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Written by Timothy Sexton
Question: What do you when a millennial asks a question like “Was that guy who plays the dirty grandfather really considered a great actor back in the day?” Answer: Show the rightfully confused but obviously ignorant young person a movie like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or The King of Comedy. While they are receiving a much-needed lesson in Hollywood history, also take the time to point out that once upon a time DeNiro was the type of actor so committed to getting a role right that he would actually spend 12-hour shifts driving a cab through New York to prepare for a role. DeNiro signed on to play Travis Bickle with his most fruitful collaborator Martin Scorsese prior to winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather, Part II and the result was an ambivalent tension between the producers at the suits at Columbia which was the studio that greenlighted the film. Those studio execs were showing their true colors by looking for any excuse to halt production of a film they were having serious second thoughts about backing due to its inflammatory violence. The producers knew that if the suddenly red hot DeNiro decided he deserved a bigger salary as an Oscar-winner or he’d walk, Columbia would prefer the latter. The tension was short-lived, however, as DeNiro quickly let it be known he was equally committed to the film and the paycheck he signed on for. The decision paid off for DeNiro in a far bigger way that any contract renegotiation might have. As the star rather than a supporting player speaking in Italian, Taxi Driver did more to make DeNiro a star than even his Oscar-winning performance. The film was also a surprise box office powerhouse that nabbed a Best Oscar nomination for DeNiro which he would probably have were it not for two significant events: his winning the Supporting Actor trophy the year two years earlier and eventual winner Peter Finch unexpecting passing away shortly after the nominations were announced.
Iris is a teenage prostitute. Jodie Foster was a teenager at the time she played Iris. This knowledge perhaps makes it a bit easier to understand why the suits at Columbia were so nervous about the film actually getting made. Understand the mindset of movie studio honchos, yes; empathize with the occasional demonstrations of artistically destructive conservatism in an industry routinely lambasted for its wicked liberalism not so much. Foster received her first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for the role. Of course, five years after the film’s release, Foster would go from supporting actress in a film to supporting player in the attempted assassination of a President when John Hinkley revealed his obsession with Taxi Driver and Foster was the catalyst which stimulated his near-fatal shooting of Pres. Ronald Reagan.
Various sources have at one time or another reported that Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Liza Minelli, Barbara Hershey and Susan Sarandon all turned the role of Bickle’s first blonde damsel in distress down, director Martin Scorsese rejected Mia Farrow and Goldie Hawn and that his first preference was Mary Steenburgen and, finally, that the producers were satisfied with Cybill Shepherd but had really been angling for the hottest blonde on the planet at the time: Farrah Fawcett. Of course, eventually Shepherd beat them all, but the skinny from the set was that Scorsese grew so frustrated with the performance that he eventually just started showing her exactly how to say her lines just before he shot each scene.
While the collaborative teaming of director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert DeNiro is widely regarded as one of the most fruitful in film history, it must be remembered that Taxi Driver was the fourth film Scorsese film that Keitel appeared in. The role of Iris’ pimp does not get a lot of screen time, but his presence looms large in part due to the film’s orgy of violence near the end and in part due to Keitel’s almost perfectly modulated performance capable of flipping from manic energy in one scene to quietly seductive in another with no loss of personality integration.
That Taxi Driver is intended to be read on one level as a very perverse modern reinterpretation of classic tales of Arthurian knights is manifested by the appearance of the movie’s own novel version of Merlin. The philosophical taxi driver who serves as a mentor of sorts for Travis is not exactly invested with magic powers, but it can be argued that his words of advice do have a somewhat magical effect on the future course his young friend charts. The Peter Boyle career took him directly from the Creature in Young Frankenstein to Wizard in Taxi Driver is really the only testament needed to prove he was one of the most versatile actors of his generation.
Speaking of versatility, one might well wonder what noted comic actor and frequent supplier of guest voices on The Simpsons, Albert Brooks, is doing in a violent Martin Scorsese film. The answer, as usual with Brooks, is stealing scenes. The political campaign operative, Tom, didn’t have many lines at all in Paul Schrader’s original screenplay, but through his magnificent improvisational skills, Brooks succeeded in fleshing out the character into a vital supporting player.
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