'Raging Bull': Scorcese’s Magnum Opus Remains a Cornerstone of Cinema
The Irishman (2019) could very well be the last time we’ll see the iconic duo of Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro perform together. The Pesci-DeNiro-Scorcese partnership is one that goes way back and has brought us such iconic gangster flicks as Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and now The Irishman, arguably his most accomplished film to date.
However, this three-way actor-director collaboration is one that goes way back to 1980, to Scorcese’s iconic black and white drama that follows the jealous and paranoid struggle of American middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (DeNiro). We follow him from the bottom to the top and crashing all the way back down again. The rise, struggle, and fall of a man is a familiar pattern in many of Scorcese’s pictures, but none quite as visceral as in 1980's Raging Bull.
At the center of this film is a career-defining, sledgehammer performance from Robert De Niro in his prime that won him his second Academy Award for Best Actor (after The Godfather Part II). Whether it’s the way he caught people’s eye and repeated their words back to them in an attempt to uncover whatever untruth his paranoid brain had cooked up, his outbursts of rage or his complete emotional breakdowns, De Niro ticked all the boxes and engrossed himself in the role, entering real-life fights to test his boxing skills and packing on the pounds.
In fact, his performance was so powerful that it seems to be what inspired Joaquin Phoenix to become an actor after he revealed during an emotional speech at the Toronto International Film Festival that his late brother River “sat me down and made me watch it [Raging Bull]. And the next day, he woke me up and he made me watch it again. And he said, ‘You’re going to start acting again. This is what you’re going to do.’ He didn’t ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”
Interestingly, Raging Bull is a film that almost wasn’t made, and wasn’t even something Scorcese was keen to make at first. The creation of Raging Bull comes down to De Niro practically pestering Scorcese into making it. Marty was unenthusiastic; Rocky had just been released, and his latest film New York, New York flopped at the box office, pushing him further into his cocaine addiction and depression.
It was when Scorcese was in the hospital after suffering serious internal bleeding that De Niro visited him and nudged him again on the Raging Bull project (based on Jake LaMotta’s real-life memoirs Raging Bull: My Story). It seems to be something the filmmaker was then able to relate to and proved to be his cinematic rebirth.
The DeNiro/Pesci and Scorcese collaboration is not the only partnership that blossomed in the making of Raging Bull. Thelma Schoonmaker, the film’s editor, has worked on every single one of Scorcese’s movies since Raging Bull. She won the Academy Award for best film editing for her work and, in 2012, it was voted the best-edited film in history by the Motion Picture Editors Guild.
A film’s editing is an often overlooked quality by most, but Schoonmaker’s excellence is notable throughout. The tightly-edited fight scenes, for example, take up no more than ten minutes of screen time, but the sweeping camera movement, flashing camera bulbs, bloody violence (including the infamous close up of LaMotta’s blood dripping from the ropes), and use of abstract sounds and animal noises in the score - which give the impression of a caged, raging animal - make these iconic scenes memorably visceral.
Now, nearly 40 years after its release, it’s easy to see why Raging Bull is considered a cornerstone in cinema history. It is a timeless picture which is more relevant than ever; the theme of masculinity is present in many of Scorcese’s pictures, but the toxic masculinity of Jake LaMotta - he can only express himself through aggression and violence - seems to be more relevant than ever in today’s sociopolitical climate. With the release of The Irishman, which feels somewhat like a homage to the careers of our aging director and actors looking back on their lives, now is the perfect time to watch Raging Bull if you haven’t already.