Little known fact: when movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did their countdown of the ten best movies of the year at the close of 1980, Siskel put Raging Bull in the number one slot while his companion in the next seat named The Black Stallion the best film of the year. Ten years later when the film critics did a special identifying their respective choices for the ten best movies of the past decade, Raging Bull proved that no other movie made in the intervening ten years had been impressed Gene Siskel. This time around, Martin Scorsese’s intense boxing biopic of former middleweight champion of the world Jake LaMotta also topped Ebert’s list. As for The Black Stallion? It was nowhere to be found on either’s list. Like so many other films released in 1980, it has faded into the background cast by the long shadow of the legacy of Raging Bull.
Those were not the only lists compiled of the best movies of the 1980s on which Raging Bull was crowned the champ. In fact, more critics placed this intensely violent, beautifully filmed black & white masterpiece at the top of their lists than all the other films chosen by other top critics as the best of the ‘80s combined. As a testament to the power of the film to grow on Roger Ebert over the course of decade, Raging Bull managed to make the truly spectacular leap from number 24 on the first American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time released in 1998 to the number 4 on their updated edition ten years later.
Pretty darn impressive stuff for a movie that Martin Scorsese felt was going to be the last one that Hollywood would allow him to direct. After rising to prominence as one of the leading figures in the American New Wave cinema that transformed American films in the late 1960s and 1970s (a list that includes Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma) with gritty, low-budget, semi-documentary hits from Mean Street to Taxi Driver to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the bearded golden-boy from New York suddenly found the doors of studio execs closing in his face following the high-profile critical and commercial flop of his splashy tribute to old Hollywood musicals, New York, New York.
In the decades since that film’s release, its critical stature has grown and in retrospect its legacy among infamous movie flops finds it down pretty low on the list. At the time, however, the combination of Scorsese’s “going Hollywood” and not delivering found him two years removed from his last theatrical narrative job and ready to throw everything he knew about filmmaking into his next project which he was certain would be his last.
If Raging Bull is proof of anything, it is proof of the brilliance that an artist can create when he feels he has nothing left to lose. Shooting a movie about a distinctly repulsive protagonist in black & white in the post-Star Wars blockbuster mindset was just the first no-holds-barred decision Scorsese made with Raging Bull. There’s also the fact that scenes shot inside the ring take up only 18 minutes of the boxing movie’s more than two-hour running time. Then there was four month break in shooting so Robert DeNiro could gain 60 pounds to more realistically portray the older LaMotta after he let his once magnificent physique go to pot. There is no uplifting victory at the end to allow the audience to leave the theater with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
In fact, the closest the movie ever comes to a Rockyesque moment follows LaMotta’s last fight in the movie, a brutal loss to Sugar Ray Robinson in which his only claim to any sort of triumph is reminding the legendary champ that while he once put Ray down to the canvas, Robinson never managed to knock him down. Slow-motion, weird sound effects, a cheesy color 8mm home movie camera montage and unceasing domestic violence directed toward wives and brothers all combine to make Raging Bull one of the most coherent and uncompromising personal artistic visions ever financed by a major Hollywood studio.
Ultimately, about the only people left alive who saw the film upon its initial release who did not reach an majority agreement on the status of Raging Bull as the best film of 1980 are those Oscar voters who instead awarded that particular honor to Ordinary People. The only consolation for fans of the film is that at least the Academy recognized the titanic performance of Robert DeNiro and the extraordinary editing of Thelma Schoonmaker.