Scorsese's Almost Last Movie: 'Raging Bull' Turns 40

Credit: United Artists
Martin Scorsese's masterpiece almost marked the end of his career and his life. 

I hope you never know what rock bottom feels like. I hope that your life takes you in directions that steer you away from the pain and tragedy that can push you to the end of your rope.

But for the people who are there, who feel like they can't get out of that pit of despair, know that it is possible to climb out. You must take the steps needed to survive and come back. You're not alone. Even the great Martin Scorsese was there once. Raging Bull was what he thought would be his last movie. 

But it wasn't. 

Raging Bull is a 1980 American biographical sports drama produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and adapted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin from Jake LaMotta's 1970 memoir Raging Bull: My Story.

At this year’s closing night for the Tribeca Film Festival, Robert De Niro and Scorsese sat down to reflect on how the movie came to be. 

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci on the set of 'Raging Bull' (1980) Credit: Brian Hamill

De Niro and Scorsese were from the same neighborhoods in New York. They knew each other, they knew the people from these places, and they could work together with a shorthand. They had done it on Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. And each of them had careers outside of one another. Still, they knew how strong that collaboration could be, and even as each of them drifted toward different pictures and passions, they maintained the desire to work together. 

The project De Niro really wanted Scorsese to embrace was a boxing movie, but Scorsese wasn't into sports. He thought boxing was boring and he didn't get it. Still, De Niro carried around LaMotta’s memoir and was always talking about it. 

Scorsese is quoted as saying, “The idea of, ‘Let’s get two guys into the ring and let them hit each other,’ was something I didn’t—couldn’t—grasp.” 

Meanwhile, Scorsese was going through something kind of dark. He was using drugs and partying way too much. It went from just a way to release tension to a huge addiction problem. His health was failing, and he was still a young man. Scorsese was on the verge of death, he was in the hospital and he was thinking, “I didn’t know if I could be inspired to make another movie,” he said. 

For Scorsese, getting the opportunity to make Raging Bull was a “rebirth, in a way.”

'Raging Bull'Credit: Allstar/Cinetext/United Artists

When he left the hospital, he joined De Niro on the island of St Maarten and the two of them got to work refining the script written by Mardik Martin with a rewrite from Paul Schrader. Together, De Niro and Scorsese were able to polish and adjust the story they wanted to tell. When they got back from the trip they made it their mission to get the movie made. 

They showed up on set ready to make a movie that was an allegory for their lives. Every time you make a movie, it's like entering the ring to fight. 

As Scorsese said, “I made it as if this was the end of my life. Over. Suicide film. I didn’t care if I made another movie… In a way, it wiped me out. I had to start all over and learn again. Every day on the shoot, ‘This is the last one, and we’re going for it.’”

In the end, the two of them produced a masterpiece. It's a movie that defied what the book was and became about something bigger than these two men. It made money at the box office but even more importantly, it launched them into the stratosphere as filmmakers. They were men of vision and importance. 

The legacy of the film lives on today. In the 40 years since its release, it's been on countless "greatest of" lists. In 1990, the movie became the first film to be selected in its first year of eligibility for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The American Film Institute ranked it as the fourth-greatest American movie of all time. 

Let us know your favorite parts of the movie in the comments.      

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