One of my favorite quotes is from New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams: "The pure products of America go crazy."
Is there a purer product of America than Travis Bickle, the protagonist of "Taxi Driver"?
"Taxi Driver" was recently reissued in a new print and had a run in a New York City revival house to mark its 20th anniversary. It has long been out on video.
Directed by Martin Scorcese, "Taxi Driver" is the most authentic film portrait of that American archetype, the loner who goes berserk. Screenwriter Paul Schrader said he based his script on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin of George Wallace.
Bickle, portrayed by Robert De Niro, is an insomniac cabbie who works the graveyard shift in Manhattan. We know Bickle is a Vietnam veteran, but he has no other background--no family, no school chums, no neighborhood, no ties to any discernable past. He is a blank slate and what he becomes is what we can see inscribed on him in the course of the movie.
Bickle's efforts to break out of the shell of his loneliness are mostly futile. A beautiful woman toys with him, then blows him off. A cabbie pal gives inane advice. A politician patronizes him.
Unfocused rage grows inside him. He builds his muscles, buys guns, shaves his head.
His famous "You talkin' to me?" speech in the mirror is simultaneously a display of bravado, evidence of his split personality, and a galvanic moment of existential awareness.
When Bickle meets and befriends a teen-age prostitute, he is touched. Two people without guile, they connect on an almost child-like level. His inchoate anger focuses on the girl's abusive pimp and takes lethal shape.
Behind De Niro is one of the finest supporting casts to grace any movie, including Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Peter Boyle. Scorcese gives himself a small role where he spits racial epithets (something that Quentin Tarantino, interestingly, also did in "Pulp Fiction").
Manhattan itself, all belching steam grates and bleary neon, is also a supporting character of sorts. It's a city dank with morbid humours, the kind of atmosphere that can seep through your pores.
De Niro's genius is in giving Bickle a chilling blankness of expression, the level gaze that bespeaks pathology more than any scowl. Lee Harvey Oswald had that look. So does Timothy McVeigh.
"Taxi Driver" was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, but didn't win any. Best picture Oscar for 1976 went to "Rocky."
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