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How Taxi Driver ruined acting

How Taxi Driver ruined acting

Every actor with something to prove longs
to play a character like Travis Bickle. But
forty years after “Taxi Driver” was made,
Robert De Niro has yet to meet his match

Every actor with something to prove longs
to play a character like Travis Bickle. But
forty years after “Taxi Driver” was made,
Robert De Niro has yet to meet his match

Tom Shone | May 6th 2016

“Every day, for 40 fucking years, one of you has stopped me on the street and said, ‘You talkin’ to me?’” groused Robert De Niro at a recent Q&A at the Tribeca Film festival reuniting the makers of “Taxi Driver”. Martin Scorsese, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shepherd and screenwriter Paul Schrader all swapped anecdotes, and De Niro led the audience in one last rendition of his most famous line, in an effort to expunge the ghost. He’s not the only one haunted by the role, which remains the template for every young Hollywood actor eager to put the lucre of blockbuster dollars behind them with a walk on the indie wild side: Christian Bale in “The Machinist”, Ryan Gosling in “Drive”, Sam Rockwell in “Seven Psychopaths”, in which he plays an actor who believes himself to be the illegitimate son of Travis Bickle. They all believe that. “‘Taxi Driver’ is the ultimate independent-movie performance,” Leonardo DiCaprio has said. “Playing a character like Travis Bickle is every young actor’s wet dream.”
 
It’s not hard to see the appeal. As the alienated Vietnam vet-turned-New York driver, collecting cab fares and resentments before exploding in one awful night of violence, De Niro is a ticking time bomb, a black hole of a man intent on taking New York City personally, staring everyone down as if training rifle sights onto their foreheads. Travis is no mere character, subject to the plot of “Taxi Driver”: he is the plot. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” he says in voiceover, in the flat, pedantic tone of someone reading aloud a letter of complaint about drainage to their local council. It is the tone of autodidacts, sociopaths and bores, and Travis is all three. Therein lies the genius of De Niro’s performance. It lets us see that if we met a sociopath, we would, in all likelihood, be bored to tears. Sociopaths aren’t charismatic – they’re anoraks.
 
Most of the anecdotes served up at the Beacon Theatre – how De Niro got his cabbie licence to prepare for the part, how screenwriter Paul Schrader hit bottom before writing it, how Foster hated her outfits – were already known, but the best insight into what it’s like to act opposite De Niro comes from Foster on the film’s DVD. After describing her initial trepidation at appearing opposite the Oscar winner, she recalls how De Niro would pick her up at the same time every day for several weeks and take her to a diner to walk through the script. “After the first time, I was completely bored,” she says. “I think I rolled my eyes at times because he really was awkward.” Take away Travis’s Magnum and what do you have? He bored her into familiarity with him. 

De Niro would achieve even greater acclaim for his performance in “Raging Bull”, in which all the rage in Travis is made manifest. But the performance that Scorsese regarded as De Niro’s best, and in many ways the true apotheosis of all that lurked in Travis, was his wannabe comedian in “The King of Comedy”, Rupert Pupkin. A small masterpiece of passive-aggression, Pupkin masks his anger with a tight smile and a laugh like he’s counted all the “ha”s in the script. 
 
None of his imitators understand that it is this vein of demented pedantry that makes De Niro’s best performances. They think the key to Travis is that final act of violence – just watch the endings of “Breaking Bad”, last year’s Cannes winner “Dheepan” and countless Sundance features about lone-wolf psychotics, from “Snow Angels” to “Seven Psychopaths”. There’s a scene in Nicholas Winding Refn's “Drive” where Ryan Gosling, who plays a cool-cat getaway driver known only as Driver, suddenly smashes a man’s head open in an elevator, stamping on it until its splits like a pumpkin. It comes out of nowhere, a Scorsese power chord interrupting a Michael Mann movie – that is, until you learn that Gosling is a big fan of “Taxi Driver”, at which point all becomes horribly clear. “I think [Driver and Travis] share that fantasy of needing to be a hero,” Gosling has said. But where “Drive” indulges that fantasy, “Taxi Driver” denies it: that final night of violence is cataclysmic, but also spasmodic and full of misfires. Travis botches his own suicide; the gun barrel clicks empty.
 
Playing a psychopath has become one of those things young actors do to tell us they’ve matured, like growing a beard or working with a European arthouse director. De Niro was 33 when he appeared in Scorsese’s movie, and had spent most of his twenties scrounging a living from the dinner theatre circuit, making movies that couldn’t find distributors, and gluing the windows of his one-room walk-up together to keep the New York winters out. The stew of alienation and resentment that propelled Travis Bickle across the screen was real. DiCaprio, Gosling and Bale are all ex-child actors who have, from an early age, known only lionization. Their primary motive when choosing parts is to jam the radar of Hollywood casting agents and put their years in the Mickey Mouse Club behind them.
 
We may have seen too many pretty boys intent on proving their dark side. The best performance in this vein that I have seen recently was from an actress, Riley Keough, who plays a law-firm intern moonlighting as a high-class call girl in the Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience”. The TV show could almost be Bret Easton Ellis’s favourite: there’s lots of stainless steel and mirrored glass, underscored with moody electronic hums; Keough moves affectlessly from room to room, blandly mirroring men’s desires back at them. “You’re like a female Ted Bundy,” a client tells her. She’s a sociopath but Keough doesn't play her as a cipher: the cogs whirring behind that beautiful clock-face are in almost constant motion. And when her lies finally catch up with her, in episodes eight and nine, Keough pulls off something truly spectacular: a meltdown of cool hellfire both real and feigned, one that may offer a glimpse of her vulnerable inner life – that is, unless it’s her most cunning check-mate yet. Move over Travis. Your daughter is in town.  

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