Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus, Raging Bull, celebrates its 35th anniversary this week. Cineplex.com columnist Shane McNeil looks at Robert De Niro’s career-defining turn as Jake La Motta and nine other incredible performances brought to the big screen under Scorsese’s direction.
Raging Bull now seems like a logical high-water mark for Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Collaborating for the fourth time in seven years and marking roughly the halfway point between of their partnership.
The film won De Niro his first Best Actor Academy Award and garnered high critical praise for Scorsese, earning No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s 2008 list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All-Time.
But as the film turns 35, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t a guaranteed success. It was not the crowd-pleasing boxing movie that Rocky had been four years prior. It was extremely violent. And, it was a sports film, shot in black-and-white in the colour era, taking its stylistic cues from artistic masterpieces from the 1950s like The Red Shoes and Rocco and His Brothers.
What made the film such a success was the outstanding interplay between a director and an actor both at the very top of their respective games. However, De Niro’s Bronx Bull was not the only memorable turn to have come under Scorsese’s watch.
In honour of Raging Bull’s milestone birthday, here are the 10 greatest individual acting performances in Martin Scorsese pictures.
10. Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street
Hill and Scorsese seem like such a natural pairing in hindsight. Two years after Hill proved he had dramatic chops in Moneyball, Scorsese cast him as a schlubby, cussing, sidekick to Leonardo DiCaprio’s scheming kingpin and found yet another side to the young comedian’s arsenal. He found a unique use for Hill’s brand of anarchy, in the same way he harnessed Joe Pesci for the greatest cinematic turns of his career.
9. Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money
The Color of Money is a film that sticks out from the rest of Scorsese’s filmography. An otherwise-ordinary movie that tries to give a 25-year-old film its sequel with star treatment from a still-young Tom Cruise and a very old Paul Newman, it doesn’t really seem like the kind of film that an auteur would sign on for, especially after early-80s acclaim with Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Still, Newman regained his form and looked right at home playing a slowed-down Fast Eddie, earning his only Oscar in the process.
8. Willem Dafoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ
This film was a lightning rod all around. It drew fire from the Catholic Church, but was such a meaningful project for Scorsese that he went ahead with it, regardless. It’s tricky material, but who better to play a Jesus that is unsure of his Father’s designs than Willem Dafoe in 1988? Two years removed from Platoon and the same year he starred in the acclaimed drama Mississippi Burning, Dafoe brings both defiance and tenderness to the role that sees Jesus having second thoughts.
7. Harvey Keitel as Charlie in Mean Streets
Many forget that before there was De Niro and well before DiCaprio, Harvey Keitel was Scorsese’s original muse. He was the lead of Scorsese’s debut feature, a Cassevetes-esque drama called Who’s That Knocking at My Door? He was also the conscience of Scorsese’s breakthrough film, Mean Streets. While De Niro’s Johnny Boy steals some scenes, Keitel is the conscience that drives the story and it remains one of the finest performances in a still-underappreciated career for Keitel.
6. Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
One of Scorsese’s early triumphs, Burstyn was the first actor to win an Oscar under Scorsese. Her turn as a mother picking up her life after the death of her less-than-stellar husband showed earned her the 1974 Best Actress Award, beating out both Gena Rowlands for A Woman Under the Influence and Faye Dunaway for Chinatown. Ironically, she could not attend the ceremony and it was Scorsese himself that collected her Oscar… something he, himself, would wait another 32 years to do.
5. Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas
Joe Pesci has an Oscar. Think about it. The weasel-y, whiny guy from the late Lethal Weapon films and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag has earned an Academy Award. It’s because – with Tommy – he created the prototypical gangster. Fast-talking, foul-mouthed and clearly insane it was a career-high by such a wide margin that everything he’s done since has basically been a caricature of that turn.
4. Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator
DiCaprio seemed an unlikely choice for Scorsese’s “second De Niro”. Before working together on Gangs of New York, he was still somewhat hounded by the stigma of anchoring Titanic, despite the obvious talent he had shown in roles dating back to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. His turn as the eccentric, paranoid billionaire Hughes opened the floodgates to the second act of his career that saw standout turns like his performances in Blood Diamond and Inception seem like a logical next step.
3. Jodie Foster as Iris Steensma in Taxi Driver
Casting a 13-year-old as a prostitute seems like a recipe for disaster. Then again, Jodie Foster has always been extraordinary. In her second role with Scorsese – unbelievably, released the same year as Freaky Friday – she took a role that a lot of young actresses either backed away from or were forbidden to take and used it as the basis for a long and incredible career.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York
The ridiculous character name aside, Day-Lewis’ second turn under Scorsese provided his most menacing on-screen turn. Equal parts sinister and cartoonish, The Butcher’s strength lies in his unpredictability. While Gangs is one of Scorsese’s more uneven films, it’s pretty hard to look away during any of Day-Lewis’ scenes.
1. Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull
The fact that it’s the film’s anniversary holds no sway in De Niro being atop this list. This film marked the high point of both De Niro and Scorsese’s cinematic careers. Seven years after stealing scenery from Keitel in Mean Streets, De Niro sunk all of himself into La Motta in a career-defining role, stripping himself down to a lean, sinewy beast as a young La Motta before bloating himself (by a reported 60 pounds!) into a monster for the film’s final act.