1980

Film #353: Raging Bull (1980)

One of the recurring themes of the Best Picture nominees of the 1980s has been the reappearance of plenty of featured stars from the 1970s. We’ve seen Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson and more continue their careers by playing a variety of diverse roles. Somebody else who appeared in a few of the film we reviewed in the 1970s was one Robert De Niro, who himself won a Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II. De Niro would see this success spread through into the 1980s where he’d become triumphant in the Best Actor category by teaming up with a regular collaborator.

The collaborator in question was director Martin Scorsese, who previously worked with De Niro on Best Picture Nominee Taxi Driver, and the film itself was Raging Bull. Based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull had long been a pet project of De Niro’s since he’d read LaMotta’s autobiography and become fascinated with the man. De Niro eventually convinced Scorsese to direct the film even though he was initially sceptical of the project as he didn’t have the first idea about boxing. However I feel that Raging Bull isn’t a boxing film but rather a film about a man that just happens to be a boxer. LaMotta is a man plagued by insecurities whether it be about his weight, if he’s better than his opponents or if his wife is cheating on him. The aforementioned wife, and LaMotta’s second, is Vicky a neighbourhood girl that Jake first meets when she’s fifteen. Over a period of time Jake marries Vicky and also attempts to get a shot at the middleweight title thanks to his brother Joey’s connections with the Mafia. Jake’s goals don’t come too easy as he’s forced to take a dive but he does it in such a way that he is suspended altogether. Meanwhile, his personal life suffers ups and downs when he constantly believes that Vicky is cheating on him and even accuses Joey of sleeping with his wife. Although Jake eventually wins the title, and defends it in a physically gruelling match-up, his personal woes eventual impact on his in-ring career and he loses the belt eventually giving up boxing altogether. I personally found the latter part of the film incredibly sad as Jake piles on weight, opens a nightclub and eventually loses everything he holds dear. Though there is hint of redemption for LaMotta at the end of the film, I did feel it was a rather dour conclusion.

Raging Bull is an incredibly powerful film that takes its audience on an extremely emotional journey while at the same time getting us involved in every single fight. As well as being a passion project for De Niro, Scorsese was incredibly exacting in both the editing and sound mixing processes partly as he believed that this would be his first major feature. To me the editing and sound were two elements of Raging Bull that really stood out due to the way that certain sequences were put together and the sounds we hear when Jake is in the boxing ring. Thelma Schoomaker won her first of three Best Editing Oscars, all of which were for her work with Scorsese, and I feel that she more than deserved the prize. It’s clear that every fight sequence is choreographed move for move which means that we really connect with Jake when he’s doing what he loves. Michael Chapman’s black-and-white cinematography is brilliantly imagined and adds to the artistic feel of the whole film. Additionally, I loved the home movies sequence that moved the action along which appeared to be more realistic due to the fact it was the only part of the film shot in colour. One of the things that most associate with Raging Bull is the fact that De Niro put on 60 pounds to play Jake in his later days. His commitment to the role alone earned him the Best Actor award and I believe that his performance throughout the piece was truly spectacular. De Niro portrays LaMotta as a talented boxer but one who has his vices which eventually overwhelm his life. However he’s able to make what could be considered an unlikeable character into an incredibly sympathetic protagonist. The then unknown Joe Pesci was perfectly cast as Joey LaMotta and his chemistry with DeNiro (who suggested him for the role) is undeniably brilliant. Similarly new to acting was Cathy Moriarty who, as Vicky, was just astounding as he was able to play every stage of her characters development from wide-eyed teenager to jaded wife and mother. I personally can’t believe that Raging Bull received mixed reviews when it was first released as to me it’s an almost perfect film. I’m equally stunned that Raging Bull didn’t win Best Picture and soon enough you’ll be able to see my verdict on whether the right film triumphed over Scorsese’s boxing masterpiece.

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