Raging Bull (1980)
Written by Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin
Directed by Martin Scorsese
By 1979, Martin Scorsese wondered if he might die soon. The depression that hit after New York, New York’s box office and critical failure was tremendous. He entered into a period of wild partying, with cocaine being his self-medication of choice. Scorsese abused his body to the point that he was hospitalized for internal bleeding and was thoroughly addicted to cocaine. Robert De Niro is credited as one of the people vital in saving Scorsese’s life. He visited the filmmaker in the hospital and proposed that the two collaborate on adapting a book DeNiro had given Scorsese years earlier. The book was Raging Bull, a memoir by Bronx boxer Jake LaMotta. Scorsese had been reticent to make the film because he didn’t get it initially. Now, as he lay in a hospital bed, his body ravaged, he began to understand how people destroy themselves and climb to get back to where they started.
In 1964, we watch the older, overweight LaMotta (DeNiro) practicing a stand-up comedy routine in a dressing room mirror. The film flashes back to 1941. Jake is nineteen and suffers his first loss in the ring. His brother Joey (Joe Pesci) pushes the idea of going for the middleweight title and using his mob connections to make it happen. Jake is very hesitant to get involved with those people. He becomes distracted by Vikki, a teenage girl in the neighborhood whom he thinks is the most thing he’s ever seen. Four years later, Jake and Vikki get married, and he seriously begins to go after the title. However, Jake is constantly paranoid about Vikki getting involved with other men and becomes abusive towards her and everyone in her vicinity. As his anger comes to dominate his relationships, Jake watches people fall away until he’s left alone and washed up.
Raging Bull obviously digs right into the themes of masculinity Scorsese began exploring in Mean Streets. LaMotta is such a sleazy, dumb character that you almost feel sorry for him sometimes, but in the end, he makes his own bed. He cheats on his first wife when he meets Vikki but then becomes paranoid she will cheat on him. LaMotta becomes physically abusive with her, almost breaking her jaw at one point. But then he manipulates her into staying. He gets his comeuppance after she leaves him years later while planning it all out in secret, making sure it is legally airtight. He uses part of his boxing fortune to buy a club in Miami and degenerates into a complete lush loser.
Scorsese wants us to feel some sympathy, but he certainly doesn’t believe LaMotta should be a hero. He’s an example of how horrible men can be to themselves and others. That extends out of how American culture teaches men to not communicate their emotions. LaMotta is profoundly guilty and insecure whether he would admit that or not. He doesn’t know how to express those feeling, so they stew, and he lashes out physically. He’s praised for his boxing prowess, so violence is the one way he thinks he can communicate effectively.
Raging Bull introduced audiences to Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty, two fantastic actors that provide perfect supporting roles against DeNiro. It’s clear DeNiro plays a type and is almost less a leading man than a character actor who has leading roles. His best scenes in this and any other movie are where he gets to play off another equally strong performer. Moriarity certainly holds her own against him, delivering simmering cold anger at this man who becomes increasingly abusive and ultimately less appreciative of her. She’s biding her time and waiting to spring her plan on him when she knows LaMotta can’t touch her anymore. Pesci plays Joey as someone living in the shadow of his brother and uses him to get in with the made men of their neighborhood. He tries to reason with LaMotta, but that is a pointless endeavor. By the end, he believes that Joey and Vikki are having an affair, a completely absurd notion without any grounds.
Raging Bull is a profoundly uncomfortable film to watch, which is intentional. But it is a direct confrontation with a type of masculinity Scorsese and DeNiro grew up inside. It’s certainly not a mythologized or softened presentation of the violence they likely witnessed as children and probably participated in as adults. Scorsese would continue his exploration of the uncomfortable and the uneasy in his weirdest film, The King of Comedy. I have already reviewed that, so in our next review, we’ll jump to his 1985 dark, surreal comedy After Hours.