What was it like to be Martin Scorsese on Oscar night in 1981? Think on it: you’re Marty; you’ve just made Raging Bull; you and everyone else know it’s a masterpiece – but Ordinary People wins Best Picture. Do you: a) Rip Bob Redford’s lousy throat out? b) Gouge his eyes a little first? or c) Clap along with all the other saps? Bear in mind your movie is, definitely, a masterpiece. And you’re probably coked to the gills tonight. You may or may not be sleeping with Liza Minnelli (I can’t remember who you were sleeping with in ’81). Whatever’s goin’ on, the Sundance Kid deserves a slap. Oh Marty. And to think: you lose to Kevin Costner in ten years.
Try to picture Scorsese and Paul Schrader trying to write Raging Bull. Scorsese, as I say, by this time a full-on fun-house coke fiend. Schrader: just about the worst man a coke fiend could hang out with. They’re both nuts. Talented, yes, but nuts. A guy could count the number of girlfriends Marty and Paulie had in high-school on one thumb. And here they are writing a screenplay about a man who would’ve wedgie’d them both growing up. It’s a boxing picture, a true-life story about Jake LaMotta, Middleweight Champion of the World in the 50s. Bear in mind Rocky has made the boxing picture hot. But Marty and Paulie don’t want to make Rocky; they wanna make On the Waterfront, a King Lear for the common man. This’ll be Rocky if Rocky had been played by De Niro. And there ain’t gonna be no Adrian.
Right from the first shot, you know Raging Bull is a masterpiece: the sheer opera of it; the black and white photography that’s as seductive as cigarette smoke; De Niro, sexy as hell, prowling the ring; the ropes, in thick silhouette, like bars on a cage. In effect you have what the whole movie is about: both the poetry and the savagery of boxing, the dancing bear aspect and the f—in’ majesty of the thing. That Academy voters could even think of comparing Raging Bull and Ordinary People is bewildering, let alone that they could think Ordinary People superior (were they smoking crack?!). On the one hand you had Bob Redford’s paean to white people (it had a character called Bucky in it, for Christ’s sake); on the other: Art. Not art like Ordinary People’s art, all flat-packed and “I love you, pop”, but real art, the kind that isn’t easy to explain, the kind that director’s have to f— themselves up to make.
I’ve said some bad things about Robert De Niro on these web-pages, but it’s only because I have to watch him now; to come across De Niro in the 70s… when he made Mean Streets, when he made Taxi Driver, when he made The Godfather and The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull… who he was back then; that’s the reason I’m mad at him now. In Raging Bull he’s a cinderblock; concrete and emptiness. To see him weep when he throws a fight, such manly crying he moves his trainer to tears… He’s the kind of guy who only makes sense because he’s Italian American. Great swells of emotion move him and the country around him stands aghast. Jake should have been born in Italy, somewhere round the Renaissance, when Caravaggio would have painted him and all his violence would have been ok.
How Italian was Scorsese back then? The looks his camera gives to women: both awed and horny (just watch Cathy Moriarty wet her legs in the municipal pool). Whenever Jake isn’t punching people, he’s eating. You learn a lot about a man’s priorities when he gets into a fight over how to cook steak. Then there’s family… the kind of family you have to be Italian (surely) to equal, that older brother/younger brother thing that Michael Corleone would recognise. The way all the men look like they hit each other to stop them from kissing. Ok, so most of that is grossly insulting to Italians. But hey, I’m Welsh – you learn to live with a little ribbing.
Could they make Raging Bull today? Could Martin Scorsese? I doubt it. Raging Bull is as much a product of the 70s as Saturday Night Fever, and it’s about the same guy, give or take a punch. Ordinary People they could make; a Hallmark Channel production, most likely. But Raging Bull comes from a different place. It’s there in De Niro’s weight gain in the later scenes; in the semi-improvised arguments with Joe Pesci; in the casting of Joe Pesci (about as obvious a Scorsese-substitute as I can think of) as Jake LaMotta’s brother, and in the idolisation of a blond girl (Cathy Moriarty)… Marty did well not to kill anyone on Oscar night. Do you even remember Ordinary People?