“I got some bad ideas in my head”
Martin Scorsese . 1975
Welcome to hell on wheels. A yellow cab’s wheels driven by the driven Travis Bickle, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, cabbie, killer, a broken, desperate soul drowning in the sound and fury of New York. “All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take 'em to Harlem. I don't care. Don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me.”
Inspired by the one failed political assassination (of George Wallace in 1972) and motivating another (the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan), the film, said Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, is a hell… “from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down. Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis's rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he's suffering.”
I was there at the May 1976 Cannes festival when we were all pulverised by the brutal passion and audacity of the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro tsunami. Dustin Hoffman regretted refusing it - because he thought Martin Scorsese was crazy! (Most people thought Hoffman crazy for also rejecting Bergman and Fellini offers).
Travis Bickle . There were 22 other candidates for the ionic loner. From the obvious (James Caan, David Carradine, Richard Dreyfuss, Elliott Gould, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Jon Voight, Christopher Walken) to the elderly: Marlon Brado and Paul Newman.
From the unlikely (Alan Alda, Warren Beatty, Robert Blake, Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, Roy Scheider, Martin Sheen) to utter ridiculousness of… you-say-whats?! like Alain Delon and Mr Sweet Caroline… Neil Diamond!!
Both Nicholson and Sheen finally worked with Marty on his first Best Director Oscar-winner, The Departed, 2006. Pacino is due to team up with Scorsese and De Niro in The Irishman.. Reynolds later admitted that his refusal was “a plain stupid pass.” No, it was a plain stupid idea.
Before Scorsese, producer Julia and Michael Phillips were planning on Robert Mulligan directing Bridges. As much as the trenchant Paul Schrader wanted a deal for his script and some money in the bank, he vetoed that plan. “Because it didn’t make any sense to me… You can write the most complex character, and if the director isn't a complex man, it won't be a complex character on the screen. Travis Bickle is very complex, full of contradictions. If Mulligan, Aldrich or Rydell had directed… it would have been a very simple person. They don't make complex people. If they do, they end up cardboard complex, lacking in passion.”
The two Phillips agreed and such casting ideas (and the notion of Brian De Palma directing) vanished when they saw Marty’s Mean Streets. The gig was his. If he brought De Niro with him. Sure, but you’ll have to wait until he finishes 1900... Hell, that means he’ll want his new post-Godfather Oscar fee of $500,000!! No, no, De Niro kept the faith and the originally agreed $35,000. Everyone else followed his lead and took a pay cut to accomplish this instant firebrand classic.
Iris . Some of these potential under-age hookers were old enough for Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy. The list included Isabelle Adjani for some reason (opposite Alain Delon’s Traveez Beeckle?). Plus Rosanna Arquette, Ellen Barkin, Kim Basinger, Linda Blair, Bo Derek, Kim Cattrall, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Melanie Griffith, Goldie Hawn, Anissa Jones, Kay Lenz, Heather Locklear, Kristy McNichol, Ornella Muti, Michelle Pfeiffer.
The usual, alleged “nation-wide” search led to a final quintet. And that is where 12-year-old Jodie beat Mariel Hemingway, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brooke Shields and Debra Winger. “A good role,” Foster told Boize Hadleigh in 1992. “I like portraying such tough little wenches. I never felt I was a whore, just playing one… I wasn’t corrupted, on screen or off.”
Hemingway pulled out due to family pressure. Likewise Griffith - mother, Tippi Hedren, wouldn’t hear of it, such a role would hurt her baby’s career. You know, the way it totally screwed up Jodie Foster’s! Like Marty and Bobby, Jodie also returned to the Cannes in 2016, two Oscars and 40 years later, as the director and star of Money Monster.
Jennifer Jason Leigh won her way to the Final Five - and 40 years later to an Oscar nomination in The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino, amomng the many inspired by Scorsese and Taxi Driver.
McNichol auditioned the most - she was called back five times. And if Scorsese insisted on Mary Steenburgen for Betsy, it was said that De Niro wanted Orenlla Muti for Iris - after seeing the films of the fast rising new Italian diva while shooting 1900 in Parma and being introduced to her by her Last Woman co-star, Gerard Depardieu, De Niro’s 1900 partner.
Betsy . After 23 potential Travis Bickles and 22 Irises, Martin Scorsese’s Betsy hunt covered just 13 possibilities, “Every blonde in town!” In the end kitg wqsnlt hair colour yhatg mattered as, Plus a brunette or two. Glenn Close, Mia Farrow, Goldie Hawn, Barbara Hershey, Anjelica Huston, Liza Minnelli, Susan Sarandon, Jane Seymour, Cybill Shepherd Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver. Plus producer Julia Phillips’ favourite, Farrah Fawcett, and Scorsese’s initial choice of Steenburgen.
Liza Minnelli went on to next Scorsese-De Niro happemning, New York, New York, 1976. Streep simply passed and Weaver was runner-up to Cybill Shepherd, yet clearly not interested… Although not a blonde, Hershey had the best chance. She had already made Scorsese’s second feature, Boxcar Bertha, 1971. She also gave him the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, The Last Temptation of Christ and this timehe rewarded with a role, Mary Magdalene, in his controversial (what else?) screen version.
Hair colour didn’t matter when, according to Julia Phillips, Scorsese chose Shepherd due to the size of her posterior. (Brando once told her she had a great ass). Didn’t help. She was not a Scorsese actresss… Both director and his star found her impossible to work with. She should never have quit the comfort zone role of her lover Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon to be Betsy.
Tom . Given the presidential campaign worker with scant dialogue, Harvey Keitel requested the pimp, Sport - black in Schrader’s scenario. (“Ah, baby, I don't want you to like what you're doing. If you like what you're doing, then you won’t be my woman.”) The writer and director then built up Tom for Albert Brooks and allowed him to improvise.
Senator Charles Palantine . In the first of his two only screen roles, Leonard Harris became the US Presidential candidate - “We meet at a crossroads in history. No longer will the wrong roads be taken.” George Hamilton and Rock Hudson were also up for this missed assassination target of De Niro’s iconic lost soul. (Some people say Hamilton was a Bickle candidate. They surely jest).
Passenger Watching Silhouette . Booked as the psycho sitting in the cab outside his ex-wife's new home, Scorsese pal George Memmoli was killed on his previous gig The Farmer, 1975 - well, that is what Julia Phillips said. “He totaled himself trying to do his own stunt. Marty cast himself in the role, which he probably wanted all along, and he’s very good.”
That’s not quite how it happened…
Yes, Memmoli was badly injured during The Farmer, yet he was back to work in the next Scorsese, New York, New York, adding to his 30 screen credits - 17 of them after his accident. His other films included Blue Collar, Phantom of the Paradise and even Rocky, which had the effontery to beat Taxi Driver to the Best Film Oscar on March 28, 1977. Memmoli, in fact, did not die until May 20, 1985… when his film set injuries contributed led to his demise, said Scorsese.
As for who should replace him as the psychotic seething in the back seat of Bickle’s cab, De Niro recalled: “There was no one else and I was happy with Marty doing it.”
Scorsese takes up the rest of the story. “De Niro told me I should do it, and everyone was against it. But I was thinking that it was a labor of love, a film that was made for us and not a popular film in the sense that we could take chances and see what happened. If worse comes to worst, we could reshoot with another actor. Bob was very instrumental because he pointed out to me that the first line of dialogue was ‘Turn off the meter.’ And I did one take, and he said to me, ‘When you say ‘Turn off the meter,’ make me turn it off. Just make me turn it off. I'm not going to turn it off until you convince me that you want me to turn off that meter.’ So, I learned a lot. He sort of acted with the back of his head, but he encouraged me by not responding to me. And using that tension of the inherent violence, I was able to able to take off and riff some dialogue.”
Schrader loved the scene but was afraid that Scorsese would be mortified and cut himself out of the movie. “I was 100%wrong. He saw it, he loved it, and he kept every single bit of himself in.”
Travis Bickle never killed the candidate but wiped out some baddies and became an unlikely (yet typical) media hero. (One of the numerous correlations between with John Wayne Westerns), But then, in the final scene, still driving his yellow hell, we see a flash of temper and we just know… Bickle won’t be a hero next time.