Raging Bull (1980): Scorsese’s Biopic Starring De Niro in Oscar Performance

The two-disc special edition of “Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece is a must-see for anyone interested in the New American Cinema, and in the work of Scorsese, arguably the most brilliant filmmaker working today.

The new featurettes include several documentaries: “Raging Bull: Before the Fight,” a look at the writing, casting and pre-production of the black-and-white boxing film,” and “Raging Bull: Inside the Ring,” a report on the staging of the boxing scenes and Michael Chapman’s inventive lensing. Then there is “Raging Bull: Outside the Ring,” a chronicle of some interesting and funny behind-the-scenes stories, and “Raging Bull: After the Fight,” which centers on the film’s bravura technical aspects, such as production, sound, and music designs.

An extra bonus is the detailed comparison between Jake LaMotta and Robert De Niro, who played La Motta in his Oscar-winning role, as well as vintage newsreel footage of LaMotta fighting in the ring.

Aviator, The (2004): Scorsese’s Biopic of Howard Hughes Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar-Winning Cate Blanchett

Three illuminating commentaries are included in the special edition. The first is by Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who won an Oscar); the second with cinematographer Chapman, producers Irwin Winkler (before he became a director) and Robert Chartoff, music producer Robbi Robertson, and some of the performers; and the third and most surprising, with Jake LaMotta himself, his nephew Jason Lustig, and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader (who also scripted Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”).

Explaining the mysterious enigma that La Motta was (and still is), Paul Schrader observes: “I don’t believe that you can ever really explain or understand an individual psyche. One of the wonderful things that art does is to give audiences enough clues to come to their own conclusion.”

“Raging Bull” is based on the life of LaMotta, who emerged out of the Bronx slums to become middleweight champion in the l940s. He went on to make and squandered millions of dollars, which became a pathetic stand-up comic, and finally spent time in a prison for corrupting the morals of an underage girl.

La Motta was closely involved with the production, despite the negtaive aspects of the portrayal. In 1980, when De Niro won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar, La Motta was present at the ceremony. (In the same year, Sissy Spacek won Best Actress for “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the biopicture of singer Loretta Lynn, who was also present at the Oscars)

When “Raging Bull” came out, in 1980, it received mostly positive reviews, though two leading critics, rivals Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, had serious reservations about the film.

In the “New Yorker,” Kael criticized the film along several lines, claiming: “Raging Bull isn’t a biographical film about a fighter’s rise and fall; it’s a biography of the genre of prizefight films.” She also reproached Scorsese for reproducing cliches of 1940s film noir in a “mechanical” way that drains the fun out of them.

In the “Village Voice,” Sarris, too, thought that “Raging Bull” was flawed, due to Scorsese’s overly dense text and strained effort to tell a story and at the same time offer commentary on the genre itself.

One of the most perceptive reviews, which which I concur completely, was written by Roger Ebert, who saw the movie not so much as a sports film or biopicture, but as a psychological study of “brute force, anger, and grief.” These motifs recur in most of Scorsese’s films, which are character rather than plot driven, and, among other things, define Scorsese as a genuine auteur.

For Ebert, “Raging Bull” is about a man’s inability to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign: virgin or whore. There is no room inside the mind of the prizefighter for the notion that a woman might be a friend or a partner. She only functions as accessible or inaccessible sexual fantasy. But then, after he has possessed her, she becomes tarnished by the very sexual act. Insecure in his own manhood, LaMotta becomes obsessed by jealousy, and releases his jealousy in violence.

Indeed, the scholar Weiss has pointed out that most of Scorsese’s films reflect the whore-madonna dichotomy, and that prostitutes abound in his work. In “Boxing Bertha,” the heroine (Barbara Hershey) joins a bordello, in “Mean Streets, there’s a stripper in the bar; in “Taxi Driver,” Iris (Jodie Foster) is a child prostitute.

In “Taxi Driver” (l976), the Madonna-whore complex tortured the central character, too. It’s expressed in Tavis’ relationships with two vastly different women: Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), an educated, inaccessible blonde who’s out of his league, and Iris, a tough teenage prostitute (the young Jodie Foster in an Oscar-nominated turn). Ignorant of courtship matters and how to treat women, he takes the blonde to a porno moviehouse in their first date! And conversely, he places Iris on a pedestal, determined to rescue her at all costs, which he does, in a bloody sequence with her pimp (played by Harvey Keitel).

As Roger Ebert pointed out, unlike those earlier movies, “Raging Bull” deliberately intends to strip away everything about the raw surges of guilt, jealousy, and rage coursing through La Motta’s limited imagination. La Motta is portrayed as a strong, stubborn, narrow-minded brute. Once he gets involved in boxing, he realizes that he’s good at it, though he’s unaware of the real functions that boxing fulfill. La Motta’s domestic life leaves a lot to be desired: He mistreats his wife and abuses her physically in front of his brother Joey.

His life changes when he spots a beautiful girl at the local swimming pool, named Vickie, and is utterly smitten with her her. Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) is as an intriguing character that combines teen-ager, the self-reliance of a survivor, and the calculations of a slut. This combination of traits also characterizes other Scorsese screen women, as the character that Sharon Stone played in “Casino” (1995).

Scorsese conveys LaMotta’s obsession and jealousy from his subjective POV. The first image of Vickie depicts her in a facial close-up, then successive shots focus on various parts of her body. This partial, fragmented portrait also marks Iris’ first appearance in “Taxi Driver,” shen she gets into Tavis’ cab.
Often, the virgin-whore dichotomy is embodied with the same female character. In “Mean Streets,” Charlie loves Teresa and plans to marry her, but he calls her a cunt after they have slept together. In “Raging Bull,” Vicki is first idealized, then treated as a whore, after La Motta begins to suspect that she is cheating on him.

Scorsese shows the inner feelings of the former boxing champion Jake LaMotta. The character’s dialogue is limited to expressions of desire, fear, hatred, and jealousy. These limitations separate the character from the world of ordinary feelings.

In this and other films, Scorsese shows his fascination with the lives of tortured, violent, guilt-ridden characters. Which may be the reason why his movies have never been popular with the mass public.

The previous collaboration of Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader, and actor Robert De Niro was “Taxi Driver,” which won the Palme D’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. In what evolved as one of the most fruitful collaborations in film history, Scorsese and De Niro went on to make other interesting movies together, such as “The King of Comedy” and “Goodfellas.”

“Raging Bull” concluded a quartet of films that share similar milieu, Little Itlay, where the director grew up, and similar thematic concerns. These movie are: “Who’s That Knokcing at My Door,” “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull.”