Brutal Attraction: The Making of Raging Bull (Vanity Fair)

‘It was Bob’s film,” says Irwin Winkler, the producer of Raging Bull. By which he means that it was Robert De Niro’s driving passion, long before it became Martin Scorsese’s common-consent greatest work. At the time—the late 70s—no one could understand what the actor saw in the life story of Jake La Motta, the brutal, yet curiously masochistic, middleweight boxing champion from 1949 to 1951, who may have been bull-like in the ring but was often more raving than raging when he was just trying to live his life.

I’m not certain that De Niro himself could, at the time, have fully explained his obsession with what was nominally a biopic and nominally a boxing picture, but was not quite either one. It had something to do, he now thinks, with “the primal emotions” the film trafficked in. He felt that if an essentially middle-class movie audience could be induced to empathize with these marginal, emotionally ignorant, and screechingly inarticulate people—La Motta, his wife, and his brother—it would be a good, discomfiting, perhaps even instructive experience.

He also believed, more certainly, that the only man who could possibly make the movie was his closest friend, Marty Scorsese. This, in turn, means that, when we’re talking about how Raging Bull came into being, the drama is not centered on its sets or in its editing rooms—that part was relatively easy. The real story took place in offices, restaurants—even in a hospital room and on a balmy Caribbean island. Essentially, it was all about Mobilizing Marty. To Thelma Schoonmaker, the film’s editor, the project was “a great gift of friendship” on De Niro’s part. But for the longest time it seemed anything but that to the director, who was then passing through what was surely the greatest crisis of his professional life, wondering whether he would make another film of any sort, let alone one as challenging, as enigmatic, to him as Raging Bull.

At this point, in 1978, Scorsese and De Niro were, in the former’s words, “like brothers.” As adolescents they had had a nodding acquaintance when they were members of rival (but peaceable) Lower East Side gangs. As adults they had made Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York together. By now, they were capable of finishing each other’s sentences, though sometimes there were no sentences to finish; they could communicate with nods, gestures, and fleeting facial expressions.

They were not, however, communicating very well over the proposed film’s source material, Raging Bull: My Story, an autobiography La Motta had cobbled together with the help of writer Joseph Carter and boyhood friend Peter Savage. It was not much of a book, even by the primitive standards of sports bios, circa 1970. But Savage was also an acquaintance of De Niro’s and had sent him a copy, and the actor somehow perceived subtexts—maybe even a sort of rough sublimity—in it. At some point De Niro resolved to meet La Motta and sought him out at a strip club on New York’s Seventh Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets. “He was in charge of security there,” De Niro says, then pauses and laughs: “Well, really, he was the head bouncer.” The actor’s first impression was of an old fighter “doing battle with his weight”—a battle that De Niro would himself famously fight when he had to gain some 60 pounds to do the film’s later sequences (and then lose them after they were finished). By this time La Motta was truly a fringe figure. His last fight had been in 1954; he nominally stayed in the public eye doing stand-up routines in clubs as well as a one-man show reciting Shakespeare, among other literary sources, for audiences who came for the spectacle of seeing a roughneck make a fool of himself.

Scorsese just couldn’t understand De Niro’s enthusiasm for this story. Mardik Martin, who was a friend of Scorsese’s from N.Y.U.’s film school and co-author of the Mean Streets screenplay, thinks that, at this point, Scorsese had done no more than riffle through the book. Born in 1942, the director had been a little kid (and already a committed movie geek) when La Motta was at the top of his game. “I didn’t know anything about boxing,” Scorsese says. “It was always one angle on TV or in the movie theaters, where they’d show the fights on the weekend. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was sports, which took me out of the picture.” Still, he agreed to help develop the project with De Niro, though without much passion or focus.

Factors aside from an allergy to sports contributed to Scorsese’s inattention. There was, to begin with, the New York, New York problem. Released in 1977, it was a strange hybrid of a movie, partly a lavish tribute to the big-scale MGM musicals of the 1940s and 50s, partly an improvisatory love story tracking the combative relationship between a saxophone player/band leader (De Niro) and his songstress (Liza Minnelli). Its mixture of styles and intent reflected Scorsese’s own mixed motives. Some days he wanted to be an old-fashioned Hollywood genre director; some days he wanted to be an auteur on the more modern European model. What this picture taught him was that you couldn’t be both at the same time. It was scorned by critics and audiences alike. Worse, there was in its reception an implication that Scorsese, until then generally considered the most gifted director of his generation by the cinematic cognoscenti, had received a deserved comeuppance—an opinion fueled to a degree by gossip about heavy drug use and messy emotional dramas on the set.

If anything unambiguously good came out of New York, New York, it was the relationship Scorsese forged with Irwin Winkler, who proved to be a remarkably patient and supportive producer, even though he had his own unexpressed doubts about what had been a rather hubristic enterprise. At the time Raging Bull was first being discussed, his company, Chartoff-Winkler, was coming off Rocky, a mighty, Oscar-winning—and surprise—hit. United Artists was pressing for a sequel, so, as Winkler puts it, “we had some heat with them.” He thought that if Chartoff-Winkler could come up with a script for Raging Bull while playing hard to get regarding Rocky II they could force the studio to do both boxing films. Martin, by that time, was working for Chartoff-Winkler as a story editor and consultant, and the company assigned him to write a screenplay based on the La Motta book.

Scorsese paid scant attention to his efforts. Drained and exhausted by New York, New York, he had immediately taken on The Last Waltz, a complicated concert film and music documentary about the breakup of the rock group the Band, which further depleted his strength. It’s within this context that, instead of taking the 1978 Labor Day weekend off, he decided to attend the Telluride Film Festival, high in the Colorado Rockies.

The air is thin in Telluride; it is not an ideal locale for a lifelong asthmatic—especially a physically and mentally exhausted one. Scorsese more or less collapsed there, and immediately on his return to New York he collapsed again and was taken to a hospital, bleeding from every orifice. His condition was life-threatening; his girlfriend at the time (eventually his wife), Isabella Rossellini, had to leave the country for work and later told Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls—a history of Hollywood in the 70s—that she did not expect ever to see Scorsese alive again. The doctors told him that he had no platelets in his blood, the result of an interaction between his asthma medicines, other prescription drugs, and the cocaine that he then regularly abused. They told him that he was in imminent danger of a brain hemorrhage. They pumped him full of cortisone and ordered total bed rest.

In time, he began to recover, at which point De Niro visited him in the hospital. Like La Motta, Scorsese had touched bottom, and the actor judged his friend was ready to hear yet another pitch for Raging Bull. He was right. “I couldn’t understand Bob’s obsession with it, until, finally, I went through that rough period of my own,” Scorsese recalls. “I came out the other side and woke up one day alive … still breathing.” Says De Niro, “Mostly I told him to do it or not do it, that we had to get real. That was the ‘Come to Jesus’ moment.” And De Niro was not going to take no for an answer. He says that if Scorsese had rejected this new overture “I’d have found some other way to get him to do it.”

Fighting as if He Didn’t Deserve to Live

At this stage, no one envisioned the film’s unique look, tone, or structure. Raging Bull would turn out to be—as its great cinematographer, Michael Chapman, calls it—an opera, in the verismo tradition of Cavalleria Rusticana (portions of which can be heard on the soundtrack) and Pagliacci. “The boxing sequences would be the arias,” Chapman says, contrasting with the very simply shot family sequences, which reveal the La Mottas to be “Italian peasant people who just happened to have been moved to the Bronx.” Probably De Niro saw the redemptive elements in La Motta’s story, but he was thinking largely in terms of its powerful melodramatic possibilities. These people are, of course, uneducated, but they are not stupid. It is just that they have no governors on their emotions, so they scream and hit a lot as they express those primal emotions. More important, they have no capacity to think ahead, to imagine the consequences of their acts.

De Niro had played such a character for Scorsese before—his Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, bopping cheerfully, anarchically, to his doom. Scorsese, indeed, goes as far as to say that Mean Streets and Raging Bull are “really the same movie.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, and probably not something that consciously occurred to De Niro at the time. He was thinking about Jake’s masochism, for example—his capacity to take brutal beatings without ever being knocked down and then somehow rally and K.O. an opponent who was ahead of him on points. Scorsese likes to quote the inscription on a folk-art painting he was once given: “Jake La Motta fought as if he didn’t deserve to live.” More significantly, there was his lunatic jealousy about his wife, Vickie, which drove him to beating her and his brother, Joey, who he imagined were having an affair. These were scarcely novel emotions in our dramas; what was novel was the screaming pitch—and the physical violence—with which De Niro imagined their being expressed.

By the time of De Niro’s hospital meeting with Scorsese, Mardik Martin had written at least one draft of the screenplay, with very little input from Scorsese. Everyone recalls it as quite conventionally chronological: boyhood, adolescence, triumphant and then defeated young manhood, and finally some sort of almost inarticulate redemption. There was good stuff here—La Motta had been put in the ring by his father when he was a kid, with the money he picked up in these unsanctioned bouts helping to pay the family’s rent—but somehow it didn’t sing. And besides, Scorsese had a distracting obsession of his own: The Last Temptation of Christ, which he had wanted to make since Barbara Hershey had pressed the novel on him when they were shooting Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman in 1972; he thought it was time to make another push for this unlikely project (which he would end up making nearly a decade later).

Even so, Scorsese found himself intermittently drawn to Raging Bull. Michael Chapman points out that in the 1940s and early 1950s boxing was much more central to popular culture than it now is, that the leading fighters were major celebrities that the young Scorsese would have been aware of. That would have been especially true of La Motta, whose six fights with Sugar Ray Robinson—he won only one of them—form one of the legendary sporting story lines of the era. The young Scorsese must have had some awareness of what La Motta meant to people of his class—especially the Italian portion of it.

Then, too, there were obvious Marty Moments in the screenplay. Martin recalls, for example, describing one of the boxing sequences to Scorsese. He knew of the director’s boyhood love of Biblical epics, so he said, “Think of them as gladiators, fighting in an arena packed with people. Then think of them exchanging blows, and the sweat and the blood flying all over the place, onto their tuxedos, their mink coats.” Martin adds, “That got him excited.” Scorsese also found himself thinking about his grandparents—immigrants who had never really adapted to their adopted country’s customs. “All they could do was have some dignity and respect within the neighborhood,” he says. “They were just lucky to get where they were.” In their mute endurance he saw an analogy to La Motta’s noisier misery. Weren’t the feelings he was expressing—about the nature of manhood, and womanhood, about honor and the obligations to bloodlines—as primitive as theirs but much more visibly expressed?

Martin tried a draft that melded Jake’s story with anecdotes drawn from Scorsese’s family history and his experiences growing up in Little Italy. This draft displeased De Niro and it was discarded. So was Martin—somewhat to his relief since, after three drafts, he felt he was written out on this project. Scorsese and De Niro then met with the writer and director Paul Schrader at Musso & Frank Grill, on Hollywood Boulevard. The occasion was not entirely relaxed. Schrader had written Taxi Driver, but after it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes the film became, as Scorsese puts it, “a Scorsese–De Niro picture, you know. These things get a little touchy at times.” More important, Schrader’s career as a writer-director was flourishing. He had just done Blue Collar and Hardcore and was about to start American Gigolo. He was a very busy guy, but he agreed to give the director and the actor six weeks and not a minute more. And he delivered just what they needed: “He started the picture right in the middle,” throwing out the backstory, Scorsese says. And he started it on a perfect note, with La Motta yelling at an earlier wife for her failure to cook a steak to his exact specifications. In Schrader’s draft she was pregnant and La Motta began beating and kicking her. The violence of that scene was scaled back later—it was too raw a way to begin any movie, and the scene, in the finished film, plays almost comically over the top. But its most important element remains: an unseen neighbor repeatedly shouting “You animals” at them.

Remember that epithet. This may be the only movie the theme of which—La Motta’s unacknowledged struggle for some sort of human redemption—is adumbrated by an offscreen voice. But if Schrader had saved the show, he had not perfected it. “It was a cold script,” says Irwin Winkler. Scorsese and De Niro met with Schrader at least two more times in New York, where he gave them a lot of useful advice—the best of which was to go forward on their own.

Not a Wanker

De Niro suggested a period of total isolation and immersion—no phones, no distractions of any kind. They chose the La Samanna resort, on St. Martin, in the Caribbean—a complex of separate villas. They shared one of them and installed a young assistant in another nearby. She was Gloria Norris, a recent Sarah Lawrence graduate who had worked with Scorsese’s pal Brian De Palma on his early picture Home Movies. Better still, her grandfather had been a fight promoter in New England, so she was no stranger to the boxing world. She brought “tons” of books along to help them with research. She remembers De Niro rising early to run along the beach. She remembers him and Scorsese talking out the script scene by scene in the mornings. She remembers Scorsese writing up the new material on yellow legal pads in the afternoons. She remembers “his handwriting was bad, so he’d have to read some of it out to me. It was full of profanity, and he’d get embarrassed saying those words to me.”

After that, Norris would retreat to her typewriter, and De Niro and Scorsese would sometimes head out in their Jeep to dinner in one of the several extremely good restaurants on the island. “It was total concentration,” Scorsese recalls. “Everything was done at that little table with that silly cabana umbrella and we’re looking out at the ocean.” “Everything” was three complete passes through the script over a period of several weeks.

One important thing they accomplished was to combine two characters—La Motta’s brother, Joey, and a close friend, Pete Savage. The latter finally disappeared entirely from the script. Another much-wrestled-with aspect was the emotional climax. This occurs when La Motta, retired from the ring and owning a nightclub in Miami, is arrested on a morals rap, accused of providing under-age girls for his customers, and ultimately loses everything: his money, his club, his wife. Tossed into jail—his struggle with his guards is as physically intense as anything that takes place in the boxing sequences—he finally reaches the low point of his life. Completely isolated, with no place to turn, no inner resources to summon, he begins to masturbate—in Schrader’s script, that is.

Scorsese thought that was “interesting.” De Niro was more dubious. He just couldn’t think of La Motta as a wanker. But his masochism—that was another matter. The actor had shown an alternative idea to Scorsese once before in New York: getting up and banging his head and his fists against the wall, a brutal act of self-punishment. But the director had been insufficiently focused. Now, on St. Martin, De Niro brought up the idea again. And demonstrated it again. This was another kind of self-abuse, full of a sort of coiled anguish that would really hurt De Niro when, eventually, they shot the sequence. “When I looked at it there [in St. Martin], I saw the scene,” says Scorsese. “I saw the shot—what you see in the film. A number of times I wished I had a camera. I would’ve shot it immediately.”

There are a lot of words in Raging Bull, but there are only four that really count—“I’m not an animal”—muttered in that jail cell in a tone so choked that you can barely hear them. Until that moment, Jake is, as the title implies, just an animal, without any real consciousness, any sense of morality or mortality. Now, in some primitive way, he achieves that knowledge. It’s not a blinding revelation; sainthood is not suddenly on offer for him. But he is, as Scorsese says, “more accepting of himself. He’s more gentle to himself and to the people around him.”

That is to say, he’s more of a Catholic figure. Almost everyone knows that as an adolescent Scorsese briefly aspired to the priesthood and that his adult life has been marked by spiritual questioning, spiritual longing. De Niro came from a much more secular background, but like Scorsese he was an Italian-American formed by the same, well, yes, mean streets; he too knew something about the longing for grace by people who had no words to express that longing. Scorsese says, “It’s the old line from The Diary of a Country Priest,” the Georges Bernanos novel about a clergyman who utterly fails to redeem his greedy, ungodly parish yet dies absolved: “God is not a torturer. He wants us to be merciful with ourselves. And Jake kind of gets there.”

But inexplicably so. Looking back on the film’s writing process, we can see that the entire effort was to strip this story down to its primal elements, to reveal states of being, not states of mind. The controlling idea was never to step back and explain anyone’s behavior; it was to plunge the audience into it, to make us feel, viscerally, every blow Jake La Motta delivered or absorbed in the ring and outside of it. The 40s and 50s, for example, were a period when Hollywood discovered Freud. Picture after picture, as Scorsese puts it, “explained that this guy did this because of that. But you can’t explain any human being with one Freudian term. I said, ‘Let’s take all that out. I don’t want to do any of that.’”

Another significant change in the script was suggested by Michael Powell, the great English director (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom), whom Scorsese had adopted as a sort of consigliere. At the end of the film we find La Motta in his dressing room, running lines as he prepares to go onstage for his one-man show, An Evening with Jake La Motta. These included some Shakespearean passages, which he had actually done in his act—Bronx accent and all. All wrong, said Powell. Reality be damned, it’s going to sound false on the screen. De Niro proposed the “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront, which Scorsese immediately bought: “That was our iconography, not the Globe Theatre.” And it’s an oddly touching monologue coming from La Motta, who had been more than a contender and was now something less than one.

You Can Go Home Again

The less Raging Bull explained, the more Scorsese was drawn to it. He returned from St. Martin completely committed to the project. Moreover, he derived two bonuses from his island idyll. One was a full return to physical well-being. The weeks on St. Martin, he says, were “sort of like a spa, like 81D2.” More important, the film began a process of reconciliation with his own past, from which he had become estranged during his years of Hollywood strivings. “Raging Bull meant something new to me. I said, ‘Wait a minute—I can’t deny who I am or where I came from.’ And so I embraced my parents again. They became part of my life in the films. My father’s in Raging Bull. My mother started acting in a lot of the films. They became people who were on the set to help me remember who I am and where I came from. I was harboring a lot of anger and I think it just explodes in Raging Bull.”

But not as a white and blinding fireball. It’s typical of very potent movies that we tend to remember their most explosive scenes—in this case the vivid carnage in the ring, the cringe-inducing scenes of domestic violence. They often blot out sequences of a different, indeed contradictory nature. I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but if you re-encounter Raging Bull today, after a long absence, you will find it far more tender than you remember—even, at times, rather sweet-spirited. The picture would not work if it did not contain expressions of the authentic yearning Jake and Vickie felt for each other in their courtship and in the early days of their marriage. For instance, the scene where he first seduces her is almost silent—and faintly comic, too, as he pours cold water down his pants to cool his ardor. But it motivates the rest of their story.

Gloria Norris agrees with that reading. She stayed with the picture after St. Martin, continuing her research, and as production proceeded she also saw a more compassionate tone seeping into the film. Some of this doubtless derived from the conciliatory mood that overtook Scorsese. Some of it arose from his contentment with the people he had gathered to make it. Like the writers (credited and uncredited), most of the cast and crew had worked with him before, and the outlanders recruited to the film partook of their mood. This was, more so than on most movies, a band of brothers functioning efficiently and harmoniously—with a couple of sweet sisters added to the group: the actress Cathy Moriarty and the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Of the newcomers, Moriarty and Joe Pesci are the most visible. The latter was known to Scorsese from a comedy act he had with Frank Vincent (who also appears in Raging Bull), in which the pair parodied comedy teams, but it was his appearance in a short film that Scorsese had screened that won him the job. He had the right spirit for Joey—loyal, excitable, trying to discipline his ever wayward brother. Pesci was also instrumental in bringing Moriarty to the film. He and Vincent had first seen her in a photo from a disco beauty contest in Mount Vernon, New York, and Cis Corman, who was the casting director for the film, also became a supporter. In due course a screen test was arranged at a small New York studio. Irwin Winkler was among those present, and when Moriarty did her scene, he says, “we just looked at each other. We didn’t even print the takes.” They simply agreed, on the spot, that the part was hers. As with De Niro and Pesci, she achieved a rare quality—a curious sort of guilelessness, something that narrows the distance between “performance” and “reality” to paper-thin dimensions.

Achieving that quality in Raging Bull’s visual presentation required considerably more artifice. The most basic (and radical) choice Scorsese made was to shoot in black and white. Michael Chapman approved: “In those days boxing was always in black and white—on television, in Life magazine.”

Scorsese had also studied all the classic boxing pictures, and was troubled by the fact that for the most part the camera was stationed outside the ring. The one exception he noticed was Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul, of 1947. Rossen had sometimes placed his cameraman, James Wong Howe, on roller skates to achieve an unprecedented (and so far unduplicated) intimacy with his boxers. Scorsese wanted to get that effect, sans roller skates, which meant, in the end, placing the camera on a dolly. Normally the floors on which dollies roll are concrete or wood. But a boxing ring is much softer—in order to cushion knockdowns. “Imagine pushing dollies on that surface,” says Chapman. “Those dolly grips really earned their money.” So, too, did the camera operators, for Scorsese wanted to change the speed at which the film was running through the camera without cutting. “There was just no mechanics for it,” says Chapman, so he had an operator adjusting the frames-per-second setting on the camera from 24 to 48 to 120 and back again “on the fly.” For Chapman, Raging Bull was “the last great 70s movie.” He’s speaking in a largely technical sense. This was a movie that took traditional, mechanical techniques to their limit—by the 90s, digital techniques, created far from the set on computers, would replace the kind of work he was so laboriously doing on set. He doesn’t quite say it, but he strongly implies that there is a correlation between the kind of hard physical labor that went into Raging Bull and the muted, almost strangled humanism of its message.


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