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by lisa sabbage | december 22nd, 2000

Boxing Clever - Raging Bull

There is some irony in the fact that, on the 20th anniversary of its release, Raging Bull is regarded as Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. At the time, the director was about as punch-drunk as it is possible to be without actually climbing in the ring, having barely survived a violent bout with cocaine and a whipping by the critics for the patchy New York, New York. Indeed, Scorsese was so battered that he initially passed on the project, dismissing it as another Rocky.

However, the director’s near-death experience changed all that. Suddenly he not only recognised but identified with the unlikable Jake La Motta and his slide from boxing champion to sleazy nightclub owner and third-rate comedian.

"I find these characters fascinating," Scorsese said at the time. "Obviously, I find elements of myself in them and I hope people in the audience do too, and can maybe learn from them and find some sort of peace."

For the director, the film became both a metaphor for his own fall from grace and a chance to redeem himself after the failure of New York, New York and a drug habit that had very nearly killed him. Until then the critics had adored him and his movies, hailing Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver, which won the 1976 Palme d’Or at Cannes. But his early success had fuelled a hedonistic lifestyle that culminated in a series of failed relationships, the critical bashing of 1977, and so many paranoid, violent outbursts that he was put on lithium.

"I was always angry," he recalls of the period, "throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anybody said, something to take offence at."

It all came to a head during the Telluride Film Festival in 1978, when Scorsese — weighing just 109 pounds and snorting coke on top of his asthma medication — started coughing up blood. He returned to New York, where he collapsed, began haemorrhaging and almost died. Depressed and confined to a hospital bed, the director was visited by his friend Robert De Niro, who had given the director a copy of La Motta’s autobiography some years earlier, believing that there might be a movie in it.

The actor begged Scorsese to get straight and commit himself to the project he had been passing on for years. The director, convinced he should be emulating European auteurs by creating personal movies, did not want to touch what he saw as a "boxing picture". But suddenly, at the lowest point in his life, he realised that the rise and fall of Jake La Motta was much like his own exercise in hubris.

"I understood then what Jake was, but only after having gone through a similar experience," he says. "I was just lucky that there happened to be a project there ready for me to express this."

But there were more obstacles to overcome. Scorsese’s producers did not like the early drafts by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, far from convinced that any audience would want to see a film about a man so filled with rage that he beats his pregnant wife when she burns a steak. So the director and his star Robert De Niro holed themselves up in St Martin and reworked the script, combining characters and writing new dialogue.

"When we got back we showed it to Paul," says Scorsese, "who didn’t care for it all that much but, as he wrote in his telegram to us when we began shooting, ‘Jake did it his way, I did it my way, you do it your way.’"

In April, 1979, the director finally got the green light and began shooting the movie he was sure would be his last. Still a ball of frustration and anger, he would pace back and forth in his trailer listening to the Clash while his director of photography set up shots. Indeed, he continued to suffer panic attacks and bouts of paranoia, and once became so enraged about waiting for his DOP that he hurled a chair at his trailer.

If the shoot was troubled, the post-production took most of 1980. The sound mix alone stretched out over six months and by the time Scorsese gave his first screening to a group of invited friends in July, he was an emotional and physical wreck. So it was with some relief that he shook the hand of United Artists executive Andy Albeck, who told him: "Mr Scorsese, you are an Artist."

The director felt even better when he read the first reviews after Raging Bull opened on 14 November, 1980, at the Sutton Theater in New York.

"The best movie of the year," wrote Jack Kroll in Newsweek, a sentiment endorsed by Vincent Canby, who gave it a rave review in the New York Times.

Then, to Scorsese’s horror, a deluge of negative notices began pouring in. Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News missed the point at the same time as she hit it when she called La Motta "one of the most repugnant characters in the history of the movies". She then attacked Scorsese for failing to provide any context for the boxer’s behaviour by ignoring his reform school background.

Still, Scorsese might have gone the duration if he had received the support of his producers at United Artists. Sadly, they were too busy trying to salvage Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate to promote Raging Bull properly, and it bombed at the box office.

Coming so soon after the failure of New York, New York, the disappointment of Raging Bull sent Scorsese reeling. He had always hoped he would be able to achieve success both with critics and the public alike. Now he had to reconsider his whole approach to his career and decide whether to weigh in with the new commercial big-hitters like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, or work on the outside. When his film lost the Oscar for Best Picture to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People and Scorsese was snubbed in the Best Director category, he made his decision.

"When I lost for Raging Bull, that’s when I realised what my place in the system would be, if I did survive at all — on the outside looking in."

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