Polished Performances

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)

41 Responses to “Polished Performances”

  1. For more on DeNiro I highly recommend my good friend Michael’s excellent post for his take on 13 Robert DeNiro pairings:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very kindly, Mark, for the linkage. Yeah, it’s hard not to think of ‘Raging Bull’ when discussing Robert De Niro. What a performance and film, both definitive.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great post, Michael. It was synchronicity that we had DeNiro in mind today. I like to include him in my blog as often as possible (as you may have noticed) 😉

        Yeah, so many great performances from him but I really can’t get over how powerful and transformative he is as Jake LaMotta. It’s probably my all-time favourite performance, not just by Bob himself, but by any actor.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant post! I certainly think this film is one that I need to watch again. De Niro is fantastic, think I need a reminder of that after his awful choices in recent years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers Caz! His choices have certainly been questionable over recent times. Silver Linings is probably the last I seen where he genuinely seemed to be making an effort. It’s a shame that younger filmgoers probably don’t fully realise just how magnificent he once was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • He was brilliant with Cooper in Silver Linings, I loved that film. I know it’s so sad! Even I knew him from Meet the Parents first, but watched older films since then.

        Liked by 1 person

      • He was great and thoroughly deserved his Oscar nomination. I just wish he’d give as much commitment as he used to. It’s hard for me as I kinda grew up watching DeNiro in the likes of Midnight Run, Awakenings and Cape Fear. I admittedly had to go back and watch his 70’s stuff (and his best) but I always remember how he was revered. Sadly, people don’t say that anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Polished performance and polished piece. Nice trivia – where can I find a job that pays me to get fat in Paris? I mean, besides mine, occasionally.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, that’s a coincidence! I started watching this last night for the first time ever. I love that it’s in black and white – so appropriate in terms of recreating a sense of that time. I have to admit that I don’t much like films about boxing but I’ll persist and finish watching it today. Certainly very good to see Robert DeNiro doing his real thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s strange that I chose to post this when I did. My good friend Michael done a post on DeNiro the same day (the link is at the beginning of the comments and worth a look) and then you were actually watching DeNiro. Maybe it’s because DeNiro’s birthday has just been and somewhere we were all tuned into that?!

      I totally agree on the effectiveness of the black & white. Not only does it provide a sense of time but it doesn’t go down the well worn path of blood red boxing pics. It certainly has its blood spattering moments, though. Incase the boxing is actually putting you off, don’t worry too much. The actual boxing bouts only make up about 10mins of the film. It’s a primarily a character piece and DeNiro is sooo good.


  5. What an amazing actor this guy is. I mean, Jesus. I finally saw this the other month and was utterly blown away. DeNiro is scary in this. Great selection for the feature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know how I feel on the man, Tom. I honestly think he’s an absolute master of his craft. Daniel Day-Lewis is the only actor that comes close in therms of method and ferocity (and even he credits DeNiro as an influence).

      Glad to hear you finally got around to it. It’s hard viewing at times and, yeah, DeNiro is genuinely frightening. I mean how do you defend yourself against a guy like that when his hands are lethal weapons and he’s also got a fucking screw loose? Jesus Fuck!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What can be said about this role that hasn’t already? One of Bobby D’s best performances (second to Travis Bickle in my book), and by that reasoning one of the best of all time. Great write-up Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s really difficult picking a favourite performance from Bob. Travis, Johnny Boy, Rupert Pupkin. There just so many absolute beauties. I’m always drawn back to Jake LaMotta, though. DeNiro’s intensity is unbearable at times. And, yip, without doubt one of the best of all time. I would say it IS the best.

      Thanks, as always, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it’s fair to say this is a polished performance! In fact it’s one of cinema’s greatest. This movie – and De Niro’s turn as La Motta – opened my eyes to what cinema was capable of and it remains an absolute masterclass.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great tribute, Mark. I haven’t seen it in decades. I wonder what my older eyes would think of it? I must rent it soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I enjoyed reading this Mark. De Niro turns in a really transformative performance here, just wow.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You’ve nailed it in terms of choice and reasoning.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. […] Hands of Stone is standard fare. Rags-to-riches tale traces Durán (Edgar Ramírez)’s rise from troublemaking youngster with a penchant for bareknuckle brawling in the slums of his hometown El Chorrillo to a magnetizing presence inside Madison Square Garden. It also suggests he may not have gone that route sans the physical training and psychological conditioning he received from legendary trainer Ray Arcel (a really good Robert DeNiro). […]

    Liked by 1 person

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