American auteur Martin Scorsese is regularly cited as the greatest living filmmaker today, responsible for creating some of the finest cinematic masterpieces of the 20th century like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, among many others. He was an indispensable part of the American New Wave, ushering in a glorious period of cinematic output from him as well as his colleagues like Francis Ford Coppola.
Although it is incredibly difficult to choose, his 1976 neo-noir Taxi Driver is considered by many to be Scorsese’s magnum opus. Starring Robert De Niro as the iconic Travis Bickle, the film chronicles the overwhelming existential anguish of a disillusioned cab driver who floats along the filthy streets of New York City at night in search of subjectivity and potential passengers because he cannot fall asleep.
According to Scorsese’s collaborator Fran Lebowitz, the distinguished director is still unhappy about the studio’s decisions regarding the editing process: “He said to me numerous times: ‘You know what ruins Taxi Driver? The colour red. The studio wouldn’t give me enough money to correct the colour red, and that’s why it’s horrible.” However, there is a much larger myth about Scorsese’s dissatisfaction with the studio’s executive decisions.
When Quentin Tarantino was tasked with providing an introduction for Taxi Driver, the director utilised the opportunity to bring up an interesting legend about Scorsese. The executives at Columbia Pictures wanted the filmmaker to recut his masterpiece so that the rating would go down from an X to an R, signifying more potential customers and more revenue. This news reportedly did not sit well with Scorsese, who was almost ready to take things into his own hands.
Tarantino explained, “The legend goes that Scorsese stayed up all night drinking, getting drunk with a loaded gun. And his purpose was, in the morning, he was going to shoot the executive at Columbia for making him cut his masterpiece. And it turned out to be a vigil all night as Scorsese sat there with a loaded gun in his lap, and some of his fellow filmmakers and friends came and talked to him and commiserated with him and tried to talk him out of it. And apparently, this lasted all night long. I’ve heard stories that literally all of them grew up that night because they realised how serious Scorsese was at the prospect of what he was going to do.”
Brian De Palma also confirmed some elements of the story, recalling how he was in the room when the executives were on Scorsese’s back in order to get him to remove Taxi Driver’s graphic scenes. De Palma said: “I remember very distinctly being in the screening room and seeing these jerk-offs saying, ‘Ah, you gotta take that out, ya gotta take…’ And Marty is just dying because they were chopping up his movie… I remember seeing this thing and saying this has got to stop. So I remember talking to [New Yorker critic] Pauline Kael and arranging a screening for her to see it, I think in Chicago, and I said to Marty, ‘Send the picture and let [Kael] look at it. Once they know she’s seen it and she starts talking about it, this is going to be over.’ And that’s, as I recall, that’s what happened.”
In Peter Biskind’s definitive book about Hollywood during the ’70s, the author also provided accounts that support the myth. One such account is Steven Spielberg’s recollection of the event, who remembered what happened when he was invited to Scorsese’s home along with De Palma and John Milius. Spielberg recalled that Scorsese was clearly agitated about the possibility of the studio actually detracting from his unparalleled artistic vision, which led to this outburst.
After he was told to recut the final edit, Spielberg said that Scorsese “pointed a finger at Stanley Jaffe and said, ‘He’s the head of the studio he’s the guy I’m angry at, so I’m gonna get a gun and shoot him.’ He wasn’t serious about it, but he was relishing the rage, and he wanted us to share his anger.” Due to Pauline Kael’s favourable review of the early preview, Scorsese was allowed to preserve most of the original cut with the exception of a few scenes. Thankfully, the only blood that was shed for Taxi Driver remained within the cinematic universe.