If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.
When Robert De Niro was given a copy of Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story, by the boxer himself in the early 1970s, it came with a personalized inscription. LaMotta made it out to “the only actor in the world that could play my crazy ‘whacked out’ life and make it come alive again,” words that would seemingly resonate with De Niro as he read the memoir while filming The Godfather Part II.
Taken with the pugilist’s story, he went to Martin Scorsese, who had recently directed the actor in Mean Streets, with the idea to turn the book into a film. Uninterested in making a sports picture, Scorsese turned it down several times until parallels with the filmmaker’s personal life brought him back to the idea. The box office failure of New York, New York in 1977 is said to have contributed to Scorsese’s subsequent cocaine overdose, an incident that left him shaken and ready to tell LaMotta’s tragic story of self-destruction at last.
Spanning 1941 to 1964, Raging Bull follows middleweight fighter Jake LaMotta (De Niro) from promising up-and-comer to burned-out club owner. His younger brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), helps manage his career, talking Jake through his setbacks while trying to introduce the possibility of taking the help of mobster Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) for a title shot. While Jake is a formidable force inside the ring, he seems utterly lost when he steps out of the ropes into the real world. Though he’s already married, he strikes up a friendship with 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and leaves his wife for her years later. Their happiness is short-lived, as Jake’s jealousy and sexual insecurities perpetually get the best of him and eventually lead him to violently alienate himself from his friends and family.
De Niro, of course, has countless indelible film performances, but his work in Raging Bull feels like the Citizen Kane of the actor’s unforgettable roles. Like Orson Welles in that film, De Niro undergoes a physical transformation with the help of makeup and prosthetics to demonstrate the passing of time but he famously took it further than that. It’s reported that De Niro gained approximately 60 pounds to accurately recreate the paunch that LaMotta procured later in his life after he no longer had to make weight for matches. To further replicate LaMotta’s appearance, makeup artist Mike Westmore crafted a nose mold whose crooked disfigurement reflected years of abuse at the hands of various boxing gloves. These facial fittings would also allow for the required fake blood to be squirted from De Niro’s cheeks and mouth for the closeups inside the ring.
The performance obviously extends far past appearance, and the psychological complexity with which De Niro is able to imbue LaMotta is one of the largest reasons Raging Bull comes across as much more of a character study than a typical boxing movie. From his first scene with Joey, Jake expresses lament for his “little girl’s hands” and, in a misguided attempt to reinstate his masculinity, goads Joey to hit him in the face repeatedly. When taken with Jake’s last interaction in the film with Joey, a desperate attempt by the former to reconcile with the latter, we see how it’s impossible for Jake to separate his life in the ring from life outside it. The way that Jake forces an overly long hug on Joey notably resembles how two fighters would clinch in the middle of a boxing bout. For Jake, even a loving embrace mimics hand-to-hand combat strategy.
Romantic relationships add a layer of sexual anxiety to De Niro’s performance that makes it even more difficult to watch but nevertheless impressive from an artistic perspective. Jake first meets Vickie behind a chain-link fence, their vision of one another obscured and the distance between them inevitable. She is a prize he can’t help but fight to win. De Niro is understandably at his most charming in this scene, a trait he lends to many of his film performances, but there’s an obvious undercurrent of menace that Jake bobs and weaves around while trying to make a good first impression. Once married to Vickie, things don’t get easier from there, as Jake has such low self-esteem that he can’t respect a woman who would sleep with him. A scene where he puts a sexual encounter with Vickie on ice, so to speak, perfectly encapsulates Jake’s carnal hangups and the bitter jealousies they create.
Expecting Raging Bull to be his last major movie for a while, and possibly ever, Martin Scorsese pulled out all the stops for the project. Teaming back up with Who’s That Knocking at My Door editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has subsequently edited each of his films since, Scorsese was exacting with how the film was to be cut. This also applies to the sound design as well, which brings home the brutality of the boxers’ blows to their bodies. In addition to the impact noises, sound editor Frank Warner also incorporates clips of elephants braying and horses neighing during LaMotta’s fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. This contrasts with Jake’s insistence late in the film that he is “not an animal,” unintentionally mirroring another black-and-white movie released in 1980 that was also nominated for eight Academy Awards.
The Sugar Ray sequence remains Raging Bull‘s most brutally memorable scene, the sound dimming to silence as Jake waits on the ropes to receive his punishment at the hands of Robinson. De Niro’s look of defeat and self-loathing as he waits for the punches tells the entire story of what this guy is about in a single frame. As Jake takes his licks, Michael Chapman’s monochromatic cinematography obscures the difference between blood, sweat and tears. It’s a baptism of bodily fluid in keeping with co-writer Paul Schrader’s career-long fascination with perceived penance and turbulent absolution. But it’s De Niro who puts a blood-stained cherry on top of the scene, sauntering with a pulverized face over to his opponent’s corner and bragging “You never got me down, Ray.” While watching LaMotta tear himself down doesn’t necessarily make Raging Bull one of the more enjoyable collaborations between Scorsese and De Niro, it remains one of their most accomplished.