By Dan Skip Allen
Martin Scorsese came into his own as a filmmaker while he was making Raging Bull. As a human being, he was coming off of the toughest time in his life. He never wanted to direct Raging Bull. It was a sports movie and he wasn't interested in sports. And Rocky had come out a few years before, so he figured he couldn't get another boxing film made. Robert De Niro came to Scorsese about this book about Jake LaMotta, and he changed his mind based on their relationship. He knew Marty and what he was going through. Scorcese found a place he could come from after reading the book. It was a difficult place in LaMotta's life. He used it as a framing device and went into the meat and potatoes of his life after that.
"About a steak" is the scene that resonates with me because it reminded me of my own father and mother. They argued like cats and dogs very similar to this scene. The steak scene shows the explosive nature of Jake LaMotta and how he can go from a calm person to a "raging bull". Another scene is when Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is questioning his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) about whether or not he had sex with his wife Vicki (Kathy Moriarty). He runs out of his apartment down the block and goes into Joey's apartment and starts attacking him. The very explosive nature of this man is at the heart of this film. That where the moniker of "raging bull" came from, not to mention he was an absolute beast in the ring as well.
There have been some great boxing movies that came out over the decades. Rocky, Cinderella Man, Ali, and The Hurricane all come to mind. Filmmakers have learned from Scorsese and Raging Bull how to film boxing matches. The crane overhead circling the ring kept the scenes moving quickly and very frantic. They kept it hit some of the fighters looked weary and tired while filming scenes as well. These fights were some of the best ever put to the screen. LaMotta fought "Sugar" Ray Robinson six times and they were all great fights. They split most of them but Robinson had the edge on the win-loss record. LaMotta won one big one though. The scene near the end of the film was very prophetic though, "You never got me down, Ray." This is a play on Scorsese's own life. Drugs and alcohol never took control of him and got him down. This line was the most powerful in the film because of the double meaning it had.
Scorsese had made personal and working relationships on Raging Bull that he would keep the rest of his life. Obviously, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Frank Vincent are actors he's worked with for over forty years. Thelma Schoonmaker his editor and friend for nearly fifty years as well. She has won three Academy Awards. Her first film editing for Scorsese was Raging Bull and it allowed her to win her first Oscar. Paul Schrader, a great writer and director in his own right, wrote the script for both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
An indicator of how great something is is how people rank it or list it. People Magazine put out their ranking of the best films of the '80s and Raging Bull was number one. The most famous film critics of the time, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, both had Raging Bull as their number one film of the decade as well. The big precursor of greatness as far as films go is the Academy Awards. Raging Bull was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two: Robert De Niro for Best Actor and the aforementioned Thelma Schoonmaker for Best Film Editing. Scorsese, Pesci, and the film all lost to Robert Redford, Timothy Hutton, and Ordinary People at that year's Oscars.
This film really resonated with me as a six-year-old child because it reminded me of my life. The arguing and fighting were like my parents. The types of places they lived in were like my homes as a little kid as well. The loud neighbors as well. The violent nature of La Motta really reminded me of my father growing up. This seemed like my life. Not the idyllic life portrayed in Ordinary People. I'm sure I'm not the only person who can relate to this film. These types of people existed everywhere then and still do today. These days there is medicine for anger issues.
Sports films are one of the best genres of film now and years ago. They can inspire like Chariots of Fire or they can make you sad like Rocky. In the case of Raging Bull, they can make you angry. Jake LaMotta is a despicable human being. He has no redeeming qualities except that he is an incredible boxer. Is this an excuse for all his behavior in this film? Probably not! Sports films take you as a viewer on a trip down a road. Sometimes it's a fun and enjoyable trip and sometimes it's not. Raging Bull isn't for the faint of heart. But the best films aren't always happy. Sometimes they are just depressing and upsetting. As far as life goes, it's not always fun, enjoyable, or happy. It can be a bad experience. For Jake LaMotta, he had good times, but mostly bad times. Most people have more bad times in life than good. Raging Bull is a picture of a damaged, dark human being. That doesn't mean it's not a good film. From my perspective and many others, it means it's a great film. Scorsese is a great director for taking these dark characters like Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, and Jake LaMotta and giving them life on the big screen. But Robert De Niro gets a lot of credit for imbuing them with everything emotion he could.
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