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RAGING BULL (1980 - R)
RAGING BULL is the dramatic autobiography/biography (at times self-narrated by the protagonist, but generally left to narration by a third person omniscient narrator/director) about the infamous middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro). Exploiting his personal and public life, the film adapts the novelty of black-and-white medium (with an artistic Technicolor Montage midway through) to capture the tense atmosphere that pervaded the unstable career and lifestyle of LaMotta as the film traces his rise and fall as one of the greatest boxers, albeit character assessment aside, of his era.
Written by: Jake LaMotta, Peter Savage, and Joseph Carter (book), and Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (screenplay).
Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
Genre: Drama, Autobiography/Biography, Sport.
Rated: R for language, violence, and sexual references.
Tagline: "And though I can fight, I’d rather recite…"
Hailed as one of the greatest boxing movies of all time, arguably one of the best of our generation, RAGING BULL brings to the cinema spotlight the artistic and unflinching autobiography/biography of notorious middleweight champion Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) and the many trials and tribulations of his days in the pasture, as "bull" both young and old.
Since the advent of color media, particularly the soaring popularity of color TV, the prototypical black-and-white films slowly met their inevitable death and made way for the rise of Technicolor films. With RAGING BULL however, Scorsese resurrects black-and-white film and pays homage to both the "old art" and the "old man", appropriately setting the 1940-1960 (the film traverses a timeline between the mid 1940's up to the late 1950's) storyline of Jake LaMotta to the novelty, and often rhetorically persuasive medium of black-and-white film. As such, the nostalgic rendering of LaMotta’s unique (if that is the word) story in the monochromatic black-and-white medium seems to, as one critic puts it, appropriately "capture the look of both the films and the newsreels of that period. This is remarkably effective for the boxing scenes, which have a raw, brutal power and graphically depict the aggressive nature of the sport" and more importantly, of the inherent nature of LaMotta's character.
The film begins at the end, so to speak, and spends the rest of the time in a linear chronological progression towards coming full circle. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1950’s the film commences with the now overweight, out of shape, 'fish out of water' depiction of Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) reciting his infamous lines (which we are to hear several times throughout the film as this becomes the signature dialogue for signifying why the film's title is RAGING BULL) about preferring to "recite" rather than "fight"; "even though [he’s] no Olivier" of course.
The film then pans back in time to depict a svelte, lethally chiseled LaMotta partaking in one of his famous matrimonial tirades with his first wife. As brother Joey (Joe Pesci) stumbles in on the mess and rescues his older brother from committing an unforgivable blunder, the two head down the street in fanfare fashion as LaMotta's wife comically screams from above, outside the narrow terrace of her Bronx apartment. Of course the comedic effect of the scene is undermined by the clear depiction that LaMotta is somewhat of a formidable character; fierce, wild, untamable, and has a fragile temperament that tends more towards the diabolical than the puppy dogs and ice cream.
As the film pans back and forth from private to public eye, Scorsese reveals, through unmistakably artistic direction and unflinchingly brilliant, and honest, cinematography the many trials and tribulations of LaMotta both inside and outside the boxing ring. Among the most highlighted obstacles of his professional career was the ongoing fight with also, middleweight champion boxer, the famous Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes); "an elegant practitioner of the art of boxing". Appearing in the ring together multiple times in the film, Scorcese unveils the tension between LaMotta and Sugar Ray with perfect accuracy while simultaneously highlighting the pervasive media and other political influences helping to pull strings around each match.
As far as Jake’s questionable personal life, the film reveals the termination of LaMotta's first rocky marriage and the beginning, and end, of his second, equally doomed, marriage to the tempting, starkly young Vickie Thailer (Cathy Moriarty). In fact, it is in the remarkable dynamics of Vickie and Jake’s relationship, and the latter's relentless temper and almost sadomasochistic personality that Scorsese exploits what perhaps LaMotta testified in his novel, from which the screenplay was adapted; that LaMotta was a self-destructive man. Nothing, no amount of success, or fame, or loyalty and love, would ever suffice to appease LaMotta’s appetite. He was, and perhaps was fated to always be, a raging bull.
It is here, in the unstable and fragile dynamics of LaMotta’s personal life that RAGING BULL makes itself distinct from other boxing classics. Not uncommon for the sport of boxing to be dubbed brutally heathen and primitive, many movies often glorify the sport through the rhetoric of 'gentlemanly-ness', or as one critic notes: “Some boxers- Henry Cooper comes to mind- are hard-hitting inside the ring but gentlemanly and restrained outside. LaMotta, as portrayed in this film, did not fall into this category.” Whereas films like the contemporary “Cinderella Man" and "Million Dollar Baby" pay homage to the morally dutiful blue-collar workman/woman (arguably the latter can even be considered an homage to the 'rise from white trash', in so many words) who finds success by hard work and a "guardian angel", and films like "Rocky" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" pay homage to the underdog, and the dozens of boxing films that highlight the boxer as a man of courage and gentility participating in either a noble cause publicly or privately through their boxing efforts, here it seems Scorsese's RAGING BULL is more equated with, and even darker than, Kirk Douglas’s “The Champion” (1949). In RAGING BULL De Niro as LaMotta is unflinching, unapologetic, and non-retrospective (until, arguably, the end of the film when of course he’s hit rock bottom both professionally and personally).
Here we see LaMotta for the man he is both inside and outside the ring: a man-child seething with violence, aggression, and too many issues to count. It seems LaMotta would have been an ideal case for any psychologist as audiences watch him destroy everything he touches both inside and outside the ring. In fact, LaMotta comes to epitomize the antithetical Midas; instead of turning to gold, everything LaMotta touches simply withers and wilts away. No one escapes his wrath, his pain, his fury, his anger unscathed and unchanged, not even LaMotta himself.
Returning to film summary, the film basically vacillates between personal and professional life, depicting the rocky road in both as LaMotta works his way to the top; a 'happily' married father in his personal life, a middleweight champion in his professional, and back down again. The nadir of both his intrinsic and extrinsic lifestyles, so the film argues, is himself. Never before has a film depicted a man as so self-destructive and cause of his own demise with such raw and poignant honesty. After LaMotta throws a fight (of which he was forced) with Sugar Ray, he is expelled from the boxing commission, which provokes his starting up a nightclub. Meanwhile his constant suspicion of his wife's desire to act sexually precocious (who incidentally happens to be an astonishingly young woman who LaMotta nearly incarcerates to her home out of his fear of her liberties provoking infidelity) causes LaMotta to beat his wife, and his own brother right out of his heart and loyalties. Meanwhile a scandal at the nightclub results in LaMotta’s penal incarceration which the film suggests to arguably be the lowest point in his life.
With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, LaMotta is forced to wander the rough streets of the Bronx as a "has been"; fat, out of shape, and lonely, he has succeeded in destroying all his dreams and exiling himself from everyone he ever cared about and who ever cared about him. Here the film will come full circle and highlight the ultimate demise of LaMotta's reputation as he prepares to go onstage for a comic spot dubbed "An Evening with Jake LaMotta": now it seems we can laugh. Of course the irony here is that with success suddenly so far off, it appears as if this whole time LaMotta’s life was nothing but a big joke and here he stands prepared to make us laugh at the almost Romanesque tragedy that has befallen on this once superman character. But indeed, as in any great tragedy, all supermen must fall. Here, Scorsese contrives a powerful tongue-and-cheek ending to his film as LaMotta bids audiences farewell and adieu with a retrospective chuckle, and invited participation in, reflecting upon his own self-ignited demise.
RAGING BULL is, as Joe Holleman from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch puts it, the number one boxing film of all time; "Robert De Niro gives one of the most brilliant performances in screen history as the violent man-child and middleweight champ, Jake LaMotta. Joe Pesci is excellent in support." And here it seems only too true a testimonial of De Niro's performance. Undertaking the role of boxer, De Niro trained and actually acquired the skill(s) of boxing so that he could film every scene without the use of a stunt double. Moreover, as if learning how to box, and placing himself at the mercy of the grueling training required and painful scenes shot weren't enough, De Niro also went so far as to undergo yet another amazing physical transformation from the formidably chiseled boxer LaMotta to the grotesquely obese and sloth LaMotta post career success. So it seems here De Niro was more than deserving of his Oscar for Best Performance.
As far as supporting help goes, Cathy Moriarty simply stuns audiences with her enigmatic portrayal of savvy beauty, naïve youth, smoldering seductress, and stoic, iron-willed woman; she is anything but "dumb blonde" and her powerful performance unveils the many dynamic layers to her character that justify her compelling attraction to and by Jake, which only heightens the tragic fate of both her and LaMotta at the film's end. Joe Pesci too is brilliant. His supporting role is played with a pervasive sense of intense loyalty and that "Italian blood" between De Niro and Pesci makes these two an unbelievable inseparable and necessary fit for the roles of the LaMotta brothers. The dynamics and colors of each personality as actor beautifully compliments their on-screen portrayal as Jake and Joey LaMotta respectively and not once does Joe Pesci fall sub par in his supporting role; Pesci is particularly riveting in the bar scene where he brutalizes a lifetime friend out of loyalty for his brother's suspicions.
Though the film is arguably powerful, near-classic (some might say, easily "Classic") status, it is true that "more could have been made of the gambling-inspired corruption that infested the sport at this period and which may well have contributed to LaMotta's sense of frustration- at one time it is made clear to him that his getting a chance to fight for the world title depends upon his taking a dive in a non-title fight."
It should also be noted that the Technicolor Montage in the middle of the film that highlights LaMotta and Thailer's new marriage was beautifully directed and its stark contrast in both visual and musical direction stand out as significantly symbolic in the film. Here it seems the film escapes the pervasive heavily oppressive weight of LaMotta’s self destructive character to glimpse at a period, even if briefly, of happier times.
All the same RAGING BULL is a film that heralded attention and only further proliferated Scorsese's reputation. “Raging Bull” was the proud recipient of 2 Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro) and Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker). In addition, “Raging Bull” received 6 other Academy Award nominations including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Joe Pesci), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cathy Moriarty), Best Cinematography (Michael Chapman), Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Picture (Irvin Winkler and Robert Chartoff), and Best Sound. The film also received another 9 critical award nominations including 6 additional Golden Globe nominations, and won 18 other critical awards including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor for Drama (Robert De Niro).
Robert De Niro plays Jake LaMotta, the untamable boxer, lover, husband, brother, and man.
Cathy Moriarty plays Vickie Thailer LaMotta, Jake's naively unsuspecting, albeit iron-willed wife.
Joe Pesci plays Joey LaMotta, Jake's loyal brother and ring-side trainer.
Johnny Barnes plays Sugar Ray Robinson, the notorious middle-weight champion boxer.