'Raging Bull' Turns 35: A Look Behind the Scenes

Martin Scorsese's 'Raging Bull' isn't a boxing movie, it's a movie about a boxer – one whose greatest fights are against himself.
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Martin Scorsese's 'Raging Bull' isn't a boxing movie, it's a movie about a boxer – one whose greatest fights are against himself.

"That's Entertainment!"

So declares the obese ex-boxing champ Jake LaMotta in a nightclub's dingy dressing room before an evening of dramatic recitations. (There was no Netflix back in 1964, people were hard up for what to watch.) We then flash to over 20 years earlier, when LaMotta was on the rise to become the winner of the middleweight title. Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro's essential collaboration from 1980, bobs and weaves around the conventions of a traditional sports film. It isn't a boxing movie, it's a movie about a boxer – one whose greatest fights are against himself. As it nears its 35th anniversary, its reputation as one of the most extraordinary works in American cinema continues to grow.

IN THIS CORNER

Raging Bull was Robert De Niro's passion project, and it took him years to convince his friend, director Martin Scorsese, to make the film. He read Jake LaMotta's autobiography during the production of The Godfather Part II, in 1973 or 74. While the book is hardly a masterpiece, De Niro saw in it a rich character: a belligerent and insecure beast that took all his psycho-sexual demons into the boxing ring until he eventually reached rock bottom. (Whether or not he ever found redemption remains up to interpretation.)

Scorsese never cared for sports, and especially not boxing, claiming that what little he'd seen on television wasn't very visual. But after the great director's personal problems with drug addiction led to a collapse (exacerbated by asthma and a trip to the high altitude Telluride Film Festival in 1978), he realized, from his hospital bed, that he and “Bob” were going to make this their next project. (Raging Bull would be their fourth collaboration out of an eventual nine.)

A BULL DOESN'T GRAZE

Scorsese hired the genius makeup artist Michael Westmore (who later created the look of nearly every alien species from Star Trek: The Next Generation) to create LaMotta's busted-up schnozz. But the wrap-around scenes set in the 1960s needed more padding. To that end, De Niro one-upped every screen actor before, and halted production on the film for four months to get “in shape.”

Oscar-Winning Portrayals: Robert De Niro portrayed boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980). De Niro trained for three months as a boxer to get in shape, then gained 60 pounds to play the older La Motta in later scenes.

Oscar-Winning Portrayals: Robert De Niro portrayed boxer Jake LaMotta in 'Raging Bull' (1980). De Niro trained for three months as a boxer to get in shape, then gained 60 pounds to play the older LaMotta in later scenes. (Photo: Keystone-France/Getty Images)

Having shot Bernardo Bertolucci's epic 1900 in Italy, he knew where to go to load up on carbohydrates, and set off on a raging eating binge, gaining 60 pounds to play the down-and-out version of the character. De Niro was known to do research for a character — he drove a few shifts as an actual cabbie before shooting Scorsese's Taxi Driver and spent weeks soaking up the atmosphere of a steel town before making The Deer Hunter – but this level of commitment was unprecedented. Luckily, he'd also done some intensive boxing training (with the real LaMotta) for the first part of the movie, so knew some tips for getting the weight off.

Surely, this legendary bit of backstage business, in addition to the remarkable performance, helped secure De Niro's Oscar win for Best Actor.

COACHING STAFF

Even a great actor can't get much accomplished without good scene partners, and Raging Bull has a tremendous supporting cast. Joe Pesci goes toe-to-toe with De Niro in all their scenes as his younger brother/manager Joey, and it's incredible to think that this was essentially his first film. (Pesci was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and, of course, would later reteam with De Niro and Scorsese in GoodFellas a decade later and win in the same category.) Frank Vincent plays the neighborhood low-level tough guy Salvy, and if his scenes with Pesci have a comic-like patter, it's because they essentially came as a set. The two had been doing nightclub routines prior to being cast in Raging Bull.

But one of the strongest performances in the film was from newcomer Cathy Moriarty, a Bronx girl (only 18) that Pesci and Vincent watched win a bathing beauty contest in a bar. Despite no previous acting experience, her deep, husky voice, stern facial features and bombshell looks was a perfect formula to play LaMotta's wife (and psychotic obsession) Vikki. Moriarty came out of the gate with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Lastly, Gen X television viewers aren't "seeing things." That really is Nicholas Colasanto, The Coach from Cheers, as the local mafia chief. You don't recognize him at first, but in a scene toward the end he takes off his blocky glasses and it's HEY! THAT GUY!

A VISUAL OPERA

For a movie with this much bare knuckle emotion, it sure is pretty. Martin Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, decided to shoot the movie in high contrast black and white. (Ironically, one of Scorsese's mentors, Michael Powell, known for his sumptuous technicolor films, helped them come to this decision.) The film opens with a slow motion, wide frame shot of De Niro shadowboxing to the sweeping voices of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Chapman later referred to the fight sequences as arias.

These boxing matches use every cinematic trick in the book. There are freeze-frames, long steadicam shots and moments where the fighter's POV causes the frame rate to speed up or slow down. (Before computer-enhanced editing, this sort of thing needed to be done in-camera, by hand.) Images of LaMotta's foes, like Sugar Ray Robinson, were shot from far away using a long lens to get a wavy, surreal effect. Add to this a bizarre, associative sound design that incorproates braying elephants and jet engines layered into the mix, and it becomes clear how the film's action becomes a total workout.

I WAS BLIND BUT NOW I SEE

Raging Bull is a story about a real jerk. He's abusive to his wife, his brother and eventually collapses under the weight of his own vices. The film ends with a bible quote, suggesting that, by losing everything, LaMotta eventually realizes that he is not just a dumb animal, but a person that needs other people. Whether or not he actually does this, however, is still up for you to decide. Paul Schrader, who wrote one of the early drafts of the screenplay, said he was surprised to see the quote from the Gospel According to John appear at the film's close. “I think he's the same dumb lug at the end as at the beginning,” he said.

We dare him to say it to De Niro's face.