AFI #4: Raging Bull

ragingbullListen to me carefully because I’m only going to say this once — there has never been a better acting performance in the history of motion pictures than Robert De Niro’s performance as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Go ahead and think of one…I’ll wait. Are you done? Good. I’m glad we agree and it is settled.

Clearly De Niro became Jake LaMotta for two hours. He inhabited him like a soul and delivered unto film the most awe-inspiring, raw and powerful performance of all time. You truly can’t take your eyes of the screen during the film. When you look into De Niro’s eyes you feel the pain and fear and insecurities of the man and you explode with emotion just as he does whether it’s in the ring or in his personal life. LaMotta’s self-doubt turns to raw energy and it becomes the force that enables him to tear men apart in the ring, but when it’s over you feel sorry for LaMotta rather than his opponents because he is still not satisfied with what he has done. I wonder how a person can have so much yet need so much more?

Everyone knows the story of how De Niro became Jake LaMotta. The former middleweight champ was an adviser on the film and De Niro was able to become LaMotta by talking to the man and also by reading LaMotta’s own words about his tortured life. And of course De Niro trained as a boxer for the role. And he lived with Joe Pesci so the two would feel more like brothers. And De Niro put on 60 pounds of real weight to play the older version of LaMotta. Method acting became a household term after this film was released. Truly De Niro became LaMotta physically and emotionally and it all came together on the screen in the most incredible way.

Raging Bull was voted the best film of the 1980s by numerous news outlets and film critics and I’m not going to argue with that ranking. Is it the fourth best American film of all time? I don’t know, but I certainly can’t argue about its inclusion in the top 10 of the AFI list. It is definitely one of the best American films ever produced, if for nothing else than De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance. But it’s so much more than that. Any discussion of Raging Bull has to give credit to Martin Scorsese, who I’ve already said on this blog is in my opinion one of the top two or three directors in American film history and you could argue Raging Bull is his masterpiece. Scorsese did not win best director for Raging Bull — it wasn’t until 27 years later that the Academy honored him for directing with his win for The Departed. A great film that won Best Picture but in my opinion it’s great but not as good as Raging Bull. Scorsese captured the emotion of LaMotta’s life, but also created a mood that makes the viewer feel like he or she is watching a film made in the 40s and 50s. He does this primarily through the use of black and white, but he also selected a hauntingly beautiful score to add to the tone. The brutality of the boxing ring was captured wonderfully through delicate choreography and find makeup work. The team used chocolate syrup as fake blood to find the perfect consistency knowing in black and white it would work perfectly.

The film also featured tremendous supporting performances by Joe Pesci and Kathy Moriarty, both of whom were nominated for acting Oscars. It was one of Pesci’s first movie roles and it was a clear indication of things to come. Pesci lost to Timothy Hutton of Ordinary People and for my money that will go down as one of the worst Oscar snubs ever. In fact, Ordinary People beat out Raging Bull for Best Picture and Robert Redford took home the Best Director statue for the film. I have nothing against Ordinary People — it’s a nice film with good performances. But note that it isn’t to be found on the AFI Top 100 and Raging Bull came in at number 4 all time. Oscar clearly had its head up its ass in 1981!

I think Raging Bull is one of the best films ever made. It’s not one of my favorites, but artistically and performance-wise it is incredible and worthy of its place in history.

Next: Casablanca

AFI #52: Taxi Driver

“You talkin’ to me?”

Some would argue that Martin Scorsese is America’s greatest film director, and given the body of work it’s certainly an argument you’d have trouble disputing. Despite the critical acclaim he’s getting lately for films including Hugo, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island and others (and these are all great films), if you’re like me it’s the old school Scorsese that turns you on. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Raging Bull and of course Taxi Driver leave the viewer in sheer awe. I’m not going to have the “best director ever” argument here, but suffice it to say there has never been anyone like Scorsese and I doubt there will ever be another.

Taxi Driver is a cinematic masterpiece on several levels. First, it moves like a Scorsese film, which is to say the viewer becomes the camera and you feel like you’re in the scenes. There is a cadence to it that is unmistakably Scorsese, all building to the violent penultimate scene and the calm and surprising finale. Taxi Driver is a nod to film noir, complete with the voice over of the lead character and the dark feel of the film. The streets of New York are always dirty and it’s raining most of the time. Our protagonist sees the dark side of New York, from hookers to thugs to pimps and mafioso. The rain is in fact a metaphor for what cabby Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) wishes for this city — that all the scum gets washed away.

Second, De Niro is tremendous in this role. The film is a deconstruction of Travis Bickle, the Vietnam Vet returned to civilization struggling with inner demons. We don’t know exactly what Bickle’s demons are, but we can guess from his narrative that he is tired of the filth of the world (the city itself, degenerate people, America) and feels compelled to “do something.” He is lonely, can’t sleep, has debilitating headaches, all of which lead to his instability. Every little thing that happens to him in the film leads up to his moment of violence. De Niro was nominated for Best Actor for this role, but he did not win. The Oscar that year went to Peter Finch in Network, who also wanted to clean up the world and it ultimately led to his downfall.

Finally, Taxi Driver is a tale of America in the mid-70s in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world in which everything seemed to be coming apart. New York itself was in reality experiencing a time of disillusionment and crime was rampant. But ultimately the film takes a surprise turn that to avoid spoilers I’ll just say is either comical or sad depending on your point of view. It’s really a remarkable foreshadowing of reaction to Bernard Goetz a few years later in New York and leaves the viewer questioning the meaning of heroism.

One thing that is unfortunate about Taxi Driver is that it will always be associated with the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley who claims he was obsessed with the film and Jodie Foster and that he shot Reagan to get Foster’s attention. Foster plays a young prostitute in the film, and frankly her work is overrated in the film. She was nominated for an Academy Award but she was barely on the screen. Nevertheless, when people think of Taxi Driver today they wrongly think it’s a film about a guy who tries to assassinate a politician to get the attention of a woman and that’s not factual. If anything the spurning of Bickle’s attention by campaign worker Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd) was another piece of the puzzle that led to his breakdown but Bickle did not try to kill Senator Palantine to get her attention, or Jodie Foster’s attention. In fact, he didn’t even shoot the Senator so that argument doesn’t hold water. Still, oftentimes the myth becomes the fact and that’s the case with Taxi Driver, misguided as this assumption is.

By the way, De Niro made The GodfatherTaxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter over the course of six incredible years. Two Oscar wins (Godfather and Raging Bull) and two best actor nominations. Damn!

Next Up: I’m skipping #51 (West Side Story) because I’ve seen it and I don’t want to suffer through it again! So on to #50, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

AFI #53: The Deer Hunter

In 1978 the Vietnam War was still very much on the minds of Americans and this played out artistically with intense films over the years meant to stir the emotions and remind us that war is hell. This particular war gave us some very memorable and important films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Coming Home, In Country, Gardens of Stone, and The Killing Fields. The best of these films at portraying what it might have been like in Vietnam was Apocalypse Now, and for my money the best at portraying what it was like for those who served was The Deer Hunter.

The 1979 Best Picture winner starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage and John Cazale is the most emotional depiction of the war’s toll on small town America. Most of the film isn’t even set in Vietnam, but rather in the small Pennsylvania steel town where first-generation Americans born of Russian immigrants volunteered to go to Southeast Asia in support of the country that did so much for their families. The three “heroes” played by Walken, Savage and De Niro leave their hard scrabble life where they enjoy the little things like drinking with friends and deer hunting in the nearby mountains only to encounter horrors of war that none of them could have imagined. The result turns their lives upside down and also affects the lives of their friends and loved ones left behind. The film came out just a few years after the end of the war, and so it made quite an impression on the American audience.

The film won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. De Niro and Streep were also nominated but did not win. Walken’s performance was memorable and indicative of his great work to come over the years. His portrayal of Nick was haunting and intense and leaves you breathless during the climactic scene when De Niro returns to Vietnam to try to bring him home from his new life playing Russian Roulette for money. The scenes in Vietnam when the guys are captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and forced to play Russian Roulette are as dramatic as any scene ever filmed and leave a lasting impression; in fact, the film is often remembered specifically for that scene. But the scenes before the war and after the war back in Pennsylvania are equally emotional and powerful.

It’s hard to imagine another film that leaves you with such a bad taste in your mouth about war and the human condition related to war. Surely The Deer Hunter is as strong an indictment of war as any film ever made and it is undoubtedly one of the best American films ever made. I have always counted it among my all-time favorites and it’s a little surprising to me that it wasn’t higher on the AFI list. Apocalypse Now comes in at #30 and I think The Deer Hunter is superior in most ways (I’m sure many of you will disagree but this is my blog!).

Next up is the second straight De Niro flick: Taxi Driver

AFI #92: Goodfellas

“Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for bad guys in the movies.” — Henry Hill

What is it about mob movies that we enjoy so much? Is it the gratuitous violence? Is it the men with no fear? Is it the stories? I’m really not sure, but I do know I love a good gangster tale. That being said, there are only a few mob films that I’d consider great…and Goodfellas is definitely one of them.

Back to Goodfellas in a moment, but first I should mention those great mob films. The Godfather saga is of course, without question, head and shoulders above the rest as we’ll learn much further ahead on the AFI list. A Bronx Tale is one of my favorites (is it better to be feared or to be loved?). Once Upon a Time in America makes the cut. Casino. Hmm, all of these flicks have one thing in common — Bobby De Niro! Maybe that’s what makes a good mob flick.

Goodfellas is a great mob film. It has all the ingredients. Violence. Made guys with funny names. The “F” word. De Niro. But really what makes Goodfellas so compelling is that it’s a true story. De Niro’s Jimmy Conway actually whacked all those people. Joe Pesci’s Tommy De Vito was a real sociopath. And Henry Hill turned state’s evidence on all of them and left for the witness protection program. Goodfellas, like most mob films, doesn’t have a happy ending. Maybe what we love about mob films is that the bad guys always get what’s coming to them in the end? Nah! We like the violence!

We also like the humor. Is there a funnier mobster than Tommy De Vito? Here’s an epic exchange after Tommy “accidentally” shoots Spider (Michael Imperioli) for telling him to fuck off and Jimmy eggs him on about not letting Spider get away with it:

Jimmy Conway: What’s the fuckin’ matter with you? What – what is the fuckin’ matter with you? What are you, stupid or what Tommy, Tommy, I’m kidding with you. What the fuck are you doin’? What are you, a fuckin’ sick maniac?
Tommy DeVito: How am I meant to know you’re kidding? What you mean, you’re kidding? You breaking my fuckin’ balls?
Jimmy Conway: I’m fuckin’ kidding with you! You fuckin’ shoot the guy?
Henry Hill: He’s dead.
Tommy DeVito: Good shot. What do you want from me? Good shot. Fuckin’ rat anyway. His family’s all rats. He’ll grow up to be a rat.
Jimmy Conway: You stupid bastard, I can’t fuckin’ believe you. Now, you’re gonna dig the fuckin’ thing now. You’re gonna dig the hole. You’re gonna do it. I got no fuckin’ time. You’re gonna do it.
Tommy DeVito: Who the fuck cares? I’ll dig the fuckin’ hole. I don’t give a fuck. What is it, the first hole I dug? Not the first time I dug a hole. I’ll fuckin’ dig a hole. Where are the shovels?

Tommy whacks an innocent kid and instead of feeling bad they argue about who is going to dig the hole. Classic. Goodfellas is loaded with dialogue like this and it’s so abhorrent you have to laugh. And we do. And we love Goodfellas because of it.

You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny? — Tommy De Vito

Next up: #91 Sophie’s Choice