A crisp and penetrating character drama that rings true as so much more than a boxing film. Raging Bull transcended a sports genre that is to this day rife with Hollywood clichés and uninspired storytelling. At the heart of its transcendence is Robert De Niro’s performance as legendary boxer Jake LaMotta. De Niro’s acting – the razor-sharp mood swings, non-linear thought processes, and profanity laden quips – allowed Scorsese to focus on LaMotta’s personal life and not just the bludgeoning of anything that stood in his path. In the wake of Raging Bull, De Niro’s acting would become the template for every rough-around-the-edges Italian-American character in American cinema for the next twenty-five years. Jake Gyllenhaal, who was born on the day Raging Bull was released in theaters in 1980, garnered attention for what many thought would be a De Niro-esque performance in his 2015 film Southpaw. Sadly, Southpaw took its place in a long line of boiler-plate boxing films unable to escape the long and dark shadow that Raging Bull has cast on the genre – a fate that has befallen nearly all of the well-intentioned boxing films of the past thirty-five years. Among viewers and critics alike, Raging Bull is considered THE crowning achievement for all of Hollywood in the 1980’s. With the weight of all that how did such a cunning and concise piece of cinematic storytelling NOT walk away with Best Picture that year?
Scorsese’s stylistic tact for Raging Bull mirrors the man it chronicles: brutal, piercing, and never deeper than it seems. It mirrors all of us, and who we are in our secret moments of self-doubt and anger. We watch as a brutish LaMotta gets everything he ever wanted, the money, the woman, the title. Scorsese then puts LaMotta’s insecurities and tyrannical nature front and center. Viewers are helpless to interfere as we watch the tyrant crumble from within and lose everything. That helpless feeling makes this a terrifying film; something Academy voters were sure to notice. No parallel can be drawn between personal salvation and any larger theme of Americana, because for LaMotta no personal salvation exists. Little about Raging Bull lands within the platitudes that typical American moviegoers latch on to.
Such a raw, in-your-face cinematic experience grates at the heart of most viewers and thus the film lies outside of the typical Academy mold. The innocence of LaMotta’s brother Joey (a remarkably human performance by the typically over-the-top Joe Pesci) and wife Vickie (first time actress Cathy Moriarty) serve as stark contrasts that only amplify the aggressive tone set by LaMotta. As the feature cuts between the brutal nature of boxing and the sandpaper like smoothness of LaMotta’s demeanor towards those around him, a sharp and searing vision of film-making unfolds. Authentic to LaMotta’s sadomasochistic temperament, the film remains ferociously true to its vision of an unstoppable, incessant, raging bull. The unwavering determination of Scorsese’s vision that made this a cinematic masterpiece is plausibly what cost it films top prize.
Raging Bull missed out on Best Picture at the 53rd Academy Awards to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. The conventional and oddly anti-Freudian American family drama pleased audiences with its impassioned struggle of a relatable waspy Illinois family. On paper, Beth, Calvin and Conrad were everything middle-class America wanted to be. The story spoke to the baby boomer generation, to their fears about the erosion of the American dream. With this silent killer of relatability Redford plucks at the heartstrings of viewers in a far more subtle, albeit bromide, manner. The post-war counter-cultural movements of the sixties and seventies had planted doubt into the minds of the masses. No amount of money or social standing can protect you from crushing emotional trauma and Ordinary People hits that nail squarely on the head.
Thus it’s no surprise the Academy chose the genuinely commendable rookie effort by Redford over Scorsese’s masterpiece; and over a copacetic endeavor by a young David Lynch in his major commercial debut, The Elephant Man, – how Kubrick’s The Shining wasn’t nominated over Polanski’s Tess will forever be a mystery. Regardless, nineteen eighty postures itself as an example year of how the Academy of Motion Pictures selects its winners. Raging Bull was without question the superiorly crafted film – due in no small amount to cinematographer Thelma Schoonmaker – but at the time, did it capture the subconscious of the American moviegoer? Did it better represent its moment in American cinema? Perhaps not.