Media Partners | Contributors | Advertise | Contact | Log in | Saturday 25 May 2019

Why Raging Bull is Robert De Niro's greatest performance


Share This Article:

It's hard to believe that veteran actor Robert De Niro is 74 this year.

The Hollywood great, whose time in the film industry spans over five decades, has been involved in a huge number of projects that have seen him take on drama, crime, comedy and even romance.

De Niro’s massively successful career, which has seen him win two Academy Awards, has taken on what have now become, some incredibly iconic characters. From Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and The Deer Hunter’s Mike Vronsky to Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II and Jimmy from Goodfellas; the list is huge.

Of all his films, though, De Niro has never been more committed or convincing than he is as the boxer, Jake La Motta, in Martin Scorsese’s outstanding Raging Bull.

Although the movie didn’t enter production until 1979, Raging Bull had been on De Niro’s mind for some time before that. The actor had learnt the story of former boxer Jake La Motta having read his autobiography whilst on the set of The Godfather Part II. De Niro went on to actually meet La Motta and afterwards became determined to portray the once middleweight champion on the big screen.

He only believed that one man could do La Motta’s story justice though, and that was director Martin Scorsese. 

Scorsese and De Niro had at that point collaborated on three features, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and New York, New York; the first two being met with critical acclaim.

During this period in the seventies, De Niro and Scorsese were arguably at their closest in terms of friendship, so it’s no surprise that, after a tough period for the director in which he almost died of an overdose, he agreed to make the movie with De Niro.

Released in 1980, Raging Bull followed the rise and fall of boxer Jake La Motta. De Niro, of course, starred as the former boxer with Joe Pesci, who is also excellent in this movie, playing his younger brother Joey. Cathy Moriarty took on the challenging role of Jake’s wife, Vicki, and she too is fantastic with her and De Niro sharing some very tense scenes.

The film itself is brilliantly made, being shot in striking black and white. It’s as much about boxing and La Motta’s rise to the top as it is about the boxer’s inner demons and the self-induced struggles he went through as his career went on. 

Whilst many films like this would usually follow a star’s rise to the top and end on a high note, Raging Bull follows La Motta through some of his life’s darkest moments. We see La Motta fall from the greatest heights of his career in the most pitiful, destructive of ways and watch as he hurts all those close to him in the process. 

It’s a brutal watch and one that stays with you for a while.

The film received eight Oscar nominations following the year of its release with it winning the award for best editing and, of course, the best actor award with Robert De Niro taking what was his second Academy Award in six years.

It’s clear from the opening two scenes just how much De Niro had committed to the role as we first see La Motta in 1964, then cut to his vastly different former self in 1941. De Niro gained a staggering sixty pounds for the film in order to accurately portray La Motta’s fall from grace.

His decision to gain the weight naturally raised concerns amongst the film’s production team but the choice definitely benefits the performance overall. This is mainly because, in knowing what Robert De Niro looks like as an actor, the audience is shocked to see him in such an unrecognisable, sorry state, which is exactly the reaction we should be feeling towards the character of La Motta.

Credit: ShortList Magazine

One of the other things that make De Niro so great in this film is how unlikeable he is. Usually so charismatic when on screen, even in films like Mean Streets and Heat where he’s not the ‘good guy’, we still end up liking De Niro’s character despite their actions.

Here, however, De Niro’s La Motta is truly twisted. His early interactions with his first wife and brother aptly set up his character for the rest of the movie as we follow what is essentially an abusive, paranoid, bully trample on everyone around him with no regard for the consequences.

De Niro excellently portrays the darker side of Jake La Motta with the film’s interactions between him and Vicki, whilst being some of the best scenes, are also very unsettling at times.

As for the unorthodox yet iconic fight scenes, De Niro’s preparation involved sparring with the real Jake La Motta himself, which not only made the scenes more convincing but saw some of La Motta’s brutal fighting style rub off on the actor. La Motta actually said after training with De Niro that he was one of the twenty best middleweights he’d ever seen.

The story behind every fight and the way De Niro portrays La Motta’s emotions is enthralling to watch. His proud smile having smashed in the face of the up-and-coming Tony Janiro, who La Motta despised after wife Vicki said he was good looking, is an example of just one moment when De Niro fully embodies the former boxer.

The film, now almost forty years old, is still regarded by many to be De Niro and Scorsese’s greatest collaboration and rightfully so. For Raging Bull to have succeeded in the way that it did though, it needed the actor that played Jake La Motta to be fierce, relatable, and most importantly believable. Robert De Niro was able to be all of those things and more in what is surely his finest on-screen performance.

© 2019 is a website of BigChoice Group Limited | 201 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1JA | registered in England No 6842641 VAT # 971692974