Martin Scorsese’s majestic essay in self-destruction Raging Bull was released on an unprepared public thirty-five years ago. Let’s hope that De Niro’s portrayal of boxing legend Jake La Motta wasn’t invited to the birthday party or else he would have probably sleazed on someone’s wife, his breath reeking of booze and desperation, his shirt buttons straining to retain the marshmallow belly that was once a taut chest. Once rebuffed the wheezing bum would have clumsily knocked over a drink or two before either pounding the nearest wall until his clammy fists bled claret or sought refuge in a slobbering snog with a minor.
In an age where risk-taking meant pairing Eastwood up with a orang-utan or seeing Reynolds chased by Smokey this was the calibre of anti-hero cinema-goers were expected to root for on the film’s release. To distance itself further from the Varsity-jacket-wearing slushy-slurping crowd the whole thing was shot in black and white film stock and sound-tracked throughout by an obscure Italian classical composer.
Such commercial considerations did not concern Scorsese at this miserable juncture of his life. This downbeat boxing opus was meant to be his directorial swansong; make it the best that it could be – a highly stylised homage to the French auteurs he idolised – then, well, die probably. Utterly dejected from the critical mauling his previous outing New York New York had received and having snorted enough coke to stun a herd of elephant he found himself in a hospital bed gravely ill. His creative collaborator De Niro had long been pestering him about splattering La Motta’s life story onto the big screen and there at death’s door, seeking Catholic redemption for his sins, suddenly the themes smacked him around the face like a Sugar Ray Robinson uppercut. La Motta’s fall from grace dovetailed with his own. The asthmatic, nerdish Scorsese may not have been a sports fan but he understood all-too-well man’s capacity to self-implode.
Raging Bull is now considered a masterpiece of American cinema and all that once hindered it has become cliché – filming in black and white is recognized shorthand for quality fare and the operatic strains of Mascagni help sell margarine – but back then Scorsese had to fight hundreds of rounds with Hollywood’s moneymen just to get it made. It seems bizarre now but even with a bona fide genius at the helm and the finest actor of his generation playing the lead the project was considered so risky horse-trading and blackmail was necessary. The producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff had also overseen the surprise smash hit of Rocky and United Artists understandably desired a sequel. They reluctantly agreed, providing Scorsese was first allowed to realise his vision. There would be no further snorts from the Italian Stallion without a rodeo ride from hell on the Bronx Bull.
As contrasting as the two films are in tone there are of course direct parallels; both boxers maul and brawl their way out of poverty to attain the same dream, but whereas Balboa’s is a classic rags-to-riches tale where the odds that are stacked against him are from life and circumstance La Motta’s demons lie within. He is his own worst bookmaker.
His unevolved personality, broiling temper, and crippling insecurities are all opponents hopelessly beyond his reach. In the ring he was a raging bull. Unfortunately life was a china shop.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his desire to own – and own is the right word in this context – Vicky, the neighbourhood Lolita. His clumsy attempts to seduce her are excruciating to watch, akin to a caveman pawing at a porcelain doll.
Debutant Cathy Moriarty played the fifteen year old, a pitch-perfect study of a teen thoroughly jaded by a life she has yet to experience. She cedes to La Motta’s attentions with the same docile reluctance she probably pouts towards her mother when being told she has to go shopping for new school shoes. It’s 1942, she is the local beauty queen and he is the semi-famous boxer. Why fight fate?
If only she had, because her subsequent marriage is one of unremitting misery. We must assume there were happy times – and Scorsese briefly grants some colour, all be it de-saturated, to skim through a montage of weddings and honeymoon footage – but Vicky is never loved and instead controlled. Every utterance from La Motta is laced with heavy mistrust, every enquiry as to her whereabouts simmers with suspicion, the lines delivered by De Niro with reined-in malice.
It’s not only the marriage where Scorsese omits any joy. In the ring too he eschews the glory. La Motta’s title win is almost incidental to the plot and instead the camera focuses all its attention on blood slowly dripping from a rope. Each bout is a brutal requiem of violence and with the lens always there among the fighters, constantly in motion, you the viewer leave each time with blood on your hands.
The visceral techniques employed by Scorsese to film the boxing scenes have since been aped a thousand times over and Oscar-nominated films such as The Wrestler and The Fighter owe him an enormous debt but the sublime use of art house symbolism (at one stage the sound is muted and the low growl of a tiger is added to Sugar Ray Robinson’s breathing) has never been bettered. Not even close.
Once La Motta achieves his life’s dream and places the middleweight championship belt around his chest here other films of this genre traditionally end, usually with a teary declaration of love amidst the flashing bulbs and all to the climatic, uplifting music from a composer such as Danny Elfman or his ilk. Raging Bull however then enters Shakespeare country. Soon after we see him pot-bellied and more belligerent than ever; the drive to be champion has now gone, leaving a vacuum for his insanity to fill. He turns on his enduringly loyal brother and trainer Joe Pesci and repeatedly asks if he has f***ed his wife. It’s a pivotal scene and is followed by a chilling vignette of domestic abuse when Vicky returns home.
The row between De Niro and Pesci is as notable a study of madness as the one where Travis Bickle questions his own self-image in Taxi Driver, only here Pesci plays the mirror. The scene was largely improvised and its worth rewatching to see Pesci’s genuinely stunned face when he is first asked about the imagined familial infidelity. De Niro decided to throw him a curveball on the very first take by swapping ‘wife’ for ‘mother’.
Such an iconic film has inevitably amassed a glut of such anecdotes, and no shortfall of legends down the years. Most memorable amongst them of course is De Niro’s weight-gain. Filming was shut down for four months to enable the method man to travel around Italy and France on a gluttonous eating binge in order to put on sixty pounds for his character’s dramatic debasement post-retirement. Even after all this time, and accustomed now to lesser talents similarly dispensing with the fat-suit in the name of authenticity, it remains an impressive and jolting sight. The transformation is complete and startling; from a lean contender to a punched out, bloated loser repeating the same tired jokes in a succession of seedy strip bars to heckling boozehounds. His satin shorts that once blinged with a championship belt is now a cheap sweat-stained suit. The snorts of the raging bull now heavy laboured breathing.
Another of the film’s lasting legends is that it incredibly lost out to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People at the following year’s Oscars and while the academy and its voting members should still hang their heads in shame at that one at least this genuine timeless masterpiece was snubbed in favour of an aptly named rival. While mainstream and conservative Hollywood celebrated the ordinary Scorsese shone a light on the deviant nature of humankind. He said at the time “I find these characters fascinating. Obviously, I find elements of myself in them and I hope people in the audience do too, and can maybe learn from them and find some sort of peace.”
Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie recently noted “Without great art we are savages”. Scorsese and De Niro went further. They created great art around a savage and in doing so highlighted the flaws and inadequacies that lurk deep within us all.
There is no such thing as an ordinary person and La Motta was as extraordinary as the rest of us.
Stephen is @TheDaisyCutter1.