Raging Bull: Critical Response Then and Now

For Raging Bull, the sports biopic directed by Martin Scorsese, De Niro had to learn how to box.

He worked with Jake LaMotta for a whole year, from April 1978 to April 1979. He became good enough to have ranked in the top twenty present-day world middleweight contenders. He also talked with his wife, Vickie. The fight scenes, filmed on location in the L.A. Auditorium, were all storyboarded and choreographed beforehand. LaMotta was present to provide technical assistance. When shooting moved to New York, authenticity was maintained with the use of real locales.

This realistic portrayal paid off: De Niro won a well deserved Oscar as Best Actor for his performance. The production was halted for several months to allow De Niro to gain 55 pounds, for the scenes that depict LaMotta after his retirement.

Though budgeted at a modest $14 million, “Raging Bull” was a commercial failure. Some attributed it to the uncompromisingly tough nature of the material, others to the fact that the film was shot in a stylized black-and-white (in the same year, David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated “The Elephant Man,” was also shot in black-and-white).

At Oscar time, despite numerous nominations, “Raging Bull” won only two: Best Actor and Best Editing (to Scorsese’s regular, Thelma Schoonmaker). The big winner that year was Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People,” which was honored with Best Picture, Best Director, and other awards.

History, however, has vindicated Scorsee and “Raging Bull.” In a national poll of critics, “Raging Bull” was singled out as the best film of the 1980s. In contrast, “Ordinary People, a well-executed family melodrama, has not aged particularly well.