MGM gave a splashy showcase Monday night at the Academy Museum to its new 4K restoration of one of the crown jewels in its considerable vault, “Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese’s 1980 tour de force for Robert De Niro.
Before the screening, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz conducted a Q&A with four key players from the United Artists production: De Niro, Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Irwin Winkler. Winkler, the legendary 90-year-old producer, was on hand with Mankiewicz while the other three participated via video conference call.
The restoration of “Raging Bull” is a fitting tribute to the filmmaker who has “one more for film preservation than any living filmmaker right now” though his own advocacy, MGM motion pictures chief Michael De Luca noted as he introduced the evening alongside with MGM film president Pam Abdy.
As the “Raging Bull” foursome shared memories of making the movie and perspective on its impact after 40-plus years, Ben Mankiewicz could be forgiven for going over (by a lot) his allotted Q&A time. As demonstrated by screening to a nearly packed (vaccine-screened) house, Scorsese’s take on the highs and lows of 1940s “Bronx Bull” boxer Jake La Motta endures as masterpiece, a blend of grit, arthouse, matchless fight sequences and an Oscar-winning performance by De Niro that stands as a high water mark for an actor’s transformation into a character. (And yet, Joe Pesci nearly steals the picture with his own prowess as La Motta’s brother-manager Joey.)
So yes, Mankiewicz could be forgiven for holding the “Raging Bull” quartet on stage while he had them. “It’s late in New York, Ben,” Scorsese chided at one point.
Here are seven things we learned from revisiting the majesty of movies via “Raging Bull.”
** “Raging Bull” was a long-gestating project. Scorsese and De Niro first began talking about it in 1974 but it took Scorsese some time to understand the character, and both of them were busy. De Niro recalled that he was working on Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900” when he first read La Motta’s biography. “Then I had to do ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ” he said.
** Screenwriter Mardik Martin did the first draft of the “Raging Bull” script but it was Paul Schrader who “cracked it,” De Niro recalled. “Schrader gave us the structure — the biggest problem was the structure,” he said. After that, Winkler sent Scorsese and De Niro to St. Martin in the Caribbean to do a final pass. It took them two and a half weeks. The island setting was perfect for Scorsese. “Since I’m not an island person there was nothing else to do but work on the script,” he said.
** There never would have been a “Raging Bull” without “Rocky II.” Winkler was riding high at MGM/UA at the time after 1976’s “Rocky” proved a smash hit. Winkler agreed to the “Rocky” sequel only if UA would greenlight De Niro’s passion project. De Niro, Scorsese and Winkler were already working together at the time on 1977’s “New York, New York.” The bargain worked out well for both sides. After many more “Rocky” installments, “we’re now making ‘Creed 3’,” Winkler said with a satisfied smile.
** Scorsese admits he had to get over his natural bias of being generally uninterested in sports. Before “Raging Bull,” boxing to the filmmaker was “two small figures on a 12-inch screen hitting each other. And it went on for hours,” he said. His understanding of the material “came through Bob’s interpretation of the character.” Added Winkler, “I never saw a relationship that was as comfortable and as easy as Marty and Bob.”
** The movie’s gritty, grainy black-and-white has never looked so good thanks to the 4K restoration. Scorsese decided that the movie should be done in that format in part because he was concerned about how the contrast of blood spatters from the fighter’s bodies would look against the bright red boxing gloves. “I thought it might be distracting,” he said.
** “Raging Bull” was Schoonmaker’s first narrative feature as an editor after having worked in the documentary realm. She won the Oscar for editing that year. But her triumph was extremely bittersweet because Scorsese lost out in the directing race to Robert Redford for “Ordinary People.” “That broke my heart,” she said. “Worst night of my life.”
** De Niro knew during the making of the film that “Raging Bull” was going to be a career milestone, thanks to all the “love and care” that everyone put into it. Scorsese figured it was the end of his career as a commercial filmmaker. “It was the end,” Scorsese joked. “I was going to start a new life.” De Niro had faith. “I knew it would be a special movie and that it would be remembered,” De Niro said. “What more could you ask for?”
** Bonus fun fact: Scorsese had the crowd laughing as he described his years in the 1970s living in Los Angeles, wearing boots and beads and learning how to drive. Actor David Carradine picked out the perfect set of wheels for the director: a 1960 Corvette.
(Pictured top: Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Irwin Winkler)