Armchair Oscars – 1980

Best Picture

Ordinary People (Directed by Robert Redford)
The Nominees: Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Tess

Raging Bull (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
My Nominees: 
Airplane! (Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker), American Gigilo (Paul Schrader), The Black Stallion (Caroll Ballard), Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted), The Empire Strikes Back (Irving Kirshner), Resurrection (Daniel Petrie)


In Nineteen Eighty, one of the best actors of his generation turned to directing. Robert Redford’s directing debut was not a bloated vehicle for himself, but was a moving adaptation of Judith Guest’s first novel Ordinary People, which followed the deterioration of a wealthy family after the sudden death of the eldest son. It made a star out of Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern, and proved that Mary Tyler Moore (playing the indifferent mother incapable of connecting with her husband and son) could be more than just a sitcom star.

The film is very emotional but not in a manipulative way. The emotions come from the characters who are defined by their personalities and not the plot. The movie offers no easy answers and no contrived conclusion.

I love the film, but it is not the highlight of Redford’s career as a director. Looking over his later credits you can see better work in films like A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Today, if you ask anyone which of the five nominated films from nineteen-eighty they would have voted for, very few would choose Redford’s film. Most, I think, would agree with my choice because Nineteen Eighty was the year that Martin Scorsese made the film that he thought would end his career. It would, instead, make him a legend in his own time. Raging Bull is not everyone’s favorite film but, it is difficult to deny it’s impact. Here is a film about the human animal, a man ruled by his rage and his instincts. It is told through the performance of Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta and through the prism of Scorsese’s images.

It is a little strange, to me, that the most unforgettable image of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is one of the quietest. Jake La Motta stands defiantly in the boxing ring with his hands out to his side, bloody and peering from beneath his sweaty, swollen brow. It reminds me of close-ups of a Tiger ready to attack. There is a fearsomeness to his gaze, a warning not that La Motta might attack his opponent but that in a matter of moments the man will be destroyed. The moment contains no words but it speaks volumes.

Raging Bull is a biography only in the clinical sense, it is absent of all the trappings of biopics, there are no cliches, no unnecessary flashbacks to help us understand where his temperament comes from. This is a movie about a professional boxer but it is not a boxing movie. It is simply an examination of a man caged by his own demons who uses his profession as a manner of venting violent tendencies and sexual repression. Of course, they leak at home too, especially in the direction of his brother Joey (Joe Peschi) and his long-suffering wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).

In some ways Jake La Motta reminds me of Travis Bickle, the subject of Scorsese’s earlier film Taxi Driver. Both are men who manage to succeed in doing something that makes them a celebrity. Jake demolishes his opponents in the ring while Bickle murders pimps and child molesters in a tenement building. Both are volatile men and both are doing something reprehensible, but somehow they managed to become pseudo-heroes in their pursuits.

Scorese never tried to give La Motta a heroic foothold. LaMotta is a hero in the ring because of his fearsome strength, but personally it affords him an outlet for pent up violent tendencies that won’t land him in jail. Just as Travis Bickle destroyed pimps and child molesters, so to does Jake destroy men in the ring as penance. In both cases, outsiders credit them as heroes.

Also like Bickle, there is never an effort to make La Motta sympathetic or heroic. He is a bastard, he knows it, everyone around him knows it and so there you are. It is tempting to label him as one-dimentional, and that’s not inaccurate. He is a one-dimentional man filled with loathing, rage, sexual insecurity and frustration. He reminds me of the kinds of people who release aggression by cutting themselves, only in his case he found absolution in the ring, beating his opponents to a bloody pulp.

Raging Bull continues a theme present in most of Scorsese’s films, the hero’s inability to relate to women. Just as Travis couldn’t relate to the 12 year old prostitute Iris in Taxi Driver, Jake can’t relate on a realistic level with this wife Vickie. They’re relationship (at least from Jake’s point of view) takes on a kind of “from my cold dead hands” attachment. What fuels him sexually is his rage at the very thought of another man attracting her. There is a moment when Jake destroys a man in the ring that she had earlier spoken of as “good looking”. When the fight ends he looks, not at his opponent, but at his wife seated at ringside. It is both acknowledgement and a warning.

For Jake, violence in the ring is the sexual stimulation that he is missing. Twice in the film Jake breaks into childish crying fits: The first comes after he throws a fight (thus robbing him of his sexual dominance) and the second after he had been jailed for selling an underage girl for sexual favors. In both cases he seems to have been robbed of something that he dominates. Also, Jake’s reputation in the ring is that he has never been knocked down. In the losing decision against Suger Ray Robinson, Jake leaves the ring but reminds his opponent “You didn’t get me down, Ray – You didn’t get me down”.

His opening lines in the film are almost like a man describing his best sexual encounter:


I remember those cheers / They still ring in my ears / After years, they remain in my thoughts. / Go to one night / I took off my robe, and what’d I do? I forgot to wear shorts. / I recall every fall / Every hook, every jab / The worst way a guy can get rid of his flab. / As you know, my life wasn’t drab. / Though I’d much… Though I’d rather hear you cheer / When you delve… Though I’d rather hear you cheer / When I delve into Shakespeare / “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”, I haven’t had a winner in six months.


Read those lines carefully and note that it is only afterwards that he lights a satisfying cigar.

It is appropriate that Jake chooses a woman with whom most men would want to seek company. He dares them to so much as look at her and she does little to fuel their fantasies. Jake’s insecurity and sexual inadequacies keep him distant, sexually, but he replaces it with the jealous rages. Impure thoughts about Vickie are, to Jake, a sin and the wages of sin is death or at least severe punishment. His brother Joey receives the worst of the violence, but so does Vickie. That volatile relationship becomes the theme of the film. He can’t enjoy sex with Vickie because his sexual release comes in the form of violent jealously. For his inadequacies he married a woman that is, to him, perfect. She’s angelic but not a waif, she’s friendly but (from what we see) not easy. In a way, Jake would like to see her that way because it allows him a certain amount of contact, even if he is knocking her to the floor.

The casting of Cathy Moriarity was, I think, a masterstroke. She is tall and solidly built. She seems to dwarf La Motta who is strong, but a small man. This disadvantage fuels his insecurity. She’s not a weakling and she fights back. If she were a waif who trembled in the corner, the relationship wouldn’t have the psychological complexity. Consider how Jake sees Vicki. There are point of view shots in which he observes the way she seems to float toward other men. He has won her for his prize and now obsessively convinces himself that she is cheating on him.

Raging Bull is one of the saddest and difficult portraits of sex and violence that I have ever seen. It is the best film ever made about the pure nature of human violence. Most movies are extremely violent but I can’t think of another film that sees violence from the inside out. Watching Robert de Niro’s performance as Jake La Motta is to play witness to the basest human animal. He is caged inside the form of a man, a lion in the jungle full of rage and hunger and sexual fury, and a fearsome sense of territoriality. Freud could have written volumes about this man and, indirectly, he probably did.

Best Actor

Robert De Niro (
Raging Bull)
The Nominees: Robert Duvall (The Great Santini), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Peter O’Toole (The Stunt Man), Jack Lemmon (Tribute)

Robert De Niro (Raging Bull)
My Nominees:
Robert Duvall (The Great Santini), Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday), Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People),Tommy Lee Jones (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Jason Robards (Melvin and Howard), Donald Sutherland (Oridinary People)


In five years, working with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro had given two performances that would define his career.  First was in 1976 as Travis Bickle, a lonely psychotic vigilante in Taxi Driver.  The other was the performance that won him his only Oscar for Best Actor, that of  boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull.  His preparation for the role would become the stuff of legend, in particular the fact that he gained 135 pound to play the famous pugilist later in his life.

Through Scorsese’s direction and De Niro’s performance, Jake La Motta (at least in the film) is a study of the human animal.  La Motta is a man whose very presence is a struggle to keep his violent nature in check.  That makes him perfect to be a boxer.  Within that cage, the rage bubbles over into some of the most brutal boxing scenes ever filmed.  The punches land like bombs and Scorsese accompanies them with animal sounds.  Within the squared ropes, he is free to release animal rage.

At home there are no limits, no ropes, no referees.  The rage comes to a head over the smallest thing and Jakes brother and wife end up on the receiving end.  De Niro has a way of letting certain scenes come from a tiny comment and culminate in a violent confrontation.  Carefully watch the way he confronts his brother in a scene where he is trying to fix the television.  A word or two becomes a war of words and it builds and builds.  It all comes from La Motta’s inability to find the limits of his rage.

The movie never has sympathy for Jake, it never allows him a moment of flashback or insight.  There’s no offer of pity for us, we see the man as he is.  The pent up anger is like an animal in a cage too small to hold him.  But he’s not beyond realizing this, especially in the famous scene when he has gone to prison and his hits his head against the wall. He is like a child bereft of his mother.

In the ring Jake develops a reputation as a rock, as having the ability to withstand brutal blows at the hands of his opponent and never being knocked down. He is feared for his ability to destroy his opponents. Boxing seems to be a manner of releasing his aggression that keeps him out of prison, because this kind of violent tendency in the world he could likely murder someone. Scorsese sets boxing as a stage, not as a focal point.. This is the story of a man with demons in his soul and a hard-wired insecurity. His rage is built on fear, fear that he will lose his reputation, fear that he will lose his wife to another man, fear that he won’t be at the center.

His view of women is buried in sexual inadequacy. There’s a moment when Vicki makes a compliment about one of Jake’s friends and Jake nearly beats the man to death. Then he turns and looks at her as a warning. For Jake, violence is sex. Sex itself is a frightening concept to him. Violence in the ring is the sexual stimulation that he is missing. Twice in the film Jake breaks into childish crying fits: The first after he throws a fight (thus robbing him of his sexual dominance and the second after he had been jailed for selling an underage girl for sexual favors. In both cases he seems to have been robbed of something that he dominates. Also too, Jake’s reputation in the ring is that he has never been knocked down. In the losing decision against Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake leaves the ring but reminds his opponent “You never got me down, Ray – You never got me down”.

Best Actress

Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter)
The Nominees: Ellen Burstyn (Resurrection), Goldie Hawn (Private Benjamin), Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People), Gena Rowlands (Gloria)

Ellen Burstyn (Resurrection)
y Nominees: Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People), Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter)


Both Robert De Niro and Sissy Spacek won Oscars at the Fifty-Third Annual Academy Awards for playing real people. Like De Niro, Sissy Spacek also underwent a great a physical transformation in order to make her performance work. In the role of country legend Loretta Lynn in Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, Spacek lost weight for the early scenes and gained weight for the later scenes and even picked up Lynn singing style.

I have seen Coal Miner’s Daughter probably 20 times, it is one of the best musical biographies that I have ever seen and Sissy Spacek’s performance is the reason why. The film sees Loretta Lynn journey from age 14, as a backwoods Kentucky girl up through her late 30s when she became a country music superstar. We see the physical transformation take place, in the early scenes she really does look 14 years old and in the later scenes she bears such a striking resemblance to Lynn (including the singing) that you feel as if you’re watching the real thing.

Sissy Spacek’s performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter is probably the best Oscar winning performance that I am not giving my Armchair Oscar to in the 1980s. That’s only because I think her work in Carrie and Raggedy Man was just as good (I’ve rewarded those two performances instead). Plus nineteen-eighty was the year in which Ellen Burstyn gave her single greatest performance in Daniel Petrie’s wonderful forgotten treasure Resurrection. I think Burstyn’s performance has the same emotional depth as Sissy Spacek’s but based on the fact that Coal Miner’s Daughter is a biography, we kind of already know where the film is going. Resurrection is completely unpredictable.

Burstyn plays Edna McCauley, a housewife who lives in California with her husband Joe (Jeffrey DeMunn). They have a good relationship but it comes to a tragic end when she buys him a car for his birthday and, on it’s first road test, crashes through a guard rail and down a cliff. Joe dies while Edna has a near-death experience and wakes up in the hospital paralyzed from the knees down.

Her father John (Roberts Blossom), who has always kept an emotional distance from her, comes to see her in the hospital and suggests that she come back home to Kansas with him. Having no real reason to say no, she agree and they make the long drive. During a family get-together, Edna stops a little girl’s nosebleed just by touching her. Her grandmother (Supporting Actress nominee Eva Le Gallienne) notices that her hands are hot and suspects that she may have a healing touch. She tells Edna the story of a woman from her past who had died of pneumonia for ten minutes but was revived and began healing people by touching them. Edna doesn’t buy the story but later she rubs her own legs and eventually begins to walk again.

She becomes an enigma in the town and folks seek her out to be healed themselves. Most of the time, her healing touch works, so it isn’t long before a few of the God-fearing townsfolk begin to get nervous. Edna won’t readily admit that God is working through her and that leads to a few people accusing her of being in league with Satan. She even turns down an offer to have herself tested by scientists, telling them “What’s going on here has to do with people and feelings and not wires and machines. I dunno, it just doesn’t feel right to me”.

A local kid named Cal (Sam Shepard), is stabbed one night in a bar and falls under her healing hands. He likes Edna and after some initial reservations, she falls for him too. They begin a sweet relationship that comes to a bitter end when he tries to get her to admit that she is a vessel of God. She refuses and Cal becomes an extremist, quoting the Bible and railing about the idea that she is a vessel of the devil. Eventually, he shoots her, but only grazes her shoulder. She flees town and some years later – her hair now white – she owns a gas station that she and her father had passed on their way into town some years earlier. A couple drops by with their son who is dying of cancer. She doesn’t tell the couple that she has a healing touch but upon their departure she gives the boy a puppy and says that it will cost him a hug. She hugs the boy and the film ends as she looks over his shoulder, her face full of contentment.

Ellen Burstyn has always been one of my favorite actors because she seems so vulnerable, so real. She doesn’t possess any of the high gloss of her contemporaries, she looks like someone that you might actually meet in real life. That’s why she’s so perfect for this role, she believes that she is doing good with her miraculous ability and we believe it too. Edna is a woman full of love and compassion, which is why she asks for nothing from those she heals. She refuses to let her amazing ability go to her head or to become a demagogue. She never renounces the existence of God but she refuses to use her ability and claim that she is a special case in his eyes.

Edna becomes more in tune with what people need rather than what they need to hear and that becomes clear in her relationship with her father. Where she is warm and wants to give love, he is cold-hearted and keeps her at a distance. Late in the film, after he has disowned her, she stands at his deathbed and urges him to welcome the embrace of death. She has seen the light and urges him to take it. She knows that it would be wrong of her to heal him (he sees her healing as blasphemy) or to simply abandon him. This woman, so full of love, reaches out to this man even though he has dismissed her.

Resurrection is a movie that is still waiting to find an audience. It was initially planned by Universal to be a horror story on par with The Exorcist but Burstyn didn’t want it that way. She saw this as a story about love and compassion, but in their ad campaign, the studio tried to sell it as a thriller and audiences stayed away. Even today, the movie isn’t screened much on television and, to date, has never been released on DVD.

I wish more people would discover this film because Edna is a woman they can admire. She has a heart full of love and asks nothing in return. She has been blessed with an ability to help people and never waivers in her conviction that she is doing a good thing. The ending is especially emotional as she is visited by the little boy with cancer. She hugs him but never reveals to him or his parents that she is healing him. We see a close-up of her hands touching his back and then the camera moves to her face smiling into the sunlight. This is one of the most satisfying moments that I have ever experienced in a movie.

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