The most popular form of acting taught in the US is ‘method acting’, based on a system created by a certain Constantin Stanislavski, and pioneered by the likes of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. Many famous actors trained under these acclaimed teachers – Strasberg’s students included Alec Baldwin, Paul Newman and Al Pacino, whereas amidst Adler’s students you had the likes of Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. The specific form of method acting varies from school to school, but Strasberg’s and Adler’s are arguably the two best regarded schools – the former believing that the key to method acting was through the actor searching within himself to tap into the relevant experiences, which can then generate within him the emotions required to pull off a scene (emotion memory); and the latter believed that no actor had within him what was required to play multiple roles, and that only extensive research would help an actor truly understand his character. There is, however, a certain actor who trained at both schools, and who has gone on to become perhaps the name most associated with method acting – Robert De Niro.
In his thirties, De Niro gave us an amazing opening salvo of Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, the last of which he garnered him a Best Actor Oscar Nomination, after his Best Supporting Actor Award for Godfather Part II. I can’t think of another actor who, in just five years, has done anything even comparable to this: most of these movies are commonly regarded as being amidst the greatest films of all time. Then, in 1980 he did Raging Bull.
The story follows real-life boxer Jake LaMotta during two distinct periods in his life: the 60s, where he’s an ageing, overweight, failing stand-up comic; and the 40s – the peak of his boxing career, and the start of his downfall. Clearly a highly skilled middleweight boxer, LaMotta is also shown to be a brutish man out of the ring, with a volatile temperament which angers not only those who are in a position to do his career damage, but also those closest to him. Trained and promoted by his brother, Joey, LaMotta’s career appears to be determined not by his boxing capabilities, but by the influence of the mob, who wish for him to throw a fight before he gets a shot at the title. With a raging sexual jealousy threatening to ruin not only his second marriage, but also tear apart his relationship with his brother; and with an increasing personal frustration that – despite his punishing efforts in the ring – those who ‘organise’ his fights refuse to recognise his worth, LaMotta is tearing himself apart. And nobody seems capable of stopping him.
Director Martin Scorsese was at an all-time low when he came across this project. It was suggested to him by DeNiro himself, and initially Scorsese was not interested in another boxing biopic, but given his own drug problems and health issues, gradually Scorsese came to realise that he had more in common with this particular protagonist and this particular tale than he originally realised, and decided to take up the project. Still, things were bad enough for him to regard it as his swan-song – and perhaps not just in terms of filmmaking.
Although his was not the first draft, some would argue that writer Paul Schrader’s draft of the screenplay was the closest any of the writers came to the final cut. Schrader had previously worked with Scorsese and DeNiro on Taxi Driver, and did wonders here, but the end result was still not approved by the producers. In fact, it was not until DeNiro and Scorsese took a couple of weeks on an island to work on the script, adding key scenes, and blurring the parallels with the oft-compared Brando boxing vehicle On the Waterfront (which this movie even quotes), that things finally reached a conclusion.
Then DeNiro began working his magic. He was over 35 at the time, and he worked hard on his Brooklyn accent, spending time with both the real Jake LaMotta (who served as fight coordinator as well), and his estranged wife Vickie, so that he could get into the role; but he also worked on the physical side of things – training hard to get into the shape. Training so hard, in fact, that he got to the point where he could be entered into fights as a middleweight, and win! LaMotta himself stated that DeNiro was so good that he regarded him as one of the best middleweights of all time. Whether or not this was just rhetoric, the results would later be seen on film, and there was no doubt that for those familiar with DeNiro’s work, this was a significant transformation. It was not, however, the end of the master actor’s commitment to the role because, after the boxing scenes had been filmed, the production was put on hold whilst the actor took four months out to gain 70 pounds (5 stone!) so that he could come back and film the scenes set some time later, where LaMotta was older, bigger and out of shape. To this day I’ve never seen anything like it. Sure, dedicated actors like Christian Bale have shed weight for a role (he was emancipated in several movies, including Rescue Dawn and The Machinist; and, arguably, The Fighter), and plenty have trained hard for boxing roles (including even Will Smith for his convincing turn as Ali in the underrated Michael Mann movie by the same name), and there are even some who have put on weight for their parts (George Clooney did so in the superior political thriller Syriana); but I can’t think of anybody who had done both, for the same role.
The hard work didn’t end after shooting was wrapped however, because now it was Scorsese’s turn to prove himself. I still can’t believe that he thought that this would be his last film – imagine no Goodfellas, no Casino, no Aviator, no Shutter Island – but, at the time, he was so close to the edge (and, I guess, regarded this as a movie which could seal his fate in the film industry, and not in a good way) that he put everything into this production, assuming the worst, and preparing for it. Aside from the unusual way of shooting the fight sequences (using dance routines, and capturing the moves from the perspective of the boxer’s opponent – which had not been done before), and the stark black and white cinematography, Scorsese’s big effort here was with regards to the editing (which the movie would eventually go on to win an Oscar for), working hard with his long-time editing collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker to realise a final cut.
The end result? A brutal, brilliant, masterpiece which surely deserved more than just a Best Picture Nomination, and which has since gone on to make the top 10 lists of many critics and audiences alike. It’s a poignant observation of (self-)destructive rage; the power it can yield in the ring, the corrupt forces that can yield a boxer’s actions worthless, and the damage outside of the ring that can be done by such, often uncontrollable, brutality. You can’t help but admire this boxer’s skills, but there’s no denying that his is still a generally loathsome individual, mainly because of his temper – showing the demon side to his talent to both his young wife (whom he first met when she was just 15!) and his loving family. It’s a classic tragedy, and the latter-day 60s sequences only highlight this, as a creeping self-awareness brings sympathy to this brutish antagonist. And beyond the great script, the superior direction, the striking cinematography and sound (both Oscar-nominated), the Oscar-winning editing, and the supporting performances from a fresh debut actor named Joe Pesci (who duly received a Best Supporting Actor Nomination, and would later also become a long-term DeNiro/Scorses collaborator) on surprisingly restrained form; and a marginally older-than-the part-required, and also previously unknown, Cathy Moriarty (who was also Nominated as well); this modern classic owes so much to one man.
Robert DeNiro may have troubles finding suitable projects these days, may not have the best agent or the best taste in films, and may have suffered from a lack of recent collaborations with his greatest mentor, director Martin Scorsese, but he will always be remembered for his Oscar-winning performance here. For 123 minutes you are not watching the man ‘act’, you are simply watching him be Jake ‘The Raging Bull’ LaMotta.
“He ain’t pretty no more.”
A true all-time classic, certainly one of the best movies that superior auteur Martin Scorsese has ever directed, and featuring arguably the best performance in the career of Robert DeNiro, himself a contender for the best actor of all time; the cinematic masterpiece that is Raging Bull shook things up in 1980, and still remains to this day a blistering example of breathtakingly unusual film stylisation, stunning black and white cinematography, brutally raw, bloody fight sequences, dark and intimate character observation and amazing storytelling – everything you would expect from a film which is basically pure perfection. Highly recommended.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.