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On Dec. 19, 1980, Martin Scorsese hit the ring with the R-rated, 206-minute drama Raging Bull. The film racked up eight Academy Award nominations and claimed two wins in the best actor category for Robert De Niro and for film editing. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, in which Robert De Niro stars as boxer Jake La Motta, is probably the most unromanticized movie biography ever produced by Hollywood. The Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff United Artists release offers an extreme cinema verite view of the world of professional boxing and it is very graphic in terms of language and violence, which may be a problem for some audiences. De Niro, however, is brilliant and his performance should be a leading contender in this year’s Oscar competition.
Based on La Motta’s autobiography, which was written with Joseph Carter and Peter Aavage, the screenplay by Paul Schader and Maardik Martin makes no attempt to glamorize the fighter’s life. It’s a downbeat study of a man whose only concern is winning the middleweight championship and whose unfounded jealousy and violent temper alienated everyone around him. There is only one brief moment in the film — when La Motta breaks down and cries after he has thrown a fight in order to get a chance at the championship — that the character is even the least bit sympathetic. Otherwise, he is totally unlikable.
The film is framed with scenes of La Motta preparing for a concert reading in New York in 1964. From this opening, it flashes back to 1941 and his loss to Jimmy Reeves (Floyd Anderson), and then proceeds to scan events in La Motta’s life and his major fights. Scorsese goes overboard in an attempt at low-keyed naturalism, however, and there is little dramatic structure to the biographical overview. Much of the film has an improvisational quality, which makes the story seem very real, but which is also rather dull.
By contrast, the fight sequences are highly stylized — to the point the filmmaker’s technique is overly obvious. These scenes are short, but they are extremely intense and tightly focused on the brutality of the sport, with blood spurting out of eyes and noses in stomach-turning detail (fortunately, the film is shot in black and white). The undenied excitement of these sequences only emphasizes the amazing lack of energy in the rest of the film, though.
But there’s no denying the power and artistry of De Niro’s performance. It took courage from both Scorsese and De Niro to concentrate so intently on such a negative character without making any attempt to soften his personality. And seldom has an actor ever submerged himself so totally into a characterization. Frank Westmore and Mike Maggi’s makeup for De Niro is incredible and makes the actor almost unrecognizable as himself; he looks amazingly like La Motta. De Niro’s appearance is also astonishing in the final scenes, for which he put on 50 pounds during a two-month break in filming.
Joe Pesci is also excellent in his jaunty portrayal of La Motta’s manager brother, but Cathy Moriarty tends to be overly lethargic in her Kim Novak-like impersonation of La Motta’s second wife, Vickie. Otherwise, the film is filled with interesting faces and performances that are perfectly tuned to Scorsese’s overall style.
Technically, the film is stunning in the way it captures the various periods involved. Michael Chapman’s black and white photography is marvelous in terms of composition and creates an outstanding visual effect. There is a slight amount of color footage used, which is apparently supposed to represent home movies involving La Motta and his family. This is never explained, however, and the sudden appearance of a color sequence may be confusing to some viewers. Special credit for the location atmosphere and realistic look should go to New York production designer Gene Rufold, Los Angeles art directors Alan Manser and Kirk Axtell and set decorators Fred Weiler and Phil Abramson. —Ron Pennington, originally published on Nov. 10, 1980.
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