The Animal Inside: ‘Raging Bull’

Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull biopic is not out to pardon Jake LaMotta, but to paint him as the pathetic animal he really was.

Raging Bull
Martin Scorsese
United Artists
19 December 1980 (US)

It’s an annual argument, an aesthetic splitting clash that pits two great films against each other in yet another pointless exercise in superiority. On the one side sits Robert Redford and his astonishingly good Ordinary People. As a study in suburban malaise, as a movie that dared turn a darkened light on the crumbling elements of the once mighty nuclear family, it became the Best Picture winner of 1980, additionally giving the former screen idol his one (and only) Oscar as best director.

And on the other side, of course, is Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese’s blistering bio-pic of self-destructive pugilist Jake LaMotta and his stupendous rise (and fall) in the world of professional boxing. To this day, many have felt the Academy got it wrong, kowtowing to a known Hollywood name while ignoring the far superior film and filmmaker. While one can argue the merits of both (unlike, say, Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan), what’s clear is that both men made masterpieces, with Scorsese’s monochrome opus a terrifying, timeless classic.

When we first meet LaMotta (Robert DeNiro, in a staggering physical transformation that earned him his own Oscar accolade), he is an overweight, middle-aged nightclub anomaly. Washed up but never fully down for the count, he entertains former fans and the curious with bits of recitation and bad stand-up shtick. In flashback, we see where his once-promising life went wrong, from his stubbornness to stay outside the local crime family influences in his sport to his horrific temper and tendency toward shocking physical abuse. In the ring, such a streak helps him win the Middleweight championship. Out of it, it destroys everything he (supposedly) loves.

This includes put-upon brother Joey (an amazing Joe Pesci) and his seductive second wife Vikki (a stunning Cathy Moriarty). Always suspicious of those around him, Jake’s personal paranoia fuels his eventual self-destruction and downfall. First, he drives away his sibling with a senseless accusation. Then he alienates his spouse as he spends more time wining and dining with the cruel customers at his nightclub than trying to play family man. As his weight balloons and options dry up, LaMotta becomes a casualty, a victim of his insular idealism, a man coldcocked by his cruelty and inability to see beyond himself.

Let’s get the Oscar argument out of the way right up front. Raging Bull deserved to win every little gold statue is was nominated for. As a film, it surpasses Ordinary People, if only by the smallest of margins. Scorsese deserved his directing honors, even if no one (even the DGA) thought so then. Pesci and Moriarty should have joined DeNiro in the acting acknowledgment, and the stunning cinematography and sound should have walked away with wins as well. As it stood, DeNiro and Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker (editor) got their communal consideration.

There are well-reasoned answers to all the “whys”, however. Redford was old-school Hollywood. Scorsese was the brash New York post-modernist. People spoke to the still new issues of familial dysfunction fracturing the late ’70s. Bull was a neo-neorealist biopic. Pesci and Moriarty were newcomers. So were winners Timothy Hutton and Mary Steenburgen – so it was a wash. As for director of photography Michael Chapman, he was the unfortunate bystander in a desire to champion a fallen film legend (Tess‘ Geoffrey Unsworth died before the ceremony).

So there were reasons why Raging Bull didn’t walk away with an armload of awards – though none are that easy to swallow. The film makes its classical intentions known from the moment we see its first black-and-white images. This is an epic tragedy, with a hateful anti-hero at the center whose flaw may be a total lack of redeeming social or personal value. It’s a tough sell, one made much easier by the passing of time and the tendency to excuse such seeming cinematic excesses. In 1980, such a heel was hard to swallow, no matter how much weight DeNiro lost or gained to realize his problematic portrait.

However, Raging Bull has a hidden moral compass that, at first, is not readily apparent. This film is not out to pardon LaMotta, but to paint him as the pathetic animal he really was. We are supposed to sympathize with his many missteps because he doesn’t know any better, because his of limited avenues out of his stifling New York dead end. This is a man who makes a living as a contemporary gladiator, putting his body and humanity on the line for the sake of a criminally skimmed purse. There is frustration in LaMotta, a lack of escape that turns inward and angry. When he explodes – and it’s often outside the ring – it’s terrifying. This is someone with the capability of killing and yet not fully understanding why such a response is bad.

As he has done throughout most of his career, Scorsese glamorizes this galling male anomaly while simultaneously setting him within a world of warranted right and wrong. As in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino, he views crime and criminals as the ugly underneath are seemingly civilized social order. They are the mechanism that makes the cities vibrate, the coal inside the inferno of ethical disarray. Thanks to the clear visual cues of black and white, LaMotta is even further defined, the scarred jester of a sport celebrating the kind of sadism he would often bring home. The scenes inside the square circle are key, since they illustrate the artistry many find in the fight game. But it’s in the living rooms and kitchens of the neighborhood where the real Jake comes out – and it’s riveting to witness.

Indeed, all of DeNiro’s scenes with Pesci are prophetic, arguing for a partnership and acting collaboration that would mark at least two of the artform’s greatest efforts. Joey is not a doormat, though the pummeling he takes from his sibling would suggest otherwise. He is the pragmatic yin to LaMotta’s hot tempered yang, an attempted voice of reason where few are listening to the words. Similarly, Moriarty does something very smart here. Knowing that Scorsese will shoot her as some manner of blond goddess, she trades on such visual cues, allowing Vikki to also be seen as the no nonsense local girl she is. While LaMotta may put her on a pedestal, she’s more than happy to kick at him from such a perch.

The results radiate off the screen in such a way that few films can even fathom, let alone match. Scorsese’s camera is everywhere – in lock-ups between fighters, in corners covered in blood. It swoops through the streets of New York like a resident, illustrating the aging beauty of the city’s many traditional facades. He frames his actors in telling compositions, LaMotta almost always in the back, ready to move forward at the first sign of disrespect. He also experiments, using faked Super 8 footage to show the passage of time while interesting cutting and assemblage methods make the fighter’s rise to the top all the more meaningful.

All of this is captured brilliantly in the new Blu-ray release from MGM and Fox. While a standard DVD version of the film is also available in the package, it is the high definition update that shows Scorsese’s true talent. The visual element here is haunting, carrying powerful imagery put on screen even further. There is a timeless quality to the black and white work here, something that harkens back to an era when Hollywood enjoyed the stunning two sides contrasts more than the multi-tinged crassness of color. Along with a remastered soundtrack that allows more of the tricks in Raging Bull‘s polished presentation to stand out. Along with an equally enigmatic collection of added content (including three amazing commentaries, four new featurettes, and full length documentary), this is one of the best blu-ray offerings out there.

Naturally, none of this makes the 1981 losses any more tolerable. Watching both Raging Bull and Ordinary People some 30 years later reminds one that period and initial responses are more determinative than eventual consensus. Then, Scorsese’s brutal vision was seen as just that – perhaps too harsh for words (or awards). Similarly, with Kramer vs. Kramer in its award winning rear view mirror (now there’s a Best Picture winner wasted), the further dissolution of the American brood was destined to dig up some solid support. If the Academy ever releases the results of their voting, it would be curious to see how close these two films are. Both are very, very good. In the end, Raging Bull is better.

RATING 10 / 10