In the 1970s, director Martin Scorsese burst into the film industry with a promising future. Collaborating with actor Robert De Niro on works such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, the duo consolidated their strong director-actor relationship early on in their careers. This collaboration lasted well into their respective careers — their big collaboration film of the ’80s is the now-classic Raging Bull.
Based on the real-life story of boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull recounts various fights and life events that marked the rise and fall of the renowned boxer. On Thursday, April 20, UCSB’s Carsey-Wolf Center hosted makeup artist and UCSB alumnus Michael Westmore to discuss the making of the movie with film and media studies professor Anna Brusutti.
During the Q&A discussion after the screening of the film, Brusutti remarked that one of the main themes in the film is the idea of violence. During the first match of the film, Scorsese hints at the violent nature of the boxing matches that will influence LaMotta’s personal life. In the first boxing match alone, the hectic nature of the event suggests that the audience demands to see this violence for their own enjoyment. At the beginning of the film, the audience already knows that LaMotta has a violent side as he displays a verbal attack (and small physical one) toward somebody early on the film. While a montage later in the film can be interpreted as a passage of time, it could also suggest a part of his life when his violent nature began to slowly build inside in context of this theme, as suggested by the various fights interlaced into the sequence. Ultimately, Scorsese also proves that violence is an endless cycle that can influence others to act similarly.
Most of this is demonstrated through LaMotta’s personality and De Niro’s portrayal. As a character, LaMotta is brutal in the ring yet controlling outside. It’s almost as if Scorsese is trying to make the point that LaMotta was a product of a society that wanted him to beat people mercilessly to gain acceptance from them. As a result, LaMotta exerted complete control over those he loved, as demonstrated when he questioned any time his second wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) kissed other men as a form of greeting or remarked that someone was simply good-looking.
While LaMotta’s character on paper would be enough to show this change, it was De Niro’s dedication to the role that made the finished performance more meaningful. Westmore remarked, “[De Niro] trained so thoroughly that trainers were saying, ‘He could actually go into the ring [and] he probably would win.” While it is commonly accepted for actors to fully dedicate themselves to a certain role such as weight loss, Westmore reminisced on various times when De Niro would want the most minute parts of his character to be as accurate as possible.
In one aspect of filming the movie, De Niro wanted his hair to look like LaMotta’s instead of wearing a wig. Westmore explained spending hours trying to rearrange De Niro’s hair to look as accurate as possible. For one scene, Brusutti noted a discontinuity in the flow of the scene which involved confetti. Both Scorsese and De Niro wanted to keep the confetti on LaMotta’s face, and the scene ended up taking 10 days to shoot because Westmore had to put confetti on De Niro’s face every shoot.
While De Niro’s performance helped note the certain points of LaMotta’s life that led him to a violent path, the sound in the film was used well to make audience members hear the impact of his destructiveness. One can hear all the punches hit, as the sound is what can give audience members the reaction the movie wants them to have. In one scene involving LaMotta’s brother slamming someone’s head with a car door, one does not see the person affected by this action. However, with the sound, one can clearly picture the possible image in his or her head.
Ultimately, it is the makeup that not only shows the brutal effect of the violence on screen but also traces LaMotta’s life through the 23 years used to account his rise and fall. Regarding its use of violence, one can see the effect the punches in the ring have on a boxer. Westmore explained how he used tubes on De Niro’s face for the bloody punches. Even though the film is shot in black and white, the showcasing of blood is still effective for the plot of the movie, as there is little color contrast as suggested by Westmore at the discussion, and brings about a more poetic style to the scenes.
However, the makeup is also used for the most subtle details in the film. Westmore uses it for smaller moments, such as the makeup done to LaMotta to show his roughness and Vickie to show her purity. He also uses his skills in makeup to create front cast-ons to make De Niro appear older than he is. Westmore explained that the real LaMotta’s skull was thicker than most men’s.
At the time the film was released, Westmore had tried to bring makeup to the forefront. Westmore was given a special Oscar for his efforts in this film. A year after this film was released, the Oscars created the “Best Makeup and Hairstyling” category. In addition to the screening and Q&A, some of the makeup work and props used for the film were on display, such as notes for “Sugar Ray” Robinson, makeup and three prosthetic noses.
Westmore even explained to the audience that Raging Bull was more of a documentary, as there were people involved in the real events who helped inform the cast and crew of what actually happened. Indeed, it’s no wonder that UCSB’s Carsey-Wolf Center wanted to screen this film, additionally inviting Westmore, who provided audience members insight into the process of filmmaking through his personal experiences.