• Actor: Robert De Niro
• Character: Jake LaMotta
• Film: Raging Bull
Robert DeNiro has delivered countless performances that could be considered some of the screen’s very best. In fact, there’s so much to choose from that it’s hard to single out one particular role. Many people have differing opinions on his body of work but for me it’s hard to look past his role as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 biopic Raging Bull.
This was a film that reinstated Scorsese’s reputation for quality – after the monumental critical failure of New York, New York in 1977. But it might not have even made it to the screen had it not been for DeNiro and his passion for the project. While filming The Godfather part II, DeNiro had actually been reading LaMotta’s biography Raging Bull: My Story and approached his friend Marty to help him put it together. At the time, Scorsese was in hospital with internal bleeding due to a spiralling lithium and cocaine habit and was very reluctant to approach another boxing film after the critical and commercial success of Rocky. However, he identified with the struggle of LaMotta and the project went ahead with Mean Streets screenwriter Mardik Martin and Taxi Driver‘s Paul Schrader working on the script.
Jake “The Bronx Bull” LaMotta was a prize-winning middleweight boxer in the 1940’s & 50’s who had a reputation for being brutal and unrelenting in the ring. LaMotta also had a propensity for self-destruction which would manifest in abusive behaviour towards his wife Vickie, and trainer/brother Joey outside the ring and it’s this complexity that DeNiro embraces and embodies with a tour-de-force performance.
To accurately portray the younger LaMotta, DeNiro trained extensively with the man himself and with a strong commitment to method, he entered into three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches. He won two of them and LaMotta has stated that DeNiro could have become a professional fighter and training or managing him would have been a pleasure.
Following this, production was stopped for three months and DeNiro moved to Paris to eat at the finest restaurants in order to gain the sufficient weight to portray LaMotta after retirement. He gained 60 pounds and his transformation has now become legendary and highly respected among critics, viewers and his peers as a masterclass in the profession.
So startled was Scorsese by DeNiro’s weight gain, he considered shutting down production again, fearing for the actor’s health. However, to dwell on DeNiro’s appearance (impressive as it is) it almost takes away from his work in general. It’s not just the physical transformations that are astonishing, it’s also his emotional resonance; DeNiro is absolutely ferocious and manages to portray the raging jealousy and psychosexual insecurity that afflicted LaMotta. He captures the short-tempered, animalistic mentality of the man and the simmering intensity that he displays is a nerve-wracking experience. Rarely has the human psyche been so searingly displayed in a performance and to make a highly unlikable and unappealing individual such captivating viewing is the truest testament to DeNiro’s work here.
Oscars? – If ever an Academy Award was deserved it’s DeNiro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta. He rightly took home the leading actor Oscar in 1981 and you could say, it wasn’t just his performance that earned it but his absolute commitment and conviction to the endeavour overall. Unequivocally, one of cinema’s most significant acting achievements.
(More of my Polished Performances can be found here)