Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film “Raging Bull” is considered by many to be his masterpiece. While I would argue that “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas” earn that distinction more, “Bull” is a great film and genuine cinema classic. On its surface, “Bull” is a biopic about former middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta. However, it’s also a biopic of Scorsese himself.
Where this story really begins is in 1976. After the critical and popular success of his film “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese directed an ambitious big-budget musical called “New York, New York,” which was released in the summer of 1977. The film did not fare well with critics or with the public, who flocked to a little film called “Star Wars” instead. Scorsese had his first flop and his drug intake grew increasingly worse. While he kept busy making two documentaries (“The Last Waltz” and “American Prince”), his personal life grew more dark and chaotic.
From Peter Biskind’s fantastic book about 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”: “Scorsese knew he was acting badly, driving people away from him, but he couldn’t help it. He says, ‘I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anyone said, something to take offense at. I’d be the host, but at some point during the evening, I’d flip out, just like when I’m shooting.'”
Robert DeNiro really wanted to make “Raging Bull” and Scorsese half-heartedly agreed to direct it, more as a favor to his longtime friend and collaborator. However, he couldn’t find the hook that made him really want to make it. Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Mardik Martin started a screenplay, but Scorsese was no longer listening to Martin’s suggestions and wanted Martin to add a lot of things to the script that had nothing to do with the story. When Scorsese suggested having Paul Schrader (the writer of “Taxi Driver”) come in for a polish, Martin seemed relieved to finally be done with it.
Schrader grudgingly agreed to work on the script, but advised that the script needed a rewrite, not a polish. Schrader had trouble adding depth to a character who he saw as a Neanderthal. Schrader and DeNiro pushed each other in terms of how unpleasant a character could be and have people still care about him. Schrader added a lot of raw, powerful scenes … some of which made it into the final film.
It was at that point that Scorsese got hold of some bad cocaine, which made him cough up blood and black out. He eventually started bleeding out of every part of his body and went to the hospital. He was told he had no platelets, that he was bleeding internally everywhere. The doctor made him stop all drugs and pumped him full of cortisone. Scorsese was in the hospital several days recovering. At that stage, Scorsese had dropped to 109 pounds. Eventually, he got better, but his doctor told him that he would die if he did not change his lifestyle. It was at that stage that Scorsese finally found the hook for “Bull” … the self-destructiveness, the emotional damage to his friends and family for no other reason that some sick desire to bottom out. He realized he was LaMotta.
Scorsese got clean and directed “Bull.” The film did well with critics and at many of the year-end awards (DeNiro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta), but did only so-so at the box office. The film was just too brutal and depressing for most people, and still is. “Bull” is not exactly a film you want to watch after a hard day at work. But it is one hell of a film and keeps growing in esteem over the years. It is roundly considered the best film of the 1980s and many consider it one of the best films ever made.
The attached clip is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s where LaMotta challenges his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face repeatedly and it’s a clear illustration of the depths LaMotta’s self-destructiveness can sink. The scene has elements of dark humor, but it’s incredibly disturbing and depressing at its core. Due to some very rough and beyond politically incorrect language and violence, the scene is absolutely not safe for work or little ones.