What’s Up With That Ending?: Taxi Driver

The ending of Taxi Driver starts off with an intense shootout, and is followed by an aftermath that many interpret as Travis Bickle’s dying dream. Should we take it as reality or is this what Travis wishes was his ending?

The ending sequence begins with a violent shootout, where Travis swings in like the John Wayne hero he’s modeled himself to be. After failing to assasinate the Senator, Travis goes to save Iris (the young prostitute he befriended) by killing her pimp and client. Travis gets shot in the neck and the arm. The shootout ends with Travis bloodied on the couch  next to a crying Iris. A cop enters and Travis mimes shooting himself in the head. Travis leans his headback and stares up at the ceiling as the camera changes to a birds-eye view of the leftover carnage. It seems like Travis is dying right there and then on the couch.

Then we find that instead of dying in the shootout, Travis survives and becomes a local hero. “Taxi driver…” the headline reads on the newspaper clippings hung on Travis’ apartment wall.  We hear a thankful letter written by Iris’ parents. Iris has returned home thanks to Travis’ intervention.

This all feels quite implausible, that Travis was able to come out a hero despite having murdered several people in cold blood. It is possible  First of all, with the crazy mohawk and interaction with the cops, Travis looked like anything but a hero. Also, the easily spotted mohawked Travis was just seen approaching the Senator in a manner of attempted assassination. His wounds shown in the shootout, especially the one in his neck, seemed quite severe as well. And lastly, his gun was unregistered, which he mentions in the film after killing the store robber.

The next sequence and final scene we see Travis with his hair grown back as it used to be. We see Travis get into his taxi cab. As he is driving, we see Betsy in the rear view mirror. We only see her in the mirror, so he could easily be talking to himself and imagining all this, but then we see her get out of the car.

Betsy seems smitten and impressed with Travis, she mentions having read about his heroism in the papers. This I find the most difficult to believe. After that horribly awkward date, and that Travis continually stalked her afterwards, I don’t see how Betsy could have wanted to reconnect with Travis again.

But while several elements of these scenes seem to be very dream-like, it becomes clear from interviews with the writer Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese that they were not writing or filming it with the idea of a “dreamscape” in mind.Scorsese comments on the DVD commentary saying that the odd shot of Travis glancing at an unseen object in the mirror shows that he is like a “ticking time bomb” and will easily fall into rage and recklessness again. Or, as Paul Schrader puts it, that Travis is “not cured by the movie’s end. He’s not going to be a hero next time”.

The scenes after the shootout do seem too good to be true, as if it is Travis’ imagination running wild with the public reaction to him saving the day. But, keeping the filmmaker’s intention in mind, we put the facts and logistics aside and see what the film wants to get across by having these sequences be reality.

1976, New York, New York, USA --- Overhead view of the bloody aftermath of Travis Bickle's killing spree from Martin Scorsese's . --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

All throughout the film, Travis has been looking for an outlet for his violent thoughts, a way to escape the loneliness that’s been plaguing him. And only by acting out violently is he able to escape it. When everything with Betsy fell through, Travis turned to the next best thing, Iris. By killing her pimp and her seedy client, he is able to live out and fulfill the hero fantasy. And right there to help him is the American media.

It is ironic that Travis, the perpetual outsider becomes celebrated in society by violating its laws. The law-abiding Travis was invisible, but the murderous Travis is a hero. This validates Travis’ criticisms of New York society (especially wrought in the tensions of post-Vietnam), which tolerates and praises violent behavior. But how society perceives him is entirely based on who’s at the end of the gun. Had Travis assassinated the politician, his fate would have been much different. But by killing grimy pimps and mobsters, Travis is a hero. And the media is right there to perpetuate it, to blow  up Travis’ heroism even further.

I do believe it is easy to see all the scenes after the shootout as Travis’ dream of wish fulfillment. The filmmakers filmed those scenes as the truth, that Travis got away with the murders but will end up murdering again. Of course the ending is still open to interpretation, but having the ending be truth shows how easily media and society feeds off of violence,  and those that are isolated from others can easily fall into it.

Top 10: Robert De Niro Performances

 For those who knew of Robert De Niro only from the late 90s on, you know him as the funny old guy from Analyze This, or the father-in-law from Meet the Parents. During the 70s and 80s, De Niro was considered one of the greatest and best actors of his peers. He used the Method for many of his roles, physically and emotionally transforming himself to become some of the greatest characters in film history. From his start in early Brian DePalma comedies to becoming Scorsese’s first protege before Leo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro has a long career spanning the decades, starring in some of the greatest films in movie history. It’s really impossible to choose just 10 great performances, many of them are going to be unmentioned, but here’s what I consider to be his Top 10 performances.

1. Jake LaMotta – Raging Bull

Robert De Niro won the Oscar for his emotionally intense performance as the brutal boxer Jake LaMotta. There is so much that I could say about this performance. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest film performances of all time. This scene below (which I analyzed here) reveals the tenderness inside of LaMotta, revealing his broken humanity for all the outside chaos and destruction he causes.

2. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver

The isolated and delusional psychopath is one of De Niro’s most famous and memorable roles. . His infamous “You talkin’ to me” scene was completely ad-libbed, which proves just how much De Niro absorbed himself into this role of rage-fueled loner.

3. Leonard Lowe – Awakenings

It’s often looked upon as a cliche that when an actor plays a character with a disability they are baiting for an Oscar. But what many people don’t understand is just how difficult it is for an actor to effectively pull off a physical or vocal disability. When I first saw Awakenings, De Niro’s performance blew me away. Leonard Lowe has a disability, almost a “locked in” syndrome, losing all movement and speech patterns. A drug is developed that nearly cures him, but it slowly starts losing it’s power and Leonard regresses back. De Niro received a well-deserved Oscar nomination (and should’ve won, in my opinion) for his heartbreaking and inspiring performance. It takes a lot of talent to pull something like that off.

4. Michael Vronsky – The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is an intesnse portrayal of the Vietnam War. The famous Russian Roulette scene shown below shows just what high stakes and tensions De Niro had to portray. (As well as the amazing Christopher Walken) The rest of the performance is a quiet but devestation study of trauma. De Niro described it as the most draining film he ever performed in. Watching it, you can easily see why. De Niro effectively portrays the uneasy act of assimilation after returning back home from seeing such horrors of war.

5. Rupert Pupkin – The King of Comedy

De Niro and Scorsese teamed up in a change of pace from dark gangster pictures with The King of Comedy, a social satire on the obsession with fame and celebrity. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabee comic who goes so far to kidnap and hold his idol hostage to be on his show. De Niro gives Pupkin over the top mannerisms and speech, a performance that perfectly balances the desperation and tenacity of the character. This role can be seen a sister role to Travis Bickle, for Pupkin is just as delusional and unhinged.

6. David “Noodles” Aaronson Once Upon a Time in America

Noodles is a complicated role in Sergio Leone’s near four-hour epic. It is a mostly somber and quiet performance, Noodles spends most of the film as a sad and heartbroken wanderer, or an introspective outsider of his gang. But Noodles is not entirely likeable. There are two, one especially shocking, rape scenes in the film. Noodles can be equally savage as he is subdued. De Niro manages to brilliantly pull it off. (You can see more of my thoughts on his performance here)

7. Max Cady – Cape Fear

This is a deliciously over-the-top but equally terrifying performance. De Niro is a released convict that terrorizes the family of the lawyer who ineptly defended him. De Niro dons a thick Southern drawl, body builds for tight muscles which are decorated with religious tattoos. His eerily accurate portrayal of a sexual predator is in the scene below. (I analyzed that scene and his performance here)

8. Vito Corleone – The Godfather Part II

De Niro had a difficult job to do when being cast as the young Vito Corleone. Not only did he have to learn and perfect Sicilian dialogue (his lines were mostly in that language, with only sprinkles of English) but he had to fill the shoes of the great Marlon Brando. Brando made his role of Don Vito Corleone infamous in film history. De Niro had to evoke his performance while making it his own. De Niro achieves this and more. He tactfully echos familiar gestures and expressions that Brando used as Vito. He won Best Supporting Actor for this performance.

9. Father Bobby – Sleepers

Sleepers is rather underrated, but De Niro gives a great performance. He plays a priest who is a mentor to a group of boys in the city. The boys end up in prison where they are terrorized and raped by one of the guards. There’s a scene that is just a slow close-up on De Niro, a reaction shot to him hearing what happened to his young friends. De Niro encompasses a huge array of emotions with just one look.

10 Jack Walsh – Midnight Run

De Niro is well-known nowadays for making fun of his tough guy image with Analyze This, Meet the Parents, and the shameful The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. But one of his lighter roles in the hilarious Midnight Run is a great performance. De Niro has a clear flair for comedy as the fast-talking curmudgeon Jack Walsh. If you want to see more of his better comedic roles, watch We’re No Angels and Jackie Brown.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faU71nh6EdE

Top 10: Child Performances

Can children, with little life experience as adults, reach the same heights of incredible performances as their older peers? Does their optimism and lack of self- consciousness leave them open for expressing themselves without fear? (Something that adult actors need to achieve to succeed.) These child performances prove that some children are just as capable as delivering incredible performances as adults.

1. Henry Thomas (Age 11) – E.T.

To make E.T. work, you needed a young actor who could form a connection with the animatronic puppet, to make the world believe E.T. was a living thing. Steven Spielberg is known for his ability to get great performances out of children (Drew Barrymore of course, also for E.T. and others in this list) Henry Thomas is able to create Elliot’s loneliness that transforms when he establishes such a heartfelt and passionate bond with his friend. Look at his incredible audition tape (auditions are not easy, even for adults. The reader usually doesn’t give you much emotion to feedback on. You have to muster the relationship/reactions yourself.)

2. River Phoenix (Age 15) – Stand By Me

River Phoenix was an actor taken from us far too soon. The depth shown in his early performances shows what he would have accomplished as an adult actor. He seemed wise beyond his years in his role as Chris Chambers, the boy unable to escape his label as a rebel. He portrayed insecurities and complexities with an adult-like wisdom, something very rare in a child actor.

3. Christian Bale  (Age 13) – Empire of the Sun 

Again proving his penchant for finding and working with child actors, Steven Spielberg discovered Christian Bale, one of the finest actors of our generation. Young Christian Bale carries this near three-hour movie, often having to act alone. Jamie goes from a young enthusiastic (but spoiled) boy, to a shell-shocked young man scarred by war. In his childhood performance, we can see the seeds of what an incredible actor he’d become as an adult.

4. Jode Foster (Age 12) – Taxi Driver

Jodie Foster, even at her young age, already had over 30 credits behind her, far more than even some of her adult contemporaries. It’s quite hard to believe she’s only 12 years old in this film. But she is indeed a young girl, a girl who is filled with both an adult-like world-weary cynicism and youthful vitality.While Taxi Driver has some hardcore material for a young kid, (she is, after all, playing a prostitute) Jodie Foster displays an almost uncomfortable acute understanding of her character Iris. Jodie Foster certainly more than holds her own with Robert De Niro.

5. Jamie Bell (Age 14) – Billy Elliot

For the title role of Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell brought his exceptional acting skills as well as dance skills for the confused and sensitive character. He truly captures the tough boy with a gift, the simmering anger of someone who just wants to break free.

6. Haley Joel Osment (Age 12) – A.I. Artificial Intelligence 

As with other Steven Spielberg films, the job of the young actor is to carry the film. But not only does Haley Joel Osment (also known for his fantastic performance in The Sixth Sense) have to be the lead, but he also has a complex role in the film. He has to pretend to be a robot, a young boy playing a machine who comes grapples with human feelings, wanting to be something he is not. To understand and portray those abstract thoughts shows his talent at such a young age.

7. Saoirse Ronan (Age 12) – Atonement

Briony quickly becomes a character you love to hate, but Saoirse Ronan brings a powerful strength to Briony. Though she seems dreamy with wide-eyed innocence, Saorise gives Briony a fierce, calculating, and intimidating essence. Saoirse brings to life a dedicated but fanciful young girl who perseveres without knowing the consequences of her actions.

8. Natalie Portman (Age 11) – Leon: The Professional 

Like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Natalie Portman takes on a mature role with equally mature material. (there’s even a bit of pedophiliac sexual tension between Leon and her character…seen in the cut scene below) Left an orphan after her parents are killed, she is raging, she is wild, she is dark. This is a role with material that is far beyond most children’s understanding, but somehow at her young age Natalie Portman is able to create a fully realized young girl with a lot of demons inside.

9. Tatum O’Neal (Age 9)  – Paper Moon

Tatum O’Neal plays a tough cookie in the Depression-era film, winning an Oscar for this role. She was nominated for Best Supporting, but really she is the lead actress. With her searing glares but inner broken spirit, and fantastic banter and chemistry with her real-life dad (Ryan O’Neal), she is deserving. (But yes, so was Linda Blair who was also nominated against her that year…) It breaks my heart to know what Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s relationship was really like.

10. Hailee Steinfeld (Age 14) – True Grit

Haliee Steinfeld managed to bring strength and feistiness that Mattie Ross deserves with a rich undercurrent of vulnerability. A child trying so hard to grow up and be an adult for the sake of avenging her father. What is most impressive is that she completely holds her own against her famous co-stars, just look at this scene below with Jeff Bridges as an example. She doesn’t fade into the background, she stands out loud and proud.