Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taxi Driver Week: De Niro, Scorsese, the collaboration

Welcome to Taxi Driver Week at Last Cinema Standing, a week-long celebration of Martin Scorsese's bruising, beautiful modern classic in honor of the film's 40th anniversary and a special screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

There are a few keystone actor-director collaborations in cinema history – Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune; Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni; John Ford and John Wayne; Woody Allen and Diane Keaton; Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart; and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Those six collaborations account for at least 15 of the greatest films ever made. In each case, the artist is great as an individual, but something about their work together brings out the best in each.

Thousands of pages have been filled and tens of thousands of words spilled on all of these pairs, Scorsese-De Niro more than most. Without wanting to be just another leaf on the forest floor, I have to say it is impossible to consider Taxi Driver without looking at it in the context of its director and star’s shared body of work. From 1973 to 1995, they made eight films together, several modern masterpieces, others misunderstood classics, and one underappreciated gem that almost destroyed Scorsese.

Mean Streets (1973)

Their first film working together featured De Niro in a supporting role as the loose-cannon gambler friend of Harvey Keitel’s low-level mafia figure. Mean Streets features all the major themes they would revisit time and again in their careers – crime, the everyday violence that infects people’s lives, the push and pull of religious belief, and the brutality and barbarism of men. Before this, Scorsese had made just two features as a director, and De Niro had appeared in a handful of films, garnering some acclaim for his performance in Bang the Drum Slowly. After, both artists flourished.

Taxi Driver (1976)

By the time they reunited, De Niro had won his first Academy Award for his role as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, and Scorsese had proved he could step outside the crime genre with the wonderfully subdued and insightful Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, for which Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for Best Actress. Both men were clearly in a groove, and with Paul Schrader’s magnificent script in hand, they made the first of the three stone-cold masterpieces they would make together.

For all of the film’s sinister, lurid atmosphere, it features one scene that stands out as particularly daft, in which a psychotic man with a gun sits in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab outside his wife’s lover’s apartment. The psychotic man is played by Scorsese in his first credited onscreen role, though he had appeared uncredited in three of his previous features.

The scene is mostly ad-libbed by Scorsese, who as a director is trying to get a rise out of De Niro and as an actor just keeps piling on the gory details of the violence he plans for his cheating wife. De Niro barely moves, shifting his eyes slightly to view the man through his rearview mirror, but he never engages him. Travis is a man on the edge, and here, he meets a man who has clearly gone over the edge, and the sequence is deeply disturbing as we witness the kind of monster Travis could easily become.

New York, New York (1977)

There is really no way around saying this – by this point in his career, Scorsese had developed a drug problem. It did not interfere with his work so much as it interfered with his personal life. The film is an intentionally stylish and artificial ode to classic Hollywood musicals and features De Niro as a saxophone player who falls in love with a singer played by Liza Minelli.

It was a box-office flop – earning $13 million on a $14 million budget – and many critics were put off by the artifice of the whole enterprise, failing to grasp the intent behind it. Probably best known today for its title song, made popular by Frank Sinatra, New York, New York is often regarded as a rare misfire by Scorsese, but that assessment ignores the movie’s greatest virtue as the document of a filmmaker truly in love with film.

Raging Bull (1980)

Indisputably one of the greatest films of all time, it is the peak of both artists’ careers, though it might be more fair to characterize it as a plateau for Scorsese, who in 36 years since has rarely come down much from these heights. It is also the film Scorsese credits with saving his life. After the failure of New York, New York, Scorsese’s drug addiction spiraled out of control, ultimately landing him in the hospital.

While Scorsese was bedridden, De Niro brought him the story of Jake La Motta. The director was unsure if he had the energy or creative passion to make another film, but De Niro insisted. In bringing the rise and fall of La Motta to the screen, Scorsese found an outlet for all the rage and frustration that had built up inside him over the years. He found the creative spirit that had left him in his drugged-out haze. And he found the will to shoot one of the most devastating portraits of a man at war with himself ever put to celluloid.

Meanwhile, De Niro dug deeper than he ever had to find the heart of a man who is by turns disgusting and pitiable. He became the character as no other actor has ever accomplished. Much of course has been made of De Niro’s physical transformation – into the boxer first, then the bloated shell of a man later – but more impressive than that is De Niro’s spiritual transformation. He takes on the soul of La Motta in a way that is terrifying, dangerous, and awe inspiring.

The King of Comedy (1982)

A comedy in the loosest sense of the word, Scorsese has said numerous times this is his favorite performance of De Niro’s. As wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin, the actor is the simpering embodiment of the Me Generation, a self-actualized, self-important, self-assured blowhard who believes he has everything coming to him because he deserves it.

Scorsese had delved into the dark heart of man before but never with the sharp-edged sword of satire he carried into The King of Comedy. The film has only grown scarier and more honest with time, serving equally well as a rebuke of the current selfie-obsessed, fame-hungry generation and their forebears who clearly suffered the same egomania, a fact they seem all too ready to forget.

Goodfellas (1990)

Feeling they had reached the virtual limit of their artistic collaboration, Scorsese and De Niro parted ways for much of the 1980s, during which time Scorsese made the dark comedy After Hours, the sports film The Color of Money, and the still controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. De Niro went off and made other great films such as Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and Midnight Run. But it took another masterpiece to bring them back together.

If The Godfather is the mafia as an allegory for the promise of the American Dream and family loyalty, then Goodfellas is a gritty examination of the machinery that powers that dream. It is about the mafia as a business, where money is king. To quote Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), the ethos is: “Fuck you. Pay me.” De Niro appears in a supporting role as Jimmy Conway, the lifelong hustler who loves the action and the money. Of course, none of it can last. American Dream or not, everyone eventually wakes up.

Cape Fear (1991)

The only remake in the Scorsese canon until he finally won an Oscar for The Departed, this was an ideal project for someone like Scorsese to take on. It does not achieve the same brilliance as its predecessor, a quintessential film noir that stood out as uniquely dark in its time (1962), but Scorsese has no trouble imposing his vision on the material and making the implied horror of the original more explicit.

De Niro takes on the role of Max Cady, originated by Robert Mitchum, an ex-con out for revenge on the defense lawyer who failed to keep him out of prison (played here by Nick Nolte, taking over for Gregory Peck). If there is a weak spot in the Scorsese-De Niro oeuvre this is probably it, but its virtue lies in its commitment to the dirty, disturbing deeds it shows and its argument that no one – neither tormentor nor tormented – is without sin.

Casino (1995)

Their final collaboration thus far, Casino has been accused of being something of a rehash of Goodfellas, but while it carries many of the same beats, it features a totally different rhythm. De Niro is Ace Rothstein, a professional hustler handed the keys to a kingdom. A man who is always in control of his own wants and desires, he wants total control over his world as well, but those closest to him lack his sense of restraint and burn the whole empire to the ground.

One hopes these two brilliant artists find their way back to each other – they of course are good friends, and rumors swirl constantly of a ninth collaboration – but if Casino stands as their final work together, it is a fitting capstone. It features all of Scorsese’s typical preoccupations – all those things we mentioned back in Mean Streets – and a De Niro performance that proves subtly captivating and stands up well alongside his best work.

Both men obviously found great success outside their working relationship, and it is probably for the best the collaboration ended before it was allowed to become stale or repetitive. However, when the modern history of film is written, scholars will talk about the work of three different artists – Scorsese, De Niro, and the unparalleled output of both men together.

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