Oscar Vault Monday – Taxi Driver, 1976 (dir. Martin Scorsese)
A lot has been written about this film by people who know it a lot better than I do, so I’m gonna preface this by saying what I want to do with this piece is not a full analysis of the film, but rather snippets of thoughts and ideas that ran through my head when I watched it Thursday last at the Castro Theatre. I first saw Taxi Driver when I was about 15 (I rented it on VHS and I did not tell my parents) and I don’t think I really understood what I was watching. Really, going into the screening on Thursday, all I remembered from the film was the scene where Robert De Niro takes Cybill Shepherd to the porno theater. That was the first time I ever saw porn. Needless to say, it was shocking. Believe it or not, that was the only time I’d seen the film before this last time. So I have only seen it twice now. I’m guessing it’s a movie that gets richer each time you watch it, much like my favorite Scorsese film, 1985’s criminally under-seen After Hours. I would also like to mention that 1976 is a year where I can’t really say I wish one film beat another film. For me, it’s a year where all of the nominees are so important and so different, that choosing just one seems like a disservice. Well, four of them, anyway, as I have not yet seen Bound For Glory. Although Taxi Driver won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival, it received only four Academy Award nominations and failed to win in any of the categories: Best Picture, Best Actor Robert De Niro, Best Supporting Actress Jodie Foster and Best Original Score. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were All The President’s Men, Bound For Glory, Network and winner Rocky.
Like I said earlier, Scorsese didn’t receive a Best Director nomination for his work on this film and in fact was not nominated in that category until 1980’s Raging Bull. In total, he has received Best Director nominations seven times, winning once: Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ (no BP nomination for the film though), Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed (he won and the film won Best Picture) and Hugo. He also received writing nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay for Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence and received a producing nomination for Best Picture for Hugo last year. Despite his stellar work on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, Paul Schrader has yet to receive an Oscar nomination. Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping dramatic score for the film was the last score he ever composed before his death. In his nearly four-decade career, Herrmann received five Oscar nominations, winning once : Citizen Kane (1941, his very first score), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, won), Anna and the King of Siam (1947), Obsession (1976) and Taxi Driver (1976). Herrmann is also well remembered for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, including North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho.
The opening credit sequence, with beautiful shots of late night New York City coupled with Herrmann’s score is just breathtaking. You know from the very beginning that you are watching something very special.
Although he made his film debut in 1965, De Niro’s breakout role came in Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets, which he followed up with an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in 1974’s Best Picture winner The Godfather Part II. He was then nominated for Best Actor five times, winning once: Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter (the film won Best Picture), Raging Bull (he won, the film lost to Ordinary People), Awakenings and Cape Fear. After a twenty-year gap, De Niro has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. The first time we meet De Niro’s Travis Bickle, it’s this harrowing red-tinted close-up. Bickle is an observer and we as the audience get to observe his observations. This is one of the things I love about cinema. Is everything we’re seeing from Bickle’s twisted perspective or is the camera an unbiased documentarian? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
De Niro was filming Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento in Italy while preparing for this role and would reportedly finish filming on a Friday in Rome and hop on a plane to New York City to prepare. Also during a break in the filming, he obtained a cab driver’s license and actually drove around New York City for a couple of weeks before filming resumed. He also visited an America army base in Italy to talk with solider from the Midwest to pick up an accent he thought would fit Bickle. De Niro also listened repeatedly to a taped reading of the diaries Arthur Bremer (who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972). Also, as you can see above, he lost 35 pounds before beginning filming. Like his work on Raging Bull, De Niro truly embodied this character and it is definitely hard to picture anyone else in this iconic role.
Bickle is supposed to be 26 years old in this film. I am currently 26 years old. That sort of blew my mind. Bickle, however, is a Vietnam vet and has clearly done “a lot more living” as they say than I have. But still, it was sort of strange and wonderful to revisit this film after all these years and discover I’m supposed to be the same age as the protagonist. I also think it’s interesting how often Bickle goes to the movies, albeit porno movies. I mean, we all know what a film nut Scorsese is in real life and a lot of his films have his characters going to the movies or discussing movies. But here we get an extreme form of the movies.
A million words have been written about this “You talking to me?” scene (including Scorsese gushing about how he wishes he could have filmed it in 3D, to which I say, “Shhhh. Scorsese, no.”), which was completely ad-libbed by De Niro, so all I really want to say is look at that framing. Look. At. It. This off-centered framing mirrors Bickle’s own self, which is more than slightly off as well.
Despite her work in acclaimed films such as The Last Picture Show, The Heartbreak Kid and Taxi Driver, Cybill Shepherd has yet to be nominated for an Oscar. She appeared opposite Bruce Willis for several seasons in the hit show Moonlighting from 1985 to 1989 and had a sitcom called Cybill, which aired for four seasons from 1995 to 1998. This screenshot is actually from the end of the film, but she is just so damn dreamy in that rear-view mirror I had to use it. I used to watch both of Sheperd’s television shows, so when I started to see her in these older movies it was fascinating to see her origins.
Like I said earlier, the only thing I really remembered from this movie the first time I saw it was that Bickle takes Betsy to a porno movie as a date. Watching it in high school, I was very shocked by the content. Watching it now, I feel the irony of the scene so much more than I did. He was doing so well, with the coffee and pie and Kris Kristofferson record (the diner scene was also completely ad-libbed) and Betsy was probably going to sleep with him that night if he wanted her to and then he goes and fucks up royally. The thing that is so interesting is how Bickle honestly doesn’t realize what he is doing. How does he not realize porno theaters are not for first dates? How out of touch can he be? It also makes me wonder how long he was in the service. He’s twenty-six, so if he just got out of the army, he might have served a full eight years, who knows how much of which was in Vietnam. That alone, without the obvious PTSD, would create some arrested development. In Bickle’s defense, though, I would like to point out that the film he takes her to, while at a porno theater, was actually a Swedish sex education film called Ur kärlekens språk (Language of Love).
Ignore Scorsese in that shirt shot, I will talk about his cameos later. When we first meet Betsy, it is a flashback as Bickle recalls the first time he saw her. He says, “She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They. . .cannot. . .touch. . .her.” This is clearly setting Betsy up as the Madonna/virgin. When we first meet Jodie Foster’s Iris, she is also wearing white (hot pants and a hat), but she is clearly a prostitute. This doubling of women is a far from subtle dissection of the Madonna/whore complex. Only, it turns the only thing on its head as the “virgin” is a grown woman and the “whore” is a child.
Jodie Foster made her television debut in 1969 and her film debut in 1972, before first working with Scorsese in his 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in this film and went on to be one of the youngest Best Actress winners for her work in 1988’s The Accused. She won again in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of three films to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress (the other two are It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). She received her fourth, and as of now, last Oscar nomination for Best Actress for 1994’s Nell. Apparently, despite her previous work with Scorsese, she was not the first choice for the role. Melanie Griffith, Linda Blair, Bo Derek and Carrie Fisher were all considered and Mariel Hemingway turned down the role due to pressure from her family (she would later receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination for 1979’s Manhattan). Foster was twelve years old while filming, so her sister Connie Foster, who was 19 at the time, was used as a body double for some of the film’s more explicit scenes. While Foster’s screen time is minimal, she makes the most of it and Iris is definitely one of the more interesting child character I’ve ever seen.
While their storyline is a bit on the strange side, De Niro and Foster have amazing chemistry together. They feel not quite like a brother and a sister, and definitely not like a father and a daughter, but more like a pair of compatriots who have both fought the hard battle of life and both of whom deal with their lives through fantasy. Iris’s outlook on life is just as skewed as Bickle’s, but with her youth, despite her situation, it’s hard not to have a little hope for her future.
Which brings us to Harvey Keitel. Despite being one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, Keitel has only received one Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor for his work in 1991’s Bugsy. I saw a documentary once where a talking head said that wherever Scorsese went early in his career, Keitel went. The two were inseparable. Keitel starred in Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets, and has featured roles in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. He plays Iris’s flamboyant pimp Sport. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Bickle says, “I’m hip,” and Sport responds with, “Funny, you don’t look hip.” The look on De Niro’s face as Sport laughs at Bickle is priceless. But it’s also interesting in that Sport is clearly high as a kite and he is making fun of Bickle, who appears to be a normal guy. We as the audience know this to not be true. Bickle himself thinks he is a “person” like everyone else and so his reaction to Sport is one of disbelief (and maybe disgust?), and we as the audience view two bizarre people who appear to be completely unaware of their unusual states of being.
Foster’s Iris thinks she can leave whenever she wants, but as we witnessed when we first met her as Sport drags her from Bickle’s car and then later when we see the emotional hook Sport has in her, we know this is not true. This scene in particular is such a hard one to watch. Sport’s manipulation of the twelve-year old Iris is nauseating, ad yet you know this happens to girls and women of all ages even to this day.
I’m still bitter that Brooks didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his work in Drive last year. He did, however, receive a nomination in that category for 1987 Best Picture nominee Broadcast News. He’s also probably best known as the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo. Brooks has a small, but pivotal role in this film as Betsy’s co-worker at the headquarters for Senator Charles Palantine, who is running for the nomination for President. This was Brooks’s film debut, having grown up in Beverly Hills in a show business family.
Boyle is probably best known now for his work on Everybody Loves Raymond; he received seven Emmy nominations for his role, though he never won. He did win an Emmy for his role as Clyde Bruckman in The X-Files episode Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. I will always remember him singing Puttin’ on The Ritz as the Monster in Mel Brooks’s 1974 film Young Frankenstein. Boyle plays a veteran cab driver named Wizard who is always telling anecdotes. One night Bickle asks him for some advice and after giving some pretty great advice that Bickle rejects he retorts, ” It’s not Bertrand Russell. But what do you want? I’m a cabbie.” It’s a great showcase for Boyle’s ability as a storyteller.
Senator Charles Palantine was one of only two roles Leonard Harris ever played, but boy what an iconic role to have, eh? John Hinckley, who was obsessed with Jodie Foster, tried to get her attention by dressing like Bickle in the final rally (shaved head and all) shooting President Ronald Reagan in 1981. He was found not guilty of attempted assassination by reason of insanity His attorney concluded his defense by playing the movie for the jury.
Now I’ll talk about the Scorsese cameos. I’m not really sure why he decided to have a cameo in the beginning (he does this in several of his films, as an homage to Hitchcock) and then also play a speaking part. He is very good as a deranged passenger who follows his wife to an apartment where she’s having an affair. It is this passenger who gives Bickle the idea to get a gun. Scorsese’s monologue is terrifying and he delivers it wonderfully.
I want to talk about a few of Scorsese’s directorial touches, some of which I can’t really discuss with images because they need motion. Scorsese’s direction in this film is not subtle and his use of movement with the camera never allows you to forget you are watching a film. In one instance, when Bickle calls Betsy to apologize, the camera starts out on Bickle at a payphone, then pans to an empty hallway. Scorsese holds the shot of the hallway through most of the conversation, then Bickle re-enters the frame and exits down the hallway. I just love it so much.
During the gun selling scene – featuring a scene-stealing Steven Prince (look him up, he’s quite a character in and of himself) – you can hear children playing in the background. Now, go pull out your DVD of Reservoir Dogs and watch the ear torture scene. You will notice that in the interlude when Michael Madsen goes to his car to get gasoline you can also hear children in the background. I have a hunch this is not a coincidence. In both instances, the addition of children’s as ambient noise during truly disturbing scenes just ups the ante that much more.
Scorsese using overhead shots like this several times throughout the film. I wish more directors used shots like these in their movies. They are just so aesthetically pleasing.
Bickle’s room, much like himself, goes through a transformation throughout the movie. I didn’t screencap all of the changes, but I think this shot speaks volumes.
I also just love this choice of shots that correspond with Bickle’s voice over.
Just before Bickle’s botched attempted assassination, he stands at the edge of the crow and watches the senator’s speech. He sticks out like a sore thumb.
There is far too much to be said about the ending. Saving Iris was heroic, yes, but is Bickle a hero? I don’t know. Does he think he’s a hero? Maybe. Does it change him? I’m not so sure.
Again, Scorsese using the overhead shot, only this time he uses a sweeping overhead shot that shows the entire aftermath of Bickle’s rescue of Iris.
We then discover that Bickle doesn’t actually die at the end, but is heralded as a hero by the newspapers (sort of like the ending of A Clockwork Orange). Even Betsy is impressed by what she reads of Bickle in the papers and seeks him out. I love how after she asks him how he is, he goes, “It was nothing really. I got over that.” It’s just such a nonchalant response, when we all know he was shot through the neck, etc. etc. I’m still not really sure why he rejects her at the end. He’s done with her? He’s saved Iris and now he doesn’t need women? I don’t know.
Some critics have suggested that the ending is all a dream and these are Bickle’s dying last thoughts. I don’t think that’s the case. I think this all happened and that makes it all the more ironic. Bickle is an attempted assassin, but in the eyes of the world he is a hero who saved a little girl from a grisly fate. Much like Network, which came out in the same year, this ending is a harsh, but true look at the world of spin in the news industry. Schrader has said that Bickle, “is not cured by the movie’s end,” and that, “he’s not going to be a hero next time.” Scorsese calls Bickle an “avenging angel floating through the streets of New York City” and that he feels that films are like dreams, so he wanted to make a film that felt like “almost being awake.” As the film ends and we leave this fever dream of a film, we realize that Bickle will never actually wake up.
Posted on January 21, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1976, Albert Brooks, Bernard Herrmann, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Leonard Harris, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Peter Boyle, Robert De Niro, Stephen Prince, Taxi Driver. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.