound of the crowd distorting into madness. He shot some of the boxing scenes in one of the arenas in Los Angeles, with black curtains hung outside the ring and smoke drifting through. Much of LaMotta’s boxing career takes place in what seems to be a mythological haze.

Scorsese shoots those scenes, and the rest of the movie, in black and white. He is proficient enough in this medium that, if the viewer didn’t know better, they might assume that the movie came from LaMotta’s general era of the 1940s and 50s, at least outside of the boxing sequences. The explanations for this vary, including that Scorsese worried that if he showed all the blood in color viewers would get queasy, but I have a feeling it mostly boiled down to the fact that Scorsese wanted to do it. Other than De Niro, most of the actors he hired were unknowns at the time. The other boxers are played mostly by actual boxers. Joe Pesci was suggested by De Niro to play LaMotta’s brother and manager after he saw him in an old TV movie. When Pesci got the call for this movie, he hadn’t acted in four years and was running an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. Pesci then approached Cathy Moriarty, who had never acted before, at a skeezy-sounding “bathing beauty pageant” in New York and asked her if she wanted to try out for a movie. Both Pesci and Moriarty also received Oscar nominations.

But for me, the actual experience of watching Raging Bull keeps coming back to the fact that this is a movie about an abusive asshole. LaMotta destroys his marriage to Vicki (Moriarty) because he becomes completely, obsessively jealous of her. He invents significance for tiny remarks. When she talks back, he seemingly completely fails to understand obvious sarcasm. He won’t let arguments go until he wins, and hits her frequently. He does this with everyone he meets, his brother too. He’s insanely stubborn and filled with rage. After Vicki remarks that the judges may favor an upcoming opponent because “he’s good looking and people like him,” LaMotta fixates on her calling him “good looking” for months and then beats the guy to a bloody pulp. Later, when asked to throw a fight by the Mob, he agrees but refuses to actually go down, letting his opponent beat on him until the referee declares a technical knockout. This means that everyone watching the fight realizes the fix is in, and LaMotta gets suspended by the boxing commission.

LaMotta eventually does become the champ, but this isn’t the inspirational climax the way it might be in a “normal” sports movie. His marriage falls apart after he imagines his wife is cheating on him and beats her. He beats the heck out of his brother in front of his children, again because he’s built up a non-existent affair between his brother and his wife in his mind. He gets fat and opens a nightclub in Miami Beach, but ends up in prison for “introducing a 14-year-old girl to men.” Instead of, you know, not doing that, he tries to bribe his way out of the charges by selling the jewels on his championship belt (but refuses to sell the belt itself). This does not work, and at his nadir we see him in a dark jail cell, beating a stone wall and crying about how stupid he is. I’m sitting here going, “yes, you are.”

Other than it being hard to watch, that leads me to the real issue I have with Raging Bull, which is that I’m not really clear on what it actually has to say. It knows that LaMotta is a terrible guy (in fact, the actual LaMotta later said in interviews that the movie caused him to have an epiphany about what a jerk he was, which… OK), and in the end his life falls apart. The end. What it doesn’t explore, at all, is why he’s such a jerk. You could argue that the movie doesn’t have to, that it’s based on real things that happened, that it’s not the movie’s responsibility to explain why Jake LaMotta did the actual things he did. But if it isn’t going to, why make this movie at all? Why tell this story, out of all the stories Scorsese and De Niro could have told? Their prior collaboration, Taxi Driver, works better for me because it does a much better job of showing how this awful guy gets to where he ends up. Here, LaMotta is an ultra-masculine abuser at the start, and has learned nothing by the end. I am a little flummoxed by this.

On the subject of Taxi Driver, it played into the story of this movie in another unexpected way. In February 1981, John Hinckley shot President Reagan, apparently partly inspired by his obsession with Taxi Driver. The day of the shooting happened to be the day of that year’s Oscars, at which Raging Bull was tied for the most nominations. The ceremony was delayed to the next day, by which time Reagan’s prognosis was looking better and he reportedly had a television wheeled into his hospital room so he could watch the show. So, in summary, the Oscars were delayed because of the shooting of a President who was also an actor by an assassin obsessed with a movie by the same filmmaker and actor who were favored for many of the big awards. And you thought 2020 was the only year where it seems like the writers are not very subtle.

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