Now hailed as a masterpiece, the boxing film Raging Bull debuted as a brutal ropeside attraction 22 years ago.

By Tom Russo and Joshua Rich
Updated November 15, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

While he might have been loath to admit it, Martin Scorsese had some idea of the disappointment that awaited him when Raging Bull, his roiling, beautifully grotesque biopic of tempestuous boxing champ Jake La Motta, opened on Nov. 14, 1980. Like Taxi Driver before it, this was no crowd-pleaser. As the director reflected in Peter Biskind’s Hollywood expose Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, ”The poster with the picture of Bob [De Niro’s] face all beaten and battered — I mean, if you’re a girl, 19 years old, I don’t know if you’d say, ‘Let’s go see this one.”’

Luckily for Scorsese, United Artists was too preoccupied with its disastrous Heaven’s Gate (director Michael Cimino’s epic Western, which decimated the studio) to exhaustively debate such considerations. Also weighing in Raging Bull’s favor were the reams of press De Niro received for the 55 pounds he’d packed on to portray postretirement La Motta. To this day, the actor’s transformation is the benchmark of thespian commitment cited any time that, say, Tom Hanks starves himself scrawny for Cast Away or Renee Zellweger pudges up to play Bridget Jones.

De Niro dedicated himself just as fanatically to getting into fighting trim, literally, for the film’s boxing sequences. Although these scenes ultimately accounted for only a dozen minutes of Raging Bull’s two-hour running time, De Niro trained with La Motta at a Manhattan gym for a full year leading up to the start of production. ”In the beginning he was afraid to hit me,” says La Motta, now 80. ”I said, ‘Look, you can’t hurt me, so don’t worry about it.’ It gave him a lot of confidence…. I swear to you that he could have fought professional.” Newcomer Joe Pesci, who played La Motta’s brother Joey, suffered a couple of cracked ribs thanks to De Niro, who did some damage during a sparring scene. (Adding litigation to injury, the real Joey threatened a lawsuit over the film, apparently even more taken aback by his screen depiction than Jake was by his. De Niro thanked Joey in his acceptance speech for the Best Actor Oscar, ”even though he’s suing us.”)

Scorsese and the movie also earned Oscar nods but — in keeping with the film’s mixed reviews and brutal aesthetic — lost out to Robert Redford and Ordinary People. Regardless, La Motta gives Raging Bull a winning vote (as did critics, who a decade later anointed the film one of the best of the ’80s): ”They took the good parts and the bad parts [of my life] to be as honest as possible,” La Motta says. ”The average guy wouldn’t admit that they did these kind of things…. But that’s why the movie came out so great, because there are a lot of facts in it, a lot of truth.”

Raging Bull

  • Movie
  • R
  • 129 minutes
  • Martin Scorsese