Two men shuffled their way around the French supermarket. The trolley they were pushing was laden with Mr. Kipling pies and bright yellow battenbergs and one of the little wheels wasn’t turning which meant the whole contraption jumped up in the air every couple of seconds.
The men were drawing a lot of attention from the French shoppers, not just because they were swearing and threatening to throw the trolley through the nearest freshly washed window, but also because one of them used to be the middleweight boxing champion of the world and the other was a barely recognisable Robert De Niro.
It had all started over a year ago, this crazy venture. De Niro became obsessed with the book he was reading. The life story of Jake LaMotta, one time boxing champion now middle-aged after-dinner speaker, whose career highs were now consigned to long distant memories, along with his athletes physique.
De Niro hurried off to speak with his friend and film director Martin Scorsese. He wanted to turn this book into a film, he wanted to play the part of LaMotta.
Unfortunately, Scorsese was laying in a hospital bed contemplating how to kill himself while bleeding from every orifice as De Niro cheerily walked into the ward. He threw the book at the stricken figure of Scorsese (it bounced off his nose) and launched into an animated pitch about why they must make a film of this boxers life. Scorsese wasn’t particularly interested. “Bob…I’m bleeding from the ass!” he shouted. But eventually De Niro won him over with the idea that this film could be his redemption.
Now, neither Scorsese or De Niro knew jackshit about boxing, but that wasn’t going to stop them from giving it a shot. So they jetted off to the Caribbean where they holed up in a rented cottage, secluded from the outside world. With just a put upon PA called Gloria, a bright yellow pad and a travel pack of connect-4 for company, there they spent the next month tirelessly writing the screenplay.
Gloria Norris was the young assistant whose job it was to read out loud what had been written.
“Racing Bun” she said reading the first lines at the top of the page.
Scorsese looked up sharply. “what??” he shouted
She repeated it before Scorsese ripped it from her hand screaming.. “Raging Bull!….Can’t you fucking read!?!” De Niro interjected at this point to remind Scorsese that his handwriting looked as though a crippled ant had slid its way across the page before finally giving up the fight. Scorsese decided he had a point, and rather than go back to school and learn how to write, he would read the script himself.
Which he in turn did, pausing and blushing a bright crimson colour whenever he said the word ‘fuck’. Which he did quite a lot seeing as it appeared 114 times.
Once back they started looking at casting. They went for Joe Pesci who they wanted to play Jake LaMotta’s brother. But the unknown actor didn’t want to do it, he was much more interested in singing and dancing. They persevered and Pesci finally relented. The next day, Pesci opened his front door and there stood Robert De Niro with a suitcase, who promptly pushed past him and moved in. The pair lived together for months because De Niro wanted to get to know him better (…It’s not what you’re thinking!)
De Niro, in between performing one-finger press-ups on the living room floor would sit on the couch clapping along, smiling and encouraging as Pesci dressed up in long socks and a shirley temple dress would perform a hungarian moon dance or an irish jig.
De Niro tracked down the real Jake LaMotta (rather than the fake one) to try to get to know him better. He asked the overweight middle aged ex-boxer to train him. To make him a convincing fighter. So it was that Jake LaMotta and Robert De Niro sparred for months in a little, shabby gym. LaMotta ponding the living crap out of De Niro and getting paid for it. Slowly but surely De Niro got better…then he got better and better…then he got better and…yeah you get the picture.
Eventually De Niro was so good at boxing that LaMotta registered him to actually fight in official bouts. So under the anonymous name of Orin Ed Trebor (very cunning) De Niro secretly fought real fights. He beat Brendan ‘Patchface’ McGraw and Jonah ‘Release the Kracken’ Jones but alas, he lost on points to Pedro ‘Spunkbucket’ Collins. (This probably wasn’t his real name.)
LaMotta was impressed. He even called De Niro one of the best middleweights he had ever seen. De Niro wasn’t fooled, he knew that LaMotta didn’t know his own name unless he had it told to him every ten minutes. Then the filming began. De Niro would be placed in the ring and various boxers and actors would line up to punch him as much as possible. Then when Scorsese would yell “cut” De Niro would take a deep breath and the director would move the camera to another point in the ring and do it all again (there may have been a sly smile on the directors face at this point).
Scorsese and De Niro found that the sounds of the punches weren’t powerful enough, so De Niro attempted to make loud noises whenever he punched someone. Two men prowling around a ring fighting till one dropped shouting out ridiculous noises whenever they threw a punch. Eventually the impact sounds were added afterwards by a man who had the best job of all time. There can be no doubt about it.
The sound guy bought a lorry load of watermelons then proceeded to smash the hell out of them with a sledgehammer, while another guy stood close by recording the noise. It is said that the sound man retired after the film because he would never hope to replicate the goddamn pleasure he got while attacking those melons. So at the end of the filming, De Niro had achieved quite a lot really. But yet, it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. You see, that was just the first part. The second part involved portraying the fat, middle-aged Jake LaMotta.
Which is where we began. Two obese, wheezing men. Two asthmatic hippopotamuses ambling through France. De Niro thought he was going to collapse any minute, and he had a particularly annoying rash where his chubby legs were rubbing together. De Niro watched LaMotta like a hypnotic hawk, examining every nuance, every tic, trait or disgusting habit. If LaMotta picked his nose and looked at it a beat too long, so would De Niro.
This wasn’t hero worship, it was dedication. At the end of their jaunt around France together, De Niro had morphed himself into Jake LaMotta. He had gained over 60 pounds in weight eating cake, pasta and deep-frying anything he could get his hands on. Pals of LaMotta were amazed.
De Niro’s impersonation was so good you could barely tell the difference. Great, they thought, having one Jake LaMotta was bad enough now we have two. De Niro’s commitment and determination to put in the absolute best performance he possibly could has, in my mind, never been surpassed.
To transform himself from skinny Robert De Niro into professional quality boxer Robert De Niro and then into obese, lumbering beastly Robert De Niro all in the name of Art. The dedication and passion shows. his performance is both powerful and majestic. It is the culmination of all that hard work.
Most actors would have shown up when filming started and pretend to get hit, put in the best they could then go home. Not De Niro. The total method actor, art imitating life and life imitating art. If you wanna portray a boxer, be a boxer. If you wanna portray a truly great boxer, then be a truly great boxer. If you wanna portray a middle-aged blob one step away from a triple heart bypass then be a middle-aged blob one step away from a triple heart bypass. It is one of the very few occasions where the Oscars got it spot on. De Niro sauntered off with the best actor Oscar, and there can’t have been very many who were surprised.