Thursday, July 24, 2014

Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese                                Writers: Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin
Film Score: Pietro Mascagni                            Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent

Martin Scorsese’s portrait of boxer Jake LaMotta was groundbreaking at the time, not so much an answer to Sylvester Stalone’s Rocky as it was a continuation of the director’s examination of the lives of Italian-Americans in New York City. Raging Bull is a critical darling, the black and white photography and the Greek tragedy aspect of the story setting it apart from most of the films produced in the same era. But after the critical failure of New York, New York, Scorsese wound up filming several documentaries while his health declined and his addictions increased. He was initially reluctant to take on the LaMotta story, but since he had the backing and felt it might be his last chance to direct a feature film, he threw himself into the work. While the film received mixed reviews and unimpressive box office numbers, it was successful enough to secure him another feature project, The King of Comedy, yet another box office failure. It would not be until he directed The Color of Money, the sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, that Scorsese would finally enter the upper echelon of major Hollywood filmmakers.

After an artistic credit sequence with Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta off to the left of the screen shadow boxing, the film opens on De Niro in 1964 rehearsing for a personal appearance. Then the film flashes back to 1941 and the boxer’s first professional loss. It’s a symbolic loss, however, as Floyd Anderson is ahead on points going into the final round and De Niro knocks him down twice before finally knocking him out. But the bell rings before the final count and the winner is carried out of the ring while De Niro loses, causing a fight to break out among the fans. One of the primary subplots is that De Niro’s brother, Joe Pesci, has friends in the mob and they want to manage De Niro’s career, but he is dead set against it. At the same time, though he’s already married, De Niro becomes fixated with Cathy Moriarty and begins courting her. As he continues fighting and winning in the forties he finds it more and more difficult to find opponents, as well as difficulty getting a title shot while maintaining his independence. Pesci acts as his manager, but without the organized crime connections, he’s limited in what he can do for his brother. De Niro is stubborn and, unfortunately, jealous. When he gets the idea into his head that Moriarty wants other men, even though it’s false, he can never let it go and it becomes the thing that defines his life.

Robert De Niro won the Academy Award that year for best actor, and it is certainly deserved. He not only trained with LaMotta to learn the style of fighting appropriate for the early sequences, but he went to Paris and gained sixty pounds for the later sequences so that he could realistically portray the aging fighter. Pesci had done a couple of films, but this was really his first role in a major motion picture. He does a good job as De Niro’s brother, volatile, but not the caricature of himself that he would become as early as Goodfellas. For Cathy Moriarty, this was her first film, and she is radiant onscreen, and maddening as a character for sticking with De Niro as longs as she does. Pesci recommended her to Scorsese, as he did with Frank Vincent. Playing the neighborhood mob boss was none other than Nick Colasanto, who will forever be associated with the dim-witted bartender on Cheers. While Theresa Saldana also put in a memorable performance in a small role as De Niro’s first wife. In addition to the Oscar for De Niro, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker was also honored, and the film received nominations in most of the other major categories as well.

The A List essay by Jami Bernard begins with the, by now, nearly unanimous disbelief that Ordinary People won the Academy Award for best picture, and sees the relationship between De Niro and Pesci as the centerpiece of the story. The character of LaMotta is not an endearing one, and would seem to have little value in eliciting sympathy from an audience, as even his accomplishments in the ring count for very little in the context of the film. It’s really just a character study of a flawed human being, who had a talent that made him the world champion but demons that would not let him be satisfied. It actually began as a project that De Niro wanted to do, and took several years of persuading to get Scorsese onboard. One of the nice associations she makes is with De Niro crying like a child after throwing a fight, and comparing it to the filmmakers who came out of the seventies to a world of commercial imperatives. She claims it’s a film that couldn’t be made today, an epitaph that could fit hundreds of films, and yet it may be Scorsese’s best, the story of a kid from the neighborhood who managed to succeed for a while but never really escaped. Raging Bull is a one of a kind film, fascinating for the work on the screen, but one that is probably more artistic than entertaining.

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