Robert De Niro is by now a metaphoric breezeblock in the pantheon of all-time greatest actors, whether you like his performances or not. Although of late he has, perhaps unsurprisgly, quietly and comfortably slipped into that docile soubrette of a geriatric man in Hollywood, landing such self-parodic roles as Dirty Grandpa.
But, like a comfortable slipper past its best, De Niro has a warm and historic wealth of well-trodden performances. Too numerous to list in full, some of his roles widely regarded to be his best include Raging Bull and Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese), The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola), and Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone).
Arguably at his peak between the ‘70s and early ‘90s, many of his most notorious roles were delivered when working in partnership with Martin Scorsese, a fellow New Yorker and long-time friend. It is said that both the director and actor grew up in the Greenwich Village district of Manhattan, just blocks apart. It wasn’t until 1972 when they first met that they realised they had potentially seen each other dozens of times but simply never spoke.
Four years later and with a Scorsese picture already under his belt in the form of Mean Streets, De Niro and the Italian-American director collaborated once again on Taxi Driver, a neon- and rain-soaked noir pastiche of ‘70s New York through the eyes of Travis Bickle, an army vet-turned-cabbie who wants nothing more than to get on with – and find purpose for – his life.
We first meet Bickle whilst applying for a job as a New York taxi driver, immediately displaying the fierce intensity and charming wit which came to define De Niro in many of his roles since. “Any time, anywhere,” the mealy-mouthed vet repeats to the clerk with the wry grin of a man who has perhaps already been around the block plenty (or so he likes to seem). Because for all his extroverted bravado, Bickle is a shy, and even sometimes naïve, man: A “walking contradiction,” as the radiant Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) puts it, all at once rugged, street-smart and tough, yet also flighty, inward-facing and easily rattled. The kind of man who has the confidence to stroll into a woman’s place of work to ask her out, only to then take her to a porno movie thinking it would be a good idea. It is a dichotomic and at times tragic performance which makes it such an affecting and (to a strange degree) relatable watch.
A Multi-Faceted Performance
As the story unfolds – and as Bickle’s new job opens his already tired eyes to the “filth” and excesses of the city at night – the viewer witnesses his transition from New York cabbie to political assassin, to an all-round vigilante-turned good guy. It is a morally ambiguous and absolutely contradictory set of events, climaxing with Bickle ruthlessly murdering numerous people in a kind-hearted (and successful) attempt at relieving the 12-year-old Iris (Jodie Foster) from a grimy life of prostitution and drug-addiction.
Although arrested at first after failing to commit suicide, he is later eulogised for his heroic actions in a bizarre story set to the jazzy undertones of Dave Blume and framed by the expressionistic and at-time delirious photography of Michael Chapman (who was arguably channeling the likes of Janet Delaney, Joel Mereyowitz and Saul Leiter of the booming street photography scene of that era).
De Niro’s performance as this alienated yet aspirational Everyman is not only perhaps his defining role, it has also been extremely influential on the landscape of cinema and popular culture; the 'are you talkin’ to me' line has since become one of the most famous in cinema history, even though it was improvised and based on something Bruce Springsteen once said at a concert. What follows immediately after is perhaps lesser known but an arguably more affecting inner monologue taken from Bickle’s omnipresent 'diary of a taxi driver'. Its less expletive conclusion reads:
‘Here is a man who stood up
Ultimately it is a fine example of true commitment to a role, and not least because De Niro obtained a license to drive a cab in Manhattan for months in preparation for it. Much of his dialogue was improvised and the central themes of grief, loneliness, boredom and purpose within his performance resonate throughout the film as excerpts from Bickle's journal - dry and monotonal as it manifests itself into a kind of skewed ethos. 'Life', according to Travis Bickle, delivered by Robert De Niro. And there is no faulting the actor's raw conviction and multi-faceted role in this film, which is all at once brazen, emphatic and fragile.
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