Incredibly, when Raging Bull hit the big screen 40 years ago this weekend, it was met with a collective shrug and a bit of a “meh”. Now considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, its initial lack of success was largely down to Sylvester Stallone’s two Rocky films (1976, 1979) that had set the blueprint for big brash American boxing movies: hero comes from nothing, wins small, loses big, wins even bigger. End.
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull makes for far less wholesome entertainment, a cold look at the American dream that entwines the brutality of boxing with organised crime, domestic violence and the dangers of family loyalty. In real life Jake LaMotta was a violent man, both inside and outside the ring, who beat his wives and fought his boxing opponents close and dangerous. His book, Raging Bull, My Story appeared in 1970 and 10 years later Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese brought his turbulent character to life on the big screen. But enough of the heavy stuff, let’s get into the trivia. And as the movie is 40 years old, we’ve gone for 40 facts. Obvs. Enjoy!
1. Despite all the Academy Award nominations, the subject matter and big names involved, Raging Bull wasn’t a hit. It cost $18m to make, and took $23m at the box office. As some kind of comparison, Stallone’s Rocky, made a few years earlier, cost $960k to make, and made $225m.
2. And unlike the Rocky movies, which relied on lots of camera angles, the Raging Bull scenes were shot with one camera, giving the audience the impression that they are right there in the ring.
3. Robert De Niro worked with Jake LaMotta during filming, but to get the other side of the story, original screenwriter Mardik Martin (who had met Scorsese at New York University and worked with him on Mean Streets) spent some time interviewing Jake’s wife, Vikki LaMotta. “Was I really that bad?” Jake asked her after seeing the film. “No,” she said, “You were worse.”
4. De Niro was so determined to come across as a professional boxer he actually took part in three (or four, depending on who you ask) boxing matches in Brooklyn, winning two of them on points.
5. LaMotta sparred with De Niro for hundreds of rounds to get him fight ready and it paid off. When you see De Niro rapidly close the distance on Sugar Ray for example, the short two-step footwork is identical to LaMotta’s.
6. Jake didn’t mention his brother Joey in the book, but the screenwriters decided they needed some sibling rivalry to help drive along the story. Joey wasn’t impressed and sued the producers.
7. The boxing ring actually gets physically bigger the worse Jake’s mental state becomes. It was a cinematic trick replicated by Brian De Palma in Scarface - Tony Montana’s chair (and indeed all his furniture) gets bigger as he becomes crazier.
8. In one scene De Niro actually breaks Joe Pesci’s rib with a thundering body shot. If you want to know what that feels like, watch the film, as they left Pesci’s reaction in the final cut. Ouch.
9. Approaching 40 years old, Joe Pesci had decided he would never make it as an actor and had opened his own restaurant. It apparently took some convincing to get him to stop cooking and start acting again.
10. Once in, Pesci opened the doors for his friends, suggesting Cathy Moriarty who at that time was a completely unknown actress (she would work with De Niro again on Analyse That in 2002) and his pal, Frank Vincent, who he had worked with as part of a comedy double act years before.
11. You can tell the scene location simply by what’s happening on the screen. If they are boxing, it was shot in Los Angeles. If they are not boxing, it was shot in New York. Simples.
12. Red blood doesn’t really work in black and white film, so the blood you see is chocolate.
13. Here’s one for the profanity fans. The word “fuck” appears 114 times in the film. By the time Scorsese made Casino however, they were getting good at swearing - “fuck” appears 422 times in that film.
14. De Niro read Jake’s autobiography between takes on the set of The Godfather: Part II and suggested it to director Martin Scorsese, who was going through a rough patch in his career after the disaster that was his 1977 film, New York, New York.
15. Not being a boxing fan, “What do I know about boxing? I don’t like boxing,” Scorsese point blank refused to make the film when De Niro suggested it. Fortunately for the cinematic universe, De Niro doesn’t take no for an answer.
16. Washed up on cocaine, Scorsese genuinely thought that Raging Bull was going to be his final film before he retired - and this was in 1980!
17. De Niro won an Oscar for his performance, but the team went to the event having been nominated for eight awards, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. Only another film on the night was nominated for eight awards. That film? The Elephant Man.
18. Believe it or not, there are less than 10 minutes of boxing in the whole film. There’s probably less than 10 minutes without boxing in the Rocky films (that’s a pure guess, don’t watch Rocky with a stopwatch just to prove this fact wrong).
19. The film states that Jake LaMotta was never knocked down, which must have come as a hell of a surprise to Danny Nardico, who knocked him down at the Coliseum, Coral Gables, Florida on New Year’s Eve 1952.
20. Worried about his friend’s weight gain, Scorsese asked De Niro to use make-up and prosthetics instead of just getting fat. Instead, De Niro went to Italy and spent a few months bingeing on pasta.
21. Scorsese has a cameo but you don’t see him. He’s there in the final scene telling LaMotta he has five minutes until showtime.
22. Before he was Jesus in The Big Lebowski, before he was Seymour Simmons in Transformers, John Turturro was ‘man sitting at the table at Webster Hall’ in Raging Bull.
23. Bizarrely, De Niro and Turturro have both played a character called Billy Sunday, in different films. And it’s a different Billy Sunday. Mind blown.
24. Considering this was the first film they had worked on, Scorsese, Pesci and Frank Vincent clearly got on well enough, because they went on to do Goodfellas, Casino and The Irishman together.
25. Joe Pesci was 37 when he played the 16-year-old Joey LaMotta.
26. Scorsese’s dad, Charles, made it into the film. He’s one of the gangsters parked up at the Copacabana table. He must have enjoyed the experience as he has a cameo in seven of Martin’s films.
27. The commentary playing throughout Jake’s fight with Sugar Ray is the actual television commentary from the fight.
28. Scorsese went for black and white to put some distance between his boxing movie and the slew of action films that were arriving hot on the heels of the Rocky franchise.
29. You looking at me? Paul ‘Taxi Driver’ Schrader was also the screenwriter for Raging Bull.
30. De Niro’s weight gain frightened Scorsese so much he paused production until Robert’s body had stabilised.
31. Considering how hard he lived his life, LaMotta went right through to 2017, passing away in a nursing home at the age of 95.
32. The real life brother, Joey LaMotta, died in September 1998 on the Swissair Flight 111 plane tragedy. In an unrelated curiosity, two paintings by Pablo Picasso, including The Painter, were also destroyed in the crash.
33. De Niro put on 60lbs for the role by eating pasta, pancakes, beer and milk three times a day: “The first 15lb was fun, the rest was hard work.”
34. Jake LaMotta isn’t in this film, but you can see him as the barman in The Hustler with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason.
35. To form a plausible bond as brothers on-screen, De Niro and Pesci moved in together. Imagine waking up to find those two in your house every day. Terrifying.
36. If the final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson feels like a horror film, there’s a reason for that. Scorsese looked to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for inspiration, using the original shot list to get the rapid-cut scenes just right.
37. As well as making the ring look bigger for the scenes where LaMotta was struggling, Scorsese insisted Pesci look smaller for the scenes where DeNiro is at his heaviest by making him grow a moustache. Sounds crazy, but it worked.
38. Sharon Stone went for the role of LaMotta’s wife, Vikki, but didn’t get it. Fifteen years later she appeared with the gang in Casino.
39. The sound of the punches aren’t real punches, they are fruit being squashed.
40. As the story goes, after watching an early preview, cinematographer Michael Chapman said to screenwriter Paul Schrader, “Marty really fucked that one up, didn’t he?” Schrader agreed, “Yeah, I don’t know what went wrong there.” Fortunately they were both wrong, and we are still writing about the film 40 years later.