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(Credit: United Artists)

Film

Why Martin Scorsese nearly abandoned 'Raging Bull'

Martin Scorsese’s early success in the 1970s came with Mean Streets in 1973, a film that marked the beginning of a lucrative career collaborating with acting star Robert De Niro. Mean Streets’ successful formula of gritty realism and the stark reflection of inner-city life was brought to a climax in 1976 with the release of Scorsese’s magnum opus, Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and starring De Niro. 

By the decade’s close, Scorsese had begun to create an immortal legacy, as had De Niro. It was at this juncture that De Niro handed Scorsese a copy of middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta’s memoir, Raging Bull: My Story, written with Peter Savage and Joseph Carter. At first, Scorsese dismissed De Niro’s idea of adapting the true story for a new film project. 

However, within months, Scorsese found himself in the director’s chair on the set of a sports drama with deep feelings of regret. Speaking with Robert De Niro at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Scorsese admitted that he had some doubts in the early stages of production: “When the time came to do Raging Bull, I resisted for a while — for a few years, actually – because I didn’t understand boxing. I suddenly realised, ‘This is overwhelming, I can’t shoot this.’”

With the June 1977 release of New York New York, Scorsese had experienced a critical and commercial fall from grace following Taxi Driver. It was at around the same time that the Italian-American director had turned his nose up at De Niro’s suggestion of telling LaMotta’s story. 

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Undeterred, De Niro brought the novel to producer Irwin Winkler’s attention. Fortunately, Winkler saw the story’s potential and agreed to produce it if they could get Scorsese to commit. Re-energised, De Niro managed to get the sceptical Scorsese to read a few chapters of the memoir. 

Scorsese then gave the book to Mardik Martin, with whom he co-wrote Mean Streets. Martin, too, wasn’t so keen on the idea. He told Scorsese that as far as sports movies go, “the damn thing has been done a hundred times.” It wasn’t until a year or so later that Martin changed his tune and brought an idea to Scorsese’s attention.

After giving the memoir a read, Mardik Martin came up with an excellent idea for a movie scene. Writer Peter Biskind quoted Mardik Martin’s proposition to Scorsese in his New Hollywood account, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “I got one good scene that you’re gonna like. You have these gladiators, see, just like in Rome, two guys, fighting each other, and you got all these rich people fur coats, tuxedos, sitting in the front row, and Bobby gets punched in the face, and his nose starts to squirt blood, and it splatters all over these rich people’s clothes and furs.”

Following this proposition, Scorsese’s imagination began to stir, and he decided to humour the idea with more enthusiasm. After three early drafts of the script failed to materialise to any degree of satisfaction, United Artists brought in Taxi Driver writer, Paul Schrader, to tie up the loose ends. 

While originally intending to keep the film concurrent with the true story, Schrader rewrote the adaption to include the all-important dynamic between Jake and his brother/manager Joey (portrayed by Joe Pesci). 

After a long period of anxiety – mainly on Scorsese’s behalf – and a series of setbacks, including some concern over a potential X rating (Schrader drafted a gruelling jail cell masturbation scene that horrified studio executives, which had to be edited out), Raging Bull was released in 1980. The film received mixed reviews upon its release but has since earned widespread critical and commercial acclaim. It even scooped up Oscars for De Niro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. 

Watch the official trailer for Martin Scorsese’s 1980 classic, Raging Bull, below.