AFI Countdown Challenge #24: Raging Bull

Not long after meeting my wife, I subscribed to Showtime so she could see her favorite show at the time, The Tudors.  While flipping around the network’s multiple channels, she found something called But I’m a Cheerleader, a heavy-handed satirical look at gay conversion therapy and why it was a terrible idea.  The movie was…so-so, but the lead actor, playing the director of the camp, a woman in deep denial about her own son’s sexuality, was Cathy Moriarty.

I found myself wondering aloud if she spent time wondering what happened to her career since she was once in Raging Bull.

Filmed almost entirely in black and white aside from some color “home movies” around the halfway point and the film’s title in bright red, Raging Bull is the story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta.  And, I gotta say, this is not a flattering portrayal.  Jake seems to have a habit of getting things wrong.  He’s abusive to both of his wives, verbally and physically, he drives his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) away from him, and even when he does break the law, he does so in obvious ways that gets him caught.  He can’t throw a fight without making it obvious, he flirts with underage girls, and when he tries to bribe his way out of trouble, he ends up destroying the one really valuable thing he has that could get him the money he needs, namely his championship belt.  Sure, he seems to be high on life and doing well in the very last scene of the film, but it’s ambiguous if it actually is a happy ending of any kind since the redemption or cleaning up of his personal life that films like this usually have occurs between scenes.

Quite frankly, this film comes across as closer to a musical biography in the vein of Ray or Walk the Line than the standard sports bio.  Robert De Niro put on muscle for LaMotta in his youth and weight for LaMotta in his old age, and his own cinematic charisma makes what should be a very unlikable character to be at least a little likable, but that may not be much.  It’s a compelling look, but I don’t think anyone is going to think LaMotta was in any way simply misunderstood.  LaMotta is the cause of all his own problems.  His drive to be the best in the ring is about the only positive thing we can say about him.  He does have moments of regret, such as when he is sitting in a holding cell after he didn’t check IDs for some underage girls in his club, but that’s about all in the grand scheme of things.  Everything that happens to him is his own fault, and in the end he seems to bounce back.

But what may be the most surprising when you consider just how Jake LaMotta comes across in this film is that LaMotta served as a consultant on the film, the script was based on his own autobiography, and he personally trained DeNiro to be a boxer, concluding DeNiro could actually have boxed professionally when they were finished.  There’s a certain level of honesty to Raging Bull as a result.  LaMotta could have withheld his assistance, or even tried to sugarcoat his own story.  If he did, it doesn’t show here.  The film may have ended with LaMotta chanting how he is the boss, getting ready to entertain a crowd in some kind of lounge act, but the real thing that makes him the boss is a form of self-realization, and that occurs more in real life than is evident in the film.  Does Joey forgive Jake at the end of the film?  Hard to say.  Scorsese ends the film before we see the two spending time together after Jake more or less forces forgiveness out of Joey on a street.

This being the second boxing movie I’ve looked at during this series, perhaps I should do some comparison to Rocky.  Beyond the fact that Rocky Balboa comes across as a well-meaning man that is easy to root for, the fight scenes themselves couldn’t be more different.  Rocky only really features one big bout, and it’s shot like a highlight reel as I said before.  But Raging Bull is a different animal.  Rocky may end the fight with his eyes swollen shut, but there’s something far more brutal about Jake LaMotta’s fights, mostly due to how Scorsese films them:  with close-ups.  There are several fights over the course of the film, including three bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson, and most of them show close-ups of gloved fists hitting bodies.  LaMotta’s last fight, again against Robinson, shows multiple shots of Jake getting punched in the head, blood and spit spewing from him with every blow.  Given Scorsese’s reputation as a filmmaker, namely that there is a level of brutality in many of his better known works, that seems to be the most appropriate way he could have possibly done a sports movie.

Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, and this is his last film on the list.  I don’t often put much stock into the Academy Awards, and it’s due in part to the fact he didn’t get a Best Director or a Best Picture for the longest time, and when he finally did, it wasn’t his best work.  Between this, Taxi Driver, or Goodfellas, he showed great talent and skill behind the camera, and he also went on to direct more diverse movies like The King of Comedy, Gangs of New YorkThe Aviator, and The Age of Innocence.  Given how poorly many Oscar winning films age, well, I tend to look at awards as something to help you win a trivia contest rather than anything really worth celebrating.  And that’s more than I can say for the box office, Watson and Ryan.

If I seem unfocused, I think it may also have something to do with the structure of Raging Bull.  It arguably doesn’t have much of a linear plot line.  We see LaMotta fall and somehow rise again, but the return from that fall happens between scenes.  There is more of a through line in the second half; once Jake has married wife #2 Vickie (Moriarty), there is more of a plot, but I think the point may be more that LaMotta is that raging bull, a metaphorical animal that simply smashes everything in his path.  Only Jake, on occasion, shows that human aspect of self-reflection.  And that may be the tragedy of Jake LaMotta.  He’s not an animal, but most of the time, he doesn’t seem to remember that.

NEXT UP:  We’re going to 1941 for what may be the quintessential film noir:  The Maltese Falcon.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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