Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin

Cast:Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Film & Performance

A few years ago, Robert De Niro donated a huge collection of personal files from the films he has worked on throughout his career in order that they be available to film and cultural scholars for study. I can only imagine the wealth of information that is contained within that collection, and the insights and revelations of one film in particular, Raging Bull, must be particularly fascinating. Over the last few years, this film has emerged as clearly my favourite Martin Scorsese film. It is without doubt a masterpiece of filmmaking from top to bottom: directing, cinematography, editing, sound, and, of course, performance. It is also fair to say that without Mr. De Niro, this film would never have been made by Mr. Scorsese. According to many, including this 2010 VanityFair article on the making of Raging Bull, Mr. De Niro not only put the idea and the script into his director friend’s hands, but spent weeks in isolation with Mr. Scorsese putting in countless hours of uncredited  work on the screenplay and in preparation for the film. I think that because of Mr. De Niro’s persistence, preparation, and insistence, so much of Raging Bull is about performance.

From the opening shot, Raging Bull instructs the viewer on its nature and on the nature on its central figure, Jake La Motta. Balletic and menacing, the boxer alternately dances and prowls, a graceful but caged animal, inside the ring while the screen audience succumbs hypnotically to music and image… operatic, smoky, slow motion, brilliance. We then are transported a few decades forward to a physically altered (from transfigured to misfigured) Jake La Motta and a different warm up act, a different performance, but, we suspect, the same caged instincts in play. This time La Motta is constrained by his tuxedo and the smallness of his dressing room. The boxing ring the title sequence shot, while roped, is open and the background and off-screen space seems infinite with its flashbulb punctuation. As is pointed out on Art of the Title, the foreground ropes suggest musical bars with La Motta occupying the role of a treble clef in the right of the frame. In the dressing room, the off-screen space is tight: La Motta is squeezed into the right-hand side of the frame and a mirror is on the left and then we are taken to close-up to further emphasize that what is really containing this man is not the world outside, but himself. So, with the opening sequence of the film, a sequence not just of contrasts, but of performances, we come to understand that La Motta has survived to a peace that is literally and figuratively uncomfortable.

The film is of course bookended by these two performances and by La Motta’s stand-up stage act. The flatness of his recital of Terry Malloy’s speech from On the Waterfront (1954) is post-modern in its self-reference and meta-fictional nod from Mr. De Niro to Marlon Brandon, a taking- up of the method acting baton from one great to another. The lifelessness of the delivery of this speech only adds to its pathos. La Motta, at his mirror, addresses the speech to himself, not to his brother Joey. It has not been Joey who has denied Jake the life of a somebody; it has been his own violent, repressed, self-destructive, animal nature.

Other performances punctuate the film between the beginning and the end. The fights are dizzying examples of on-set choreography not just between the actors in the ring but between the actors and the camera and also the choreography in post-production with the editing of image and sound. The fights between La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson offer the best evidence, particularly the last one with it’s circus-like contra-zoom and the tigerish growls emanating from the soundtrack. Scorsese’s tracking shot as Jake enters the arena for his title shot is a further example of this synthesis. Like other classic Scorsese tracking shots — the Jumpin’ Jack Flash shot in Mean Streets (1973) and the Copa shot in Goodfellas (1990) — it’s purposefully showy and fits dramatically and thematically with the elements of performance — situation, character, actor, and director combined. La Motta’s home life is also a kind of performance. The kitchen sink comedy of Jake getting his steak has its audience within the film as well as in the cinema: the screaming neighbour who knows Jake’s character perfectly well (“You animal!”). Even if Jake can’t help himself, he is very aware of the ways in which performance shapes his life. He plays up the comic villain role for his Brooklyn neighbour, he fusses about his robe after a fight, and he deconstructs the scene unfolding at the pool with Vicky and the local wiseguys. Salvy and his crew are acting up for the teenage beauty just as much as she is putting on a show for them and whomever else is watching (Jake included). The dazzling pin-up poster framing of how Scorsese shoots Vicky in her introduction works hand in hand with Jake’s analytic commentary of what he sees.

In contrast to all of Jake’s types of performance stands the torment of his lack of performance and the anguish of these failures. The sham of Jake throwing a fight leaves him sobbing, banned, and publicly humiliated (this is echoed later when La Motta is thrown in jail). After successfully defending his title, barely, Vicky cajoles him into calling Joey to apologize, but Jake stands impotent and inept in the phone booth on the cusp of his inevitable defeat to Sugar Ray Robinson and his becoming an out-of-shape loser. And finally, as we are reminded time and again, his inability to perform sexually. At first it is a masochistic trial as he dares Vicky to seduce him between fights with Sugar Ray. This ends comically with him dousing his ardor with ice-cold water. Eventually, though, the impotence turns real and violent with La Motta strutting after brutally beating Janiro (“He ain’t pretty no more,” observes Tommy), and then beating his brother and then Vicky — and all this done with an audience (on the street, and in front of Joey’s kids). His awareness of performance also fails at crucial moments. One is Jake’s inability to hear the truth from Joey regarding Vicky (assuming Joey is telling the truth). Jake instead is blinded and deafened by insecurity, paranoia, and violence. Then, again, in Florida, the “reformed” La Motta is too wrapped up in his own Mr. Nice Guy persona to spot the 14 year-old girl in his club which leads to his destruction of the one remaining item of value for all the struggle and violence he put himself through: his championship belt.

A lot of attention is given to Raging Bull particularly for Mr. De Niro’s performance. This is justly so. However, what makes it so is not just the brilliance of his on screen work, but the way in which the actor’s presence threads through this film from its conception to its writing, its production, its acclaim, and its criticism.

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