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From the DVD Shelf: Raging Bull (1980)

Well, after finally watching, for the first time, Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another gaping hole in my film-watching history: Raging Bull.

I of course knew that Robert De Niro starred in the film as real-life boxer Jake La Motta.  Raging Bull follows Jake’s life for about twenty-five years, from his early days as a lean, hungry-for-a-chance boxer to his middle-age as an over-the-hill, over-weight ex-con.  As was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull is a tour de force acting performance by Robert De Niro.  (It’s amazing to me that the Robert De Niro we see today in the Meet the Parents films is the same man as this incredibly intense, powerful actor seen in these films from three decades ago.)  I suspect everyone reading this blog know the stories of Mr. De Niro’s astonishing weight-gain (during a planned hiatus in filming) so that he could portray with full emotional honesty the fat failure De Motta became after the collapse of his boxing career.  Frankly, it feels to me like a bit of overindulgent actorly nonsense that Mr. De Niro believed the only way he could portray the over-the-hill De Motta was by gaining the weight himself (rather than using any prosthetics).  I could name many great actors who have created AMAZING performances when buried under prosthetics, thus bringing all manner of often-otherworldly characters to incredible light.  And I’m not just talking about actors in sci-fi or fantasy movies.  Yes, there were some tremendous prosthetics-enhanced performances in, say, the Lord of the Rings films (John Rhys-Davies as Gimli comes to mind), but how about Orson Welles in Citizen Kane?? (Read my thoughts on Citizen Kane here.)

Be that as it may, there is something viscerally shocking when we get our first glimpse of the rotund late-in-life La Motta, knowing that the flabby form we’re seeing is Mr. De Niro’s real body.  It’s hard to believe that the lean, well-muscled boxer we saw earlier has transformed into this sorry sight, and even HARDER to believe that one actor made the same transformation in just a few months.

But there’s far more to Mr. De Niro’s performance than just the gimmick of his weight gain.  In fact, in some ways, I think all that focus on the weight gain distracts from what a phenomenally compelling performance Mr. De Niro delivers in the film.  As in Taxi Driver, Mr. De Niro’s intensity reaches out from the screen and grabs the viewer by the throat, forcing you to keep watching him, daring you to look away.  In his own way, the angry, jealous, wife-beating La Motta is just as much of a psychopath as Travis Bickle, albeit one at the opposite end of the social spectrum.  Travis was a nobody, while Jake (at least for a time), is a boxing star.  But both are equally dangerous, unpleasant men, astonishingly fierce and indelible creations of Mr. De Niro.  The uncomfortable “you fucked my wife?” scene in Raging Bull is just as iconic and famous, justifiably so, as the “you talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver, for exactly the same reason: Robert De Niro.  (And, of course, one must also credit Martin Scorsese for holding his camera on a moment long after one might expect to cut away, resulting in dramatic gold.)

But my favorite scene of Mr. De Niro’s in the film is the final one.  We’ve been through the wars of Jake La Motta’s life as we’ve experienced the film.  And we wind up with him in a tiny back-stage dressing room, watching La Motta run through a mumbled rehearsal of the presentation he’s about to make.  It’s a rhyming retelling of a climactic scene from On the Waterfront, and while the moment is somewhat pathetic, it’s also powerful watching this broken-down old boxer recite those words that have such a strong dramatic parallel with his life.  There’s still life and fire in Jake La Motta, and he’s attacking this new style of performance just as he did his performance in the boxing ring for so many years.  That he might think he’s a great actor only adds to the pathetic nature of the moment — but, in a way, watching La Motta in this instant, he IS a compelling performer!  It’s a wonderfully rich scene, replete with all of the contradictions inherent in Jake La Motta, but it’s Robert De Niro’s searing portrayal that leaves a mark.  It’s a hell of a closing scene.

But I must confess, while I respect Raging Bull as an incredibly well-crafted film, I was far less taken with it than I was by Taxi Driver. Both films tell compelling stories, but while Taxi Driver gripped me from frame one, I found that Raging Bull left me somewhat cold.  Perhaps the difference lies in the main characters.  Though I was just listing the many similarities between Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta, in my heart I found Travis a much more understandable character.  Not sympathetic, mind you!  But understandable.  I could comprehend the source of his rage and isolation.  His experiences in Vietnam combined with everything we learn about him as a lonely insomniac working as a night-time taxi cab driver in seedy New York  all combined to paint a picture that made sense to me.  I could see how the self-proclaimed “god’s lonely man” could descend into violence and mania.

But Jake was different for me.  From the first scene when we meet him, angrily beating his first wife because she didn’t bring him his dinner fast enough, Jake wasn’t a man I understood at all.  What was the source of his paranoia and his rage?  He had a lovely wife, a brother who supported him, and his career was making progress (albeit slowly).  So what was his f–in’ problem??  I’m all for stories whose protagonists are unlikeable and unheroic, but I couldn’t find any point of emotional connection point with Jake La Motta, and as a result I wasn’t nearly as gripped by the film as I was with Taxi Driver.

But make no mistake, I still recognize the extraordinary craft behind the film.  As in their previous collaborations, Mr. De Niro and director Martin Scorsese prove to be a magical team, each bringing out the best in the other.  The film is gorgeous to look at, with stunning black-and-white cinematography by Michael Chapman (who won a well-deserved Oscar for the movie).  I absolutely adore the way Mr. Scorsese approaches the staging of his scenes, always choosing an unusual and striking approach.  He seems to have a thing for long, thin hallways (in one of the blu-ray’s special features, Mr. Scorsese comments that they remind him of the buildings in which he grew up), and the result is that we the viewer often find ourselves stuck, uncomfortably, right in those halls along with Jake and whoever he’s with.

Much has been made of Mr. Scorsese’s approach, when filming the boxing scenes, to always keeping the camera right there in the ring along with Jake and his opponents, and I have little to add except to add my praise to the chorus.  The fights are bloody and visceral, an impact significantly heightened by our experiencing them from right there in the ring along with the fighters.  Mr. Scorsese is also playfully clever with the physical dimensions of the ring itself.  He famously used several rings of different sizes (some very small, some expansive) to visually echo Mr. La Motta’s state in his fights, whether he was feeling trapped or in command and with plenty of room to maneuver.  I’m not a boxing fans and I winced a LOT watching the fights in the film, but there was no question in my mind that genius was on display.

I also have to mention, of course, the real heart of the film: Jake’s brother, Joey, played by the then-unknown Joe Pesci.  A far cry from the caricature of himself he became later in his career (particularly in those last few Lethal Weapon movies), Mr. Pesci is astonishingly terrific in the film.  We see in Joey some of the same violence and rage as we see in Jake, but Joey is also kind and incredibly supportive of his abusive, self-destructive older brother.  The dynamic between the brothers, and between Mr. Pesci and Mr. De Niro, is fascinating to watch, and for me was the most enjoyable aspect of the film.  I knew that Robert De Niro’s performance was going to be great, but I had no idea that Mr. Pesci was so fantastic as well.  This film would prove to be the first of several terrific performances by Mr. Pesci in Martin Scorsese films, most of which were also in collaboration with Mr. De Niro.

Raging Bull is considered a classic film, and rightly so.  While it doesn’t have, in my mind, the incredible re-watchability of other Scorsese films like Goodfellas and Casino, nor did it connect with me the way that the new and new-to-me Scorsese films Hugo (click here for my review) and Taxi Driver did, there’s no doubt that Raging Bull is an extraordinary film, one I’m glad to have finally seen.

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