An Appreciation – Raging Bull

Joe Pesci was a find that came almost by sheer luck.  Pesci had been an actor for years, but never got the big break he had been searching for.  He was just about to quit acting all together, when De Niro found him in a B-movie, and knew he would be perfect for the role of Joey.  The small stature of Pesci works a lot in the same way it did for James Cagney, where sheer energy and aggressiveness would make up for a lack of size.  The chemistry between Pesci and De Niro would become legendary, as the two of them would go back and forth in a dance of words that is both elemental and brilliant at the same time.  From the scene where Jake tells Joey to hit him, to how Joey tells Jake how he was going to win even if he loses, to where Jake uncontrollably continues to question Joey’s relationship with his own wife, the interactions between these characters is a showcase of acting at its very best.

And then, of course, there’s Robert De Niro.  What an actor this man is, he accomplished so much both physically and psychologically, that it’s no wonder that this is considered not only one of his very best roles, but one of the very best performances by any actor of all time.  Physically, this performance was iconic.  Going through training like a real boxer, De Niro molded his body in to a fighting machine, even going so far as entering himself in a number of real life fights.  The real Jake LaMotta trained De Niro, and commented that he could have been a successful fighter.  Then, disregarding his own vanity and self-esteem, De Niro took time off to gain sixty pounds of weight to portray the later portion of LaMotta’s life, as a broken down and lonely nightclub owner.

However, it is not only the weight that made this performance special, it was De Niro’s ability to display the emotional rollercoaster ride of this man’s life.  Watch the scene where LaMotta, being terribly beaten by Sugar Ray Robinson, lays his hands to his sides and urges Robinson to continue.  This comes soon after the violent interaction with Joey and Vickie, and in a way he uses this incredibly brutal defeat as an attempt to repent for the sins he committed.  De Niro was able to give off the insecurity and paranoia of LaMotta’s boxing years, to the regret and guilt of his later life, highlighted by a scene in a jail cell where LaMotta bangs his head and punches the wall, screaming with fear and confusion about how he allowed his life to come to that point.  It is a lasting performance that has been referenced years after the film was released, and with good reason.

Raging Bull is a film that will be remembered for years, for it’s brilliant storytelling and incomparable acting.  Scorsese, along with De Niro and everyone else involved, created a film that was the first and only of its kind, a film that is just as energetic, passionate, and emotional as the characters displayed in it.  Yes, LaMotta was not a good man in his time, and ended up alone, but I couldn’t help but think that there may be a little hope for him by the end of the film.  Look at the final scene, with LaMotta rehearsing the famous On the Waterfront (1954) speech, and shadow boxing in front of the mirror.  On the Waterfront is a film about a boxer in search of himself, and like the quote that ends Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta was lost throughout most of his life.  Maybe, just maybe, in front of that mirror in that tiny nightclub, LaMotta finally saw himself for what he was, and what he could possibly be.

Pages: 1 2


Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

You can reach Allen via email or Twitter

View all posts by this author