Raging Bull is one of the best films ever, we don’t think many people would argue with that one. Featuring an almighty performance from Robert De Niro (remember how bloody incredible he used to be?), the 1980 production was directed by Martin Scorsese, but wasn’t a box office hit in America. Despite this, it still got nominated for eight Oscars and won two of them.
It’s a biography about Jake LaMotta (1922-2017), an American middleweight boxer who was also a bit of a lunatic. During the 1940s and 1950s, he was something of a boxing legend in New York. His explosive personal life, however, also dominate proceedings, with his relationships with his wife and mistress proving highly troublesome. It all makes for glorious viewing, filmed in glorious black and white.
Whilst filming the Godfather Part II, De Niro had been reading LaMotta’s 1970 eponymous autobiography – he didn’t actually like the book, but was drawn to LaMotta’s personality and eventually convinced Scorsese to take up the project.
The boxing scenes are pretty epic and some of the best we’ve seen in a film. Being a method actor, De Niro went off and trained for this like crazy. He’d done the same for Taxi Driver a few years earlier, but he also set something of an industry trend by gaining a lot of weight for the second half of his roll. This went down in legend and many modern actors seem to view it as a rights of passage type dale (Christian Bale being a notable example).
Joe Pesci stars alongside De Niro and has a memorable turn as LaMotta’s brother/manager Joey. Pesci was a struggling actor at the time, but after De Niro saw him in a low budget film he got Scorsese to hunt him down to hire him for the part. What a fortuitous happenstance, eh? Such moments are littered throughout Hollywood history and Pesci’s lucky break also led to him starring in the almighty Goodfellas (1990) – more on that another time.
This rather superb production doesn’t make for easier viewing. LaMotta was notorious for his mood swings. Plus, he was a bit crazy. For De Niro, it proved the perfect opportunity to show off a wide range of acting abilities. He dominates the film, displaying why, alongside Al Pacino, he’s considered a Hollywood great (despite his recent filmography having turned somewhat sour).
But despite its brilliance, it met with mixed reviews upon its release. The Oscars got it right for once and landed Raging Bull eight nominations. It bagged one for Film Editing, plus De Niro won the coveted Best Actor gong. Rightly so, too, his performance is quite exceptional – he fully immersed himself into this one. Along with Scorsese, he deserves a hearty punch to the face for his efforts.
Now, we don’t know anything about boxing. Watching two guys punching each other isn’t our idea of perfect entertainment, but we appreciate the skill that must be involved. LaMotta was famous for being a tough fighter and had a tough jaw and skull muscles to absorb a beating – apparently, and this made us laugh, this means he had one of the “greatest chins” in all of boxing.
What that means is the fighter can handle a beating without passing out like a wuss. For us at Professional Moron, we can’t help but think LaMotta’s claim to chin fame would have been ruined had he had a dimple in it, like Luke Skywalker does. But that’s another story for a galaxy far, far away etc.
But the boxing scenes in Raging Bull are turned into high art. Scorsese’s use of black and white is pivotal to this, adding a real portent (big word) weight to proceedings. There are slow motion sections, followed by full on sweaty brutality. It’s in your face and harsh, leading you to admire LaMotta’s skills, whilst reviling his off-ring personality flaws.