With Robert DeNiro’s recent ‘comedy’ ‘Dirty Grandpa’ coming out on dvd after some unanimously damning reviews about the actor besmirching his own back catalogue of weighty and respected performances we thought we’d have a look at the last and only time he has won an Oscar to date for Best Actor.
DeNiro had won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for ‘The Godfather Part 2’ and it was whilst he was filming this in Sicily that he read the autobiography of the boxer Jake La Motta and took it to his friend Martin Scorsese who at the time was working on ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’.
Scorsese was not interested as he he hated boxing but DeNiro was insistent and at one point it was even going to be a stage play as well as a film.
Scorsese had his own problems in the early to mid seventies and was going through his second divorce. By the Summer of 1978 the director was hospitalised where DeNiro turned up and persisted with trying to persuade him of the boxing project. Scorsese relented.
Casting began with Joe Pesci who had effectively given up on being an actor and was now running a restaurant in New York having hated the time he’d spent in Hollywood where he felt he had had to suppress his real persona in case he accidently offended any Hollywood big wig. Prior to ‘Raging Bull’ he’d only made one film in 1975, ‘Death Collector’, which fortunately Scorsese had seen and had remembered him in the role. In turn Pesci having seen a photo of the real life Vicky La Motta thought she looked like someone he’d grown up with in his neighbourhood. It was Cathy Moriarty, a wholly inexperienced actress but with DeNiro, Scorsese and Pesci found herself thrown in at the deep end but at the same time nurtured by all of them.
What set DeNiro’s performance apart from others was his physical commitment to the role. Much has been written about his weight gain as the actor didn’t want to wear a fat suit. Initially the fight scenes were the first to be shot and took over a month to complete despite only taking a small percentage of screen time. Scorsese rejected multi camera set ups opting for one camera that would be in the ring itself with the 2 fighters and they all had to coordinate and choreograph the fights to accommodate the camera. For these scenes DeNiro trained with LaMotta himself for almost a year sparring over 1000 rounds with the real life boxer . After this they shot the dramatic transitional scenes for about 10 weeks where he started to eat with the intention of piling on the pounds and losing his boxing physique. After that the shoot closed down for 2 months where De Niro went travelling round Europe where he ate. And ate and ate and ate and ate………eating huge meals three times a day regardless of whether he was hungry or not and returned to the set in December 1979 sixty pounds heavier and almost unrecognisable. It took it’s toll on the actor as he was constantly short of breath and was unable to do take after take after take for the final 3 weeks of the shoot.
The commitment to the role was phenomenal and was duly recognised by the Academy Awards when in 1981 he won the Best Actor Oscar. To date it is the last time he has won and it would be another 10 years before he was nominated again for, ‘Awakenings’ in 1991 and again the following year for ‘Cape Fear’ – another role where his body was sculpted to a physical peak.
All this seems to be a very long time ago and though he still appears in decent roles in decent films (‘Silver Book Linings’, ‘ Joy’), it does seem to be outweighed by films far below his abilities like ‘Grudge Match’ (another boxing film) but especially ‘Dirty Grandpa’ where in one scene he freely ‘pleasures’ himself in front of the TV as he watches a film of specialist interest. It’s a long way from ‘Raging Bull’.
Here’s the trailer for ‘Raging Bull’….