Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver


             Travis Bickle is a character in movies that has endured for over 30 years and who will never be forgotten. This is not only because of the unfortunate repercussions the performance is now linked to, but also because of Robert De Niro's terrifying realistic performance of this unsettling character.
Taxi Driver was released in 1976 and was directed by the legendary director Martin Scorsese. The film was well reviewed at the time and it received four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress Jodie Foster, Best Screenplay by Paul Schrader, Best Picture, and Best Actor for Robert De Niro. The film has not only stood the test of time but is now regarded as a classic American film of the 1970s and was ranked #47 on AFI's list of the 100 Greatest American Films.
The story of Taxi Driver follows Travis Bickle who is a lonely Vietnam veteran and is a looking for a job in New York City. Travis gets a job as a cab driver and through his job he becomes disgusted with the city of New York. Travis sees the worst the city has to offer: teenage prostitution, unsavory neighborhoods, and the general filth of the city. Travis later remarks to a Presidential Candidate that, "I think someone should just take this city and just... just flush it down the fuckin' toilet."
The central theme of Taxi Driver is loneliness and what loneliness can do a to an unhinged man doing a job where he sees the worst of human life. Travis remarks to himself that, "Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man." Travis tries to get himself out of his despair in a couple different ways. First, Travis becomes obsessed with a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepard) who works at the same Presidential candidate's campaign office. Travis asks Betsy out on a date and she accepts, but in a hilariously awkward scene Travis chooses the worst date location possible and takes Betsy on a date to see a pornographic movie. Betsy is offended by this and decides she never wants to see Travis again.
Travis then decides he needs to do something great with his life and believes he should go assassinate the Presidential candidate that Betsy is working for. When that plan fails Travis decides to put his energy into saving a 13-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) from her domineering pimp.

Iris (Jodie Foster) with Travis Bickle (Deniro)
 This is not a performance where you ever really see Robert De Niro acting, he simply is Travis Bickle. To get into character De Niro actually drove around cabs in New York City for 12 hours a day for months. He also studied various kinds of mental illness that pertained to Travis's condition.
Even though, Travis Bickle is a showy character who does a lot of questionable acts, De Niro's performance is never theatrical. De Niro conveys Travis's anguish and feelings mainly through his body language which is usually contorted, or through glances with his eyes. He also speaks in a very monotone voice to express Travis's apathy and depression. The character of Travis goes through a rapid transition a little over halfway through the film when Travis decides he needs to get in shape and he cuts his hair into a Mohawk in order to prepare himself to assassinate the Presidential candidate. During these scenes where we watch Travis training and getting into shape, we also see a mental transition in De Niro's performance. De Niro's body posture and eyes become much more straight and direct, as we witness Travis becoming a much more focused and confident man, who now has a definite mission in his life. It’s absolutely frightening to watch De Niro's performance from a lonely pathetic though relatively harmless Travis becoming a driven lunatic. This is because through De Niro's performance we truly get to know and may even sympathize with the lonely Travis, but once Travis truly becomes the loner lunatic assassin we suddenly get a new perspective on how a real life person like John Hinkley or the recent Tucson shooter Jeremy Loughner could get to this state of mind.
John Hinkley Jr.
In fact, in the years leading up to John Hinkley Jr.'s attempted assassination attempt on Ronald Reegan he was obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver. Hinkley had seen the movie over 15 times and became infatuated with the actress Jodie Foster, who in the movie plays the 13-year-old prostitute Travis is trying to save. Hinkley thought that Jodie Foster might appreciate him if he assassinated President Ronald Reegan because Foster was not very supportive of Reegan's conservative policies.
Jeremy Loughner
I firmly do not believe we can condemn the movie Taxi Driver for Hinkley's action. Hinkley was probably always going to become a disturbed loner mad man who turned violent. What we can see in Taxi Driver is why John Hinkley identified so strongly with Travis Bickle through De Niro's extraordinary performance. While we may not want to ever identify with a person like John Hinkley or Jeremy Loughner it is helpful to understand the human condition that could possibly drive a man to do something so awful. And through De Niro's performance we see the process firsthand and its incredibly believable.
The most famous scene of Taxi Driver and one of the most famous movie lines in all of cinema,
"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?"
was actually an improvisation from Robert De Niro. Scorsese had De Niro stand in front of a mirror with a gun and say the first things that came to his mind, and because De Niro was so invested in his character he was able to come up with one of the greatest and most memorable lines in all of movies. 

While many actors since have portrayed mad-men loners who want to assassinate a political or important social figures; no actor has ever done it so startling and convincingly as Robert De Niro. De Niro's performance as Travis Bickle is one of the most powerful performances of all time, never have I witnessed an actor explore such an unsavory character with so much depth and understanding. Now, whenever I see reports of a loner gun man on the news I think of Travis Bickle.
To learn more about the connection between John Hinkley Jr. and Taxi Driver click here.
To learn more about the movie Taxi Driver click here.

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