Just a few hours after John W. Hinckley Jr. tried to gatecrash his way into history by shooting President Ronald Reagan, the Associated Press reported that the would-be assassin was already claiming extenuating circumstances: the movies made him do it.
According to an AP news bulletin, Hinckley was obsessed with an unrequited love for actress Jodie Foster, who at the time was still best known for playing a 12-year-old prostitute opposite Robert De Niro's troubled Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Five years after the Martin Scorsese film had shocked audiences and polarized critics throughout the world, Hinckley decided to imitate Travis Bickle by taking aim at Reagan. Why? Because Hinckley figured this would impress Foster. After all, the AP reported, De Niro told Foster at one point in Scorsese's movie: "If you don't love me, I'm gonna shoot the president."
Quite a shocking story. Trouble is, it was no more accurate than Hinckley's aim.
Yes, Hinckley did indeed harbor lust in his heart for Foster. And yes, he did see Taxi Driver. But, no, De Niro never said anything remotely like that line. (A personal note: at the time, I was interim entertainment editor for the Dallas Morning News. Minutes after the bulletin hit the wire, I called AP to report the error. In all likelihood, other journalists in other cities did the same. But if a correction ran, I never saw it.)
In point of fact, De Niro's Travis Bickle was never particularly interested in earning the love of Foster's underage hooker. The object of Bickle's obsessive affection was a presidential campaign worker played by Cybill Shepherd -- who, it should be noted, has never complained about going unmentioned in all the post-Hinckley stories about Taxi Driver.
Of course, even if you saw the movie during its initial release in 1976, you might not remember that Shepherd was in the movie at all. For that matter, you may not recall that the baby-faced fellow who worked with her in the storefront campaign office was played by actor-filmmaker Albert Brooks (later better know for Broadcast News and Lost in America). If only to refresh your memory about these and other details, you should strongly consider making a visit to the Greenway 3 Theatre, where Taxi Driver opens Friday as part of a 20th anniversary theatrical re-release.
Another good reason to make the trip: this is Taxi Driver the way Martin Scorsese wants you to see it, on a big screen in a fully restored print with newly remixed stereo sound. (This will be your very first opportunity to hear composer Bernard Herrmann's jazz-flavored score in Dolby.) Forget about having to make do with home video or cable TV. Now you can fully appreciate -- again, or for the first time -- the inspired cinematography of Michael Chapman. Particularly during Bickle's long drives through the meanest streets in New York, Chapman vividly conveys a foreboding ambiance of neon-lit decay and rain-washed dread. (The nighttime sequences are so visually arresting, so indelibly memorable, you may have forgotten, as I did, that much of the story takes place during daylight.) The famous opening shot, in which an ineffably menacing yellow cab slowly glides through a ghostly cloud of steam, instantly evokes the unsettling mood that Scorsese sustains through every frame that follows.
Scorsese directed Taxi Driver from a screenplay by Paul Schrader. Both men subsequently recycled themes and elements from this collaborative effort in other works -- Scorsese in The King of Comedy, Schrader in Light Sleeper. But it's debatable whether either filmmaker remains as closely associated with Taxi Driver as its star.
By now, De Niro's performance as Travis Bickle is so firmly established in our collective pop-culture consciousness that it's almost impossible to believe that another actor was ever considered for the role. And yet, in Mary Pat Kelly's Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Schrader admits there was a period during pre-production when it appeared Scorsese would have to hire Jeff Bridges in order to obtain financing. It's intriguing to consider how this alternative casting could have affected Bridges' career: if he had played Travis Bickle, would audiences have been able to ever again accept him as a boyishly engaging romantic lead? But perhaps not playing Bickle would have had an even more profound impact on De Niro
For all his undeniable skill as a movie actor, De Niro has never been a movie star: Audiences have never been able to warm up to the guy. Some of this is De Niro's fault. With very few exceptions -- his animated star turn in Night and the City, his juicy cameo bit in Brazil -- his performances hardly ever convey any discernible pleasure in performing on camera. De Niro can be very good -- hell, he can be downright astonishing -- but you rarely get the feeling that he's enjoying himself. As opposed to, say, Tom Hanks, who gives the impression of being someone who can't wait to get to the set each morning. And, like it or not, that's the sort of thing that can color an audience's response to an actor.
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But even if De Niro injected a bit more jolliness into his performances, he would still have to deal with the legacy of Travis Bickle. Two decades after he stunned audiences with his mesmerizing portrayal of "God's lonely man" (as Bickle describes himself), De Niro continues to be so strongly linked to the role, even by people who have never actually seen Taxi Driver, that I suspect moviegoers simply don't trust him. That is, I think that even people who are too young to have seen Taxi Driver when it first came out, or who have never seen anything more than clips of Bickle's "You talkin' to me?" monologue, still have it in their heads whenever they see De Niro on-screen that, uh-oh, this guy could blow up at any second. This has less to do with the naivete of movie audiences than the drop-dead brilliance of De Niro's performance.
Sean Connery will never completely break free of James Bondage. Michael Caine will forever be Alfie for moviegoers of a certain age. And Robert De Niro? He has played many other roles, several of them superbly. But for a very large segment of the movie-going public, he will always be, on some primal level, Travis Bickle. The newly reissued Taxi Driver makes it very clear why that is so.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. With Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvery Keitel and Cybill Shepherd.