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Fellows Find: Analyzing the fight scenes from "Raging Bull"

Paul Schrader's outline for the 1980 film 'Raging Bull.'
Paul Schrader's outline for the 1980 film 'Raging Bull.'

Leger Grindon is a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College where he has taught since 1987.  He is the author of Knockout:  the Boxer and Boxing in American Cinema (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), Hollywood Romantic Comedy:  Conventions, History and Controversies (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Shadows on the Past:  Studies in the Historical Fiction Film (Temple University Press, 1994).  Grindon spent time working in the Robert De Niro collection in July on a Robert De Niro Fellowship.  He is preparing an essay, “Filming the Fights in Raging Bull,” for a forthcoming critical anthology on the films of Martin Scorsese edited by Aaron Baker and to be published by Wiley-Blackwell.

The object of my research was the film Raging Bull (1980). Robert De Niro’s performance in the film earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. I was particularly interested in the evolution of the nine boxing sequences in the film. With that in mind, I carefully examined five different screenplay drafts that were among the De Niro papers. These drafts by Emmett Clary, Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese demonstrated the development in thinking about the filming of the various boxing sequences and how they would be integrated into the other dramatic action in the movie.

Jake La Motta, the subject of the film, had 106 professional fights, so the question arises as to why these particular fights were chosen? As a result of my research in the archive, I now have a much clearer picture of the development and meaning of these choices. I was also able to get a better picture of how the staging of the fights changed over the course of the various screenplays. One lasting impression of my work in the archive was that the filmmakers of Raging Bull never stopped making adjustments and changes in their conception of the film. The notes I reviewed on the adjustments made in the final shooting script were illuminating. Furthermore, I was able to look at the many storyboard drawings of the boxing sequences. Some of the boxing sequences have more than 100 drawings and diagrams that were made in preparation for the filming. One sequence has only one drawing. These drawings, diagrams for figure and camera movement, and other notes, give me considerable insight into the planning, conception, and execution of these sequences. I have also received more than 50 photocopied pages from various screenplay drafts and storyboard images from the archives. I will continue to consult them while writing my forthcoming essay.

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