Celebrating the anniversary of a film's release date is usually a clear sign that it means a lot to a lot of people. In marking three decades since Scorsese and De Niro combined (again) to introduce us to Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, however, we are talking about the next level of cinema - one of the high water marks of modern film making. Thirty years since one of the greatest directors of all time teamed up with one of the greatest actors of his generation to tell La Motta's story we now bring you a fact for each year since.
1. During the gym sparring sequence, you can hear an “Oof” from Joe Pesci [Joey, La Motta’s brother]. That reaction is real, as De Niro broke his rib.
2. Robert De Niro read Jake La Motta’s memoir Raging Bull in 1974 while making The Godfather: Part II and saw the story’s potential. It took four years of drafts, persuasion and pestering to get his friend and collaborator Martin Scorsese interested.
3. When Jake asks Joey, “Did you f*ck my wife?”, Scorsese didn’t think Pesci’s facial reaction was strong enough. Unbeknown to Pesci, he told De Niro to say, “Did you f*ck your mother?” instead and got the desired take.
4. Scorsese originally intended to cut back and forth between the boxing Jake La Motta and his older, heavier self’s stand-up routine throughout the film. But after watching rough cuts, he realised it worked better as a framing device at either end of the film.
5. Scorsese’s father Charles made his film debut as one of Mob boss Tommy Como’s cronies. He’s one of the wiseguys crowded round the Copacabana nightclub table. He’s since made cameos in seven of his son’s films.
6. The last and hardest role to cast was Jake’s second wife Vickie. Casting director Cis Corman auditioned 200 actresses, searching for someone with the right combination of sexuality and strength. Pesci spotted 18-year-old Bronx schoolgirl Cathy Moriarty in a nightclub. She’d never acted before, so Corman coached her for two weeks before taking her to meet Scorsese and De Niro.
7. The love scene between Vickie and Jake, with her kissing his stomach, was originally written by Paul Schrader to finish on La Motta masturbating and dipping his penis into a bucket of ice. It was later scaled back to pouring ice down his pants. This is more faithful to La Motta’s book: before fights, he would allow himself to get aroused, then withdraw from orgasm as a way to toughen himself up.
8. To achieve a feeling of brotherhood, De Niro and Pesci lived and trained with each other before filming began. They’ve been close friends since.
9. The first screenplay was written by Mardik Martin, who co-wrote Mean Streets. Martin has a cameo in the film as the Copa waiter who brings the brothers drinks sent over by Tommy Como and is dismissed by Jake when he tries to take the half-drunk ones away.
10. Paul Schrader rewrote Martin’s script with two major changes. He started the story in the middle of La Motta’s career, rather than at the beginning, and reinstated the character of his brother — Jake had written him out of his book after they fell out.
11. Scorsese used slow motion in many of La Motta’s point-of-view scenes outside the ring to give them paranoid intensity, especially when he’s looking at Vickie with envy or suspicion.
12. Scorsese wanted La Motta’s brutal beating in his final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson to feel like a horror film, so he based the rapid cuts on the shower scene from Psycho, even using Alfred Hitchcock’s original shot list.
13. Peter Savage, co-writer of La Motta’s original book, has a cameo as the journalist chatting to Joey at the bar, before he assaults mobster Salvy.
14. The later scenes with weighty La Motta were shot with minimal takes because De Niro would tire so quickly. Scorsese was at one stage so startled by the weight gain and his star’s laboured breathing that he shut down production, fearing for De Niro’s health.
15. De Niro asked editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s husband, director Michael Powell, how British actor Roger Livesey had gained weight for the title role in Powell and Pressburger’s war satire The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. Powell explained that he didn’t — they did it with a body double, wardrobe and cheek padding. But De Niro still decided to gain weight for real.
16. To contrast with De Niro gaining weight for the final act, Pesci lost weight and grew a moustache.
17. When De Niro won his Oscar for Best Actor, the real-life Jake La Motta was there to see it. On the same night, Sissy Spacek won the Best Actress award for Coal Miner’s Daughter — playing country singer Loretta Lynn, who was also in the audience.
18. The f-bomb is dropped 114 times during the film, but the vast majority were added during Pesci and De Niro’s improvisations.
19. When La Motta takes a hammer to his title belt, crockery wasn’t supposed to fall off the nearby shelf. But De Niro and Moriarty stayed in character and their subsequent reaction and lines were improvised.
20. The two men grappling La Motta into his jail cell were real prison guards. They were shaken by the ferocity and strength with which De Niro struggled.
21. In Schrader’s script, La Motta tries to masturbate in his prison cell but can’t climax because he’s haunted by memories of his bad treatment of women. He finally gives up in anger, blames his hands and smashes them against the wall. Scorsese and De Niro dropped this and instead had La Motta bashing his head on the wall, wailing, “I’m not an animal!”
22. The final soliloquy that La Motta recites into the mirror was originally one from Shakespeare’s Richard III, but Michael Powell suggested it should be American. Scorsese eventually plumped for the “I could have been a contender” speech from On The Waterfront.
23. For the home movie sequences, Scorsese’s cameramen couldn’t stop themselves framing shots correctly. He solved the problem by handing the 16mm camera to the crew working on-set, whose shaky footage gave that homemade feel. He then personally scraped the film with a wire coat hanger to rough it up.
24. In the opening scene of Schrader’s script, La Motta’s first wife was pregnant and the argument over the steak spiralled until he began beating and kicking her. The violence was scaled back as it was too brutal a way to begin the film.
25. De Niro gained weight for the later scenes by going on a culinary tour of Italy and France, bingeing on three large meals per day, with lots of pasta, meat, butter, ice cream and beer. He gained 60lb in four months and said, “The first 15lb was fun, the rest was hard work.”
26. Sharon Stone auditioned for the part of Vickie La Motta but didn’t get it. But she did get to play De Niro’s wife 15 years later in Casino — which was also directed by Scorsese.
27. To prepare for the part, De Niro fought in three real Brooklyn boxing matches — winning two of them. He also sparred hundreds of rounds in a 14th Street gym with La Motta, who said he was professional standard and one of the best 20 middleweights he’d ever seen.
28. The scene where La Motta and his entourage walk down the stadium corridors, up through the crowd and enter the ring for the Cerdan fight is shot continuously on Steadicam, similar to Henry and Karen Hill’s nightclub entrance in GoodFellas a decade later.
29. Scorsese went to boxing bouts at Madison Square Garden for inspiration and was struck by two details he spotted: a blood-soaked sponge wiped across the fighter’s back and blood dripping off the ropes. He included both in the film’s final fight scene.
30. Scorsese makes an off-camera appearance during the final scene as the stagehand who tells La Motta he has to go on in five minutes.
Images: Allstar, Rex