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Boxing clever: why Raging Bull packs a punch, 40 years on

Martin Scorsese loathed boxing and had to be persuaded to make the legendary biopic by its star, Robert De Niro. Perhaps that's why it's a sports movie like no other, writes Paul Whitington

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Powerful: actor Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance as boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull

Powerful: actor Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance as boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull

Powerful: actor Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance as boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull

It's been called the best boxing picture, the best sports picture and has even appeared on lists of the greatest films ever made. But there's something odd about Raging Bull, an almost deliberate dissonance, a stubborn refusal to follow the traditional arc of redemptive sporting biopics. Most boxing movies glorify the so-called noble art, contrasting the bravery of those who choose to make a career of it with the venality of agents, promoters and hangers-on, but Raging Bull seems positively disgusted by pugilism, and misses no opportunity to debunk any romantic illusions the audience may have about it. It's a boxing picture that hates boxing, and that's probably because its creator did too.

Raging Bull was released in America 40 years ago this week, and didn't exactly light up the box office. A two-hour black and white drama about a self-hating, wife-beating boxer wasn't an easy sell, and Scorsese's film only just about managed to recoup its then-sizeable $18m budget. Though critics liked it, and Robert De Niro's performance won him the Best Actor Oscar, the film's greatness would only be fully appreciated over time.

It's De Niro's film every bit as much as it is Scorsese's. They worked on final drafts of the screenplay together, it was De Niro who persuaded Scorsese to cast Joe Pesci (an unknown actor who was running an Italian restaurant at the time) as Jake LaMotta's long-suffering brother, Joey. It was De Niro who persuaded him to make the film in the first place.


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