15 Facts About Raging Bull

Robert De Niro stars in Raging Bull (1980).
Robert De Niro stars in Raging Bull (1980). / Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

It’s the movie that won Robert De Niro his Oscar for Best Actor. It’s the movie that earned Martin Scorsese his first nomination for Best Director. It’s the movie where the guy who would later play Coach on Cheers sees a handsome boxer get mutilated and says, “He ain’t pretty no more.” It’s Raging Bull, and it will punch you in the face. Here are 15 facts to enhance your next viewing of one of the best sports dramas ever made.

1. Raging Bull partially owes its existence to Rocky.

Comparisons to that other Oscar-winning boxing movie from four years earlier were inevitable, but the two were actually connected. Rocky was produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, and released by United Artists. When those same producers approached that same studio about doing another boxing movie, the studio said, “A sequel to Rocky? Sure!” That wasn’t what they had in mind (though they did soon enough), but in the meantime, Rocky’s huge success was enough to sell UA on another boxing movie.

2. Raging Bull was one of several boxing movies being shot around the same time.

Rocky started a trend, as movies that win Best Picture often do. In late 1978 and early 1979, when Scorsese was getting started on Raging Bull, there were at least four others in the works: Rocky II, The Main Event, The Champ, and Matilda (the boxing kangaroo). This glut actually helped Scorsese convince United Artists to let him shoot Raging Bull in black-and-white, as it would make his boxing movie stand out visually from the others. Hey, whatever works, right?

3. For research, Raging Bull screenwriter Mardik Martin lived with Jake LaMotta's ex-wife for a few days.

“Lived with” is how he phrased it on the 30th anniversary Blu-ray. Vickie LaMotta was open enough to the idea of a movie about her ex-husband that she let Martin visit her in Florida and pick her brain about her relationship with the volatile pugilist.

4. Robert De Niro wanted to do Raging Bull as a play, too.

This was in early 1978, before it was even written as a movie yet, when De Niro was collaborating with Mardik Martin to adapt LaMotta’s memoir, while simultaneously trying to convince a noncommittal and increasingly drug-addled Scorsese to take on the project. De Niro’s idea was to stage it as a Broadway play (to be directed by Scorsese), and then, during the run of the show, spend the daylight hours shooting the movie. De Niro liked the idea of the day’s filming influencing the way they performed the play that night. But Martin’s script wasn’t yet ready for either medium, and Scorsese was in no shape to do it then anyway.

5. Paul Schrader fixed the Raging Bull script by adding Jake LaMotta's brother, Joey.

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980).
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980). / Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

It’s strange to imagine Raging Bull without the Joe Pesci character, but that’s how Mardik Martin’s first drafts had it. He was adapting LaMotta’s 1970 memoir, Raging Bull: My Story, co-authored by LaMotta’s lifelong friend Peter Savage (born Peter Petrella). The book didn’t feature Joey as a prominent character, and it had Savage doing most of the things that Joey would eventually do in the movie. When Schrader was hired to build on the work Martin had done and take another stab at the screenplay, he decided the story would be more compelling if it involved brothers rather than friends (blood ties and all that), so he introduced the Joey character and excised poor old Pete. This creative license proved problematic later, when Joey LaMotta sued for defamation because the movie had attributed to him a number of unwholesome deeds (like beating the crap out of a neighborhood mobster) that had actually been perpetrated by Savage.

6. Martin Scorsese shot all the boxing scenes first for Raging Bull, then all the non-boxing scenes.

At opposite ends of the country, too: the boxing was shot in Los Angeles, and everything else was shot on sets and real locations in New York.

7. Jake LaMotta was on the Raging Bull set for the boxing scenes, but not the dramatic ones.

The retired boxer cooperated eagerly with Scorsese and De Niro in making the film, despite its somewhat unflattering depiction of him. (He’d been very frank about his shortcomings in his autobiography.) He was on hand to give technical advice to De Niro when the boxing matches were being shot, for which the actor was grateful. But when it came time to shoot the non-boxing stuff, Scorsese asked him not to tag along. De Niro said that LaMotta understood, “because you don’t want the guy to come over and say, ‘That’s not the way I did it.’ ... You feel like you’re doing it for the approval of someone else.”

8. To make Jake LaMotta's home movies look authentically battered, Martin Scorsese scratched the film negative.

The director himself physically, literally scratched it. With a coat hanger. That’s something you could do when movies were shot on actual film. According to editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the home movies were so realistic looking (and the only color part of the film) that at least one theater projectionist, thinking the lab had mistakenly mixed them in with the print of Raging Bull, tried to cut them out.

9. Joe Pesci was running an Italian restaurant when Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese approached him about being in Raging Bull.

Pesci had been a professional actor and musician (he sang and played guitar) off and on since childhood, but he called it quits in the 1970s. His 1975 Broadway show with comedy partner Frank Vincent (whom he would later recruit to play Salvy in Raging Bull) had closed after a week, and his first movie, 1976’s The Death Collector (also featuring Vincent), was a flop. But Robert De Niro happened to see that film in 1978, and was so impressed by Pesci’s performance that he pitched him to Scorsese. The two tracked Pesci down and called him at his restaurant to coax him out of showbiz retirement.

10. Martin Scorsese had several reasons for shooting Raging Bull in black-and-white.

Among them: color film decayed over time, which wouldn’t be an issue in black-and-white; getting the colors right for a boxing film set in the 1940s and ’50s would have been an extra hassle; and to a generation of people who had grown up in the 1950s watching Madison Square Garden fights every Friday on NBC, boxing was a black-and-white sport. It was the only way they’d ever seen it.

11. There's a good reason why the boxers, referees, cornermen, and announcer seem authentic in Raging Bull: They are.

Scorsese, a stickler for authenticity when it suits him, got real fighters and other boxing professionals (including LaMotta’s actual cornerman) to fill those roles in the film. Even more true to life: the radio commentary we hear during LaMotta’s fights is the real thing, taken from old recordings. Scorsese didn’t think actors could adequately recreate the sound of those old-timey announcers.

12. The size of the ring changes from fight to fight in Raging Bull, depending on Jake LaMotta's frame of mind.

Not through optical illusions, either—Scorsese actually changed the set. The ring is expansive when Jake is elated, fighting Sugar Ray for the first time; it gets smaller and more hellish later.

13. A variety of seeminly out-of-place sound effects made it into Raging Bull's final mix.

You’ll hear an elephant trumpeting and a horse whinnying in one of the fight scenes, suggesting the boxer's animalistic nature. In one of the scenes of domestic violence, a screeching sound is heard that was achieved by pouring dry ice on glass.

14. Raging Bull star Cathy Moriarty was a teen with absolutely no experience.

Cathy Moriarty was just 18 years old when she was cast as Jake LaMotta’s wife. The Bronx-born Catholic girl hadn’t even been a model (“I’m too clumsy,” she said in 1981), much less an actress, when Joe Pesci saw her at a beauty contest and thought she looked right for the part of Vickie LaMotta. Moriarty had never acted professionally at that point, her experience was limited to school plays and such, but she nailed the screen test opposite De Niro—possibly because she wasn’t familiar with the actor’s work, so didn’t realize how big a deal the whole thing was, and wasn’t nervous.

15. Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull over one minor sound issue.

Very late in the post-production process, when the film was due to premiere soon and Scorsese was still tinkering with the final sound mix, producer Irwin Winkler gave him a drop deadline: all work would cease at midnight on a certain night, and that would be it. When the hour arrived, Scorsese was obsessing over one minor line of dialogue someone says to a bartender —“Cutty Sark, please”—which he didn’t think was audible. Winkler told him too bad, we’ve got to send this thing out. Scorsese declared that if Winkler released the film this way, he wanted his name taken off it as director, because it no longer reflected his vision. Winkler said, “So be it.” Like all good producers, he knew that sometimes you have to let an overtired director throw a tantrum and say things he doesn’t really mean. Sure enough, Scorsese recanted sometime later.

Additional Sources:
30th anniversary Blu-ray special features De Niro: A Life by Shawn Levy