It’s the best boxing movie ever made. It’s possibly the best movie ever made. 25 years after creating a legend, Leigh Singer asks how a punch-drunk Martin Scorsese, backed by Robert De Niro, got off the canvas to deliver the knockout of Raging Bull.
Labor Day, September 1978: Martin Scorsese is too sick to work, let alone celebrate the public holiday. Hospitalised after blacking out, he’s bleeding, by several accounts, from every orifice. Internally, too. Officially, a dangerous cocktail of asthma medication, prescription drugs and a batch of bad coke is to blame. Those around Scorsese know that his malaise runs far deeper than dodgy pharmaceuticals. “I’d reached a certain nadir,” the sixty-four-year old director now recalls, “In many different ways.”
Ill health and troubled relationships with women – the latest, an imploded relationship with Liza Minnelli while his then-wife Julia Cameron was pregnant – were commonplace to Scorsese; but this was his first encounter with professional failure. After rapturous critical acclaim for his first three major features Mean Streets, Oscar-winning Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Cannes’ Palme D’Or for Taxi Driver, his latest, ambitious musical New York, New York, had been a critical and commercial flop.
“It was a mess,” Scorsese admits. “After Taxi Driver we got big heads and felt that no script was good enough.” New York, New York went $2 million over budget; its first rough-cut ran some four-and-a-half hours. As he candidly told Peter Biskind in seminal tome Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “I was just too drugged out to solve the structure.”
At this time Scorsese’s lifestyle – like several other 1970s ‘Movie Brats’ – embraced all the clichés of success and excess. Anointed an artistic genius, he dived headlong into the sex, rock-and-roll, and, especially, the drugs that came with the territory. After the chaotic shooting of The Band’s musical documentary The Last Waltz in 1976, guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson left his family to hole up with Scorsese in his Mulholland Drive house, turning it into a shrine to movies and cocaine.
“Marty’s house was blacked out with blinds, soundproofed, and he installed an air system so you could breathe without opening the windows,” recollects Robertson. Fellow acolyte Mardik Martin puts it more succinctly: “We were like vampires.” Prone to paranoid hallucinations and prescribed lithium for his violent temper, nothing seemed to satisfy Scorsese. Yet none of it stopped from “circling the world constantly, going from party to party, trying to find what it was that would inspire us again to do work.
Robert De Niro had long thought he knew the answer. For years the actor, now an Oscar-winner for The Godfather Part II, had carried around a battered paperback on the life of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, the “Bronx Bull” famous for never being knocked down in 106 fights and his masochistic capacity to absorb punishment. As much as Raging Bull would – justly – be called Scorsese’s film, it was clearly De Niro’s project. Without his perseverance, the film simply wouldn’t exist.
“When we come together,” De Niro explains enigmatically, “Marty will do it for his reason, I’ll do it for mine. But it’s funny. On other movies I’ve dragged him around to places, to meet people, you know, research, where he might not really want to go.”
De Niro first tried to rouse an ambivalent Scorsese’s interest in a La Motta movie at the time of Alice... Mardik Martin tried to crack a script. But it was a project without shape or focus (at one point De Niro contemplated simultaneous theatrical and film versions). Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader – hardly a stabilising influence himself given his own $12,000 a month cocaine habit – was called in to tackle the screenplay.
“I knew it was missing something, but I didn’t know what,” Schrader recounts, before cannily homing in on the central relationship between Jake and his brother Joey. “Once I had my sibling structure,” says Schrader who had a famously troubled relationship with brother and screenwriter Leonard, “I knew how to play that.”
Some of Schrader’s other inventions, however, weren’t so welcome. De Niro point blank refused to counsel a three-page monologue where La Motta repeatedly tries and fails to masturbate. “That had nothing to do with what I remember anything about Jake,” De Niro grimaces, “or anything Marty and I really felt was what we were trying to do.” Schrader, a respected filmmaker in his own right, didn’t take kindly to the resistance. “I exploded at Bob,” says Schrader, “and threw the script at him.”
Seems everyone was passionate about Raging Bull except Scorsese. For De Niro, finally, enough was enough. He cornered the hospital-bound Scorsese that September with a mix of pep talk, plea and threat: “Are you gonna be one of those flash-in-the-pan directors who does a couple of good movies and it’s over for them? You know, we can make this picture. We can do a really great job. Are we doing it or not?” “And as he was speaking,” Scorsese confirms, “I said okay.”
Scorsese tentatively hauled himself up to work, still plagued by doubts over the project. He even told writer and fight connoisseur Norman Mailer that he planned to make the film without any fight sequences. “Because of my asthmatic condition I never really understood sports,” Scorsese justifies. “Quite honestly I felt I don’t know how to shoot two guys in a boxing ring.”
Fortunately, De Niro’s tenacity kicked in. With Schrader’s blessing, he convinced Scorsese to come away with him to the Caribbean island of – irony alert – St. Martin, to sort out the script – and himself. “Bob got me through it,” agrees Scorsese. “He’d wake me up in the morning and make me coffee and we spent two-and-a-half weeks there rewriting everything. I was sort of putting myself back together, in a way, through the material and with him.”
Slowly, Scorsese saw the subject and his protagonist in another light. “I came to understand that the ring is everywhere and it depends how much of a fighter you are in life,” he admits. “It’s at home, in the bedroom, in the street. I understood then what Jake was, but only after having gone through a similar experience. The hardest opponent in the ring that you have is yourself.”
Raging Bull charged forwards. Sure, there were objections that, as scripted, the abrasive, bullying La Motta was no more than “a cockroach”, but De Niro and Scorsese stood firm and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, fresh off their Rocky Best Picture Oscars, used their Stallone success to push the film through. “We never really had any problems with the studio at the time,” Winkler smiles. “They were so busy with Heaven’s Gate at the time that they kind of left us alone.”
Scorsese even succeeded in pitching a black-and-white film. His friend, legendary British director Michael Powell, pointed out that De Niro’s bright red boxing gloves in test 8mm colour footage distracted. Scorsese concurred and sold the idea to the studio. “I pointed out there were five boxing films being made in colour that year,” he remembers. “Rocky II, The Main Event, er, Matilda the Boxing Kangaroo. And I said, ‘this will be different.’”
This extended to the casting, which was approached in the same dedicated fashion. “Bob would read with everybody no matter who it was,” says Scorsese, “even if it was a two-line part.” Yet for all the high-powered competition, two complete unknowns filled the key roles of Jake’s brother Joey and wife Vicky. De Niro had noted Joe Pesci in little-seen film The Death Collector and found him working in a Bronx restaurant.
“I had no career,” Pesci insists. “I had given up on acting. I was a child actor since [age] five but I didn’t want anything to do with acting anymore.” When offered the part, he quickly changed his mind. Amazingly, no executives objected. “Joe was just too special to not use him,” reasons De Niro. And Pesci himself put them onto a strikingly mature teenage bombshell from his neighbourhood, even though Cathy Moriarty’s dramatic resume ran “just high-school acting and dinner theatre.” Still, after impressing in readings and a nerveless screen test, Scorsese cast her on the spot.
Meantime, De Niro continued his own obsessive preparations. He honed his boxing skills under La Motta’s intensive tutelage, sparring with him for hundreds of rounds (after which United Artists allegedly paid $4000 to repair La Motta’s dental work). De Niro even tested himself in three real Brooklyn fights, introduced as a “young La Motta” and outpointing opponents in two bouts.
Almost embarrassed by his actor’s dedication, Scorsese buckled down to work, designing the film’s intricate fight scenes. “They were very much made to be dance sequences,” notes Director of Photography Michael Chapman, “each one in a different style – handheld, on a long lens. This one is a tango, this one a foxtrot, this one a mambo…” First ever visits to fights at Madison Square Garden produced some telling images: a fighter sponged down with bloodied water; and blood dripping from the ropes between rounds.
Appropriately, shooting began with the fight scenes. As Scorsese painstakingly realised his storyboards, shot-by-shot with a single camera, he unleashed his full creativity: changing the lighting, the size of the ring to echo La Motta’s emotional state, even stoking flames out of shot to conjure up the smoke-filled arena for the standout fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. It was laborious work for the crew, De Niro, who practiced furiously in his own personal on-set gym, and the professional fighters who played his opponents. A scheduled five-week fight shoot stretched into ten.
After another ten weeks of dramatic scenes, filming was put on hold. For De Niro, the role was predicated on embodying La Motta as both sculpted middleweight and in bloated, gone-to-seed middle age. “I thought it would be interesting to see how someone could fall apart graphically,” he insisted. It was a controversial move and not everyone approved. “Bob and I have known each other for 30-something years,” remarks Irwin Winkler, “and the only time we’ve ever had an argument was about gaining the weight.”
It wasn’t merely objections to paying the crew for four months while De Niro piled on some sixty-odd pounds, eating his way around Northern Italy and France. The actor’s health was a genuine concern when shooting resumed in December 1979. “We shot quicker at that point too because you could hear [the weight] in his breathing,” nods Scorsese. “It was taking its toll and he wanted to get it over with.”
Post-production, notably the sound mix, was no less arduous. Scorsese turned to audio effects guru Frank Warner, who specialised in applying incredibly elaborate, seemingly incongruous sounds, and homed in on the fight scenes. Never mind a raging bull – Warner mixed in shuddering horses, screeching elephants and other jungle animals, as well as, according to editor Thelma Schoonmaker, “teaching us the use of silence”. However his idiosyncratic working style frustrated Scorsese as much as it thrilled him.
“He used rifle shots and melons breaking, but he wouldn’t tell us what many of the effects were,” he gripes. “He became very possessive and even burnt them afterwards so nobody else could use them.” “Marty got a little upset,” agrees Warner. “I told him, ‘If I tell you, then all the magic will be gone.’”
Finally released in December 1980, Raging Bull did garner some spectacular reviews. Many other critics, however, berated its unrelenting violence and unlikeable characters. Inevitably the film flopped at the box-office. As ever, commercially Scorsese was way behind his contemporaries Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas.
“I thought we were making it for ourselves,” he defends. “I put everything I knew and felt into that film and I thought it would be the end of my career. It was what I call a kamikaze way of making movies: pour everything in, then forget all about it and go find another way of life.” For a while Scorsese seriously considered teaching film instead of making it.
Imagine a spent Scorsese’s surprise, then, when the film received seven Oscar nominations, including his own first Best Director nod. De Niro’s phenomenal performance and Schoonmaker’s remarkable editing were honoured but elsewhere Raging Bull lost out to Robert Redford’s moving, if hardly groundbreaking, domestic drama Ordinary People.
“That I understood,” acknowledges Scorsese. “It’s amazing that it even got to the mainstream in a way. That’s the philosophical attitude I took. Especially that night at the Oscars. I mean, I had no choice. It’s just the nature of the game.”
But then Scorsese and Raging Bull were always playing for different stakes. If life echoed traditional, cathartic Hollywood endings, Scorsese would’ve shared the resolution and inner peace of a chastened Jake La Motta in the film’s heartrending final scene. In fact, his own desperate rage sputtered on. He divorced Isabella Rosellini (they’d married during Raging Bull’s shooting hiatus) and found the plug pulled on his remaining dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ. Intensive therapy “five days a week, and phone calls on weekends” lasted into 1985.
Crucially, he kept working, showing disciplined professionalism on smaller, less personal projects, before finally realizing Last Temptation in 1988. “Everything between [Raging Bull] and Last Temptation were pictures where I was going to work, trying to learn again,” he says. “King Of Comedy, After Hours, and Color Of Money. And so by 1987, ’88 I got back on track.”
Interestingly it took almost the same amount of time for popular consensus on Raging Bull to catch up. Come the end of the 80s, several prominent critical bodies voted it Film of the Decade. “That was really very good for me,” Scorsese smiles, “because it meant that the film was remembered. And that I was still alive to see that come around.”
Since then, Raging Bull’s reputation has only grown. In esteemed magazine Sight and Sound’s last industry poll in 2002, fellow film directors voted it the No.6 film of all time; Entertainment Weekly named it 5th greatest ever. It’s clearly one of the most searing, unflinching portraits of the destructive male ego in any art form; one that pushed cinema’s aesthetic forward and, eventually, helped its director reconcile his own demons.
“Through that journey I was able to see something that I hadn’t seen in myself really,” nods Scorsese. “I was just lucky that there happened to be a project there ready for me to express this. Those things go through me, those struggles, those thoughts. It’s who I am.” And who we fear we could be. That’s ultimately why Raging Bull lives on. Like the man said, the ring is everywhere.
Additional Sources: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind; Scorsese on Scorsese edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie; De Niro: A Biography by John Baxter