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How Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver' inspired a presidential assassination attempt


There’s a lot that one can attribute to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver; it is arguably the auteur’s archetypal film, defining his gritty and uncompromising style. Likewise, within the film, Robert DeNiro defines the very nature of the term “anti-hero” with the portrayal of the main protagonist Travis Bickle, but one thing Scorsese, and all attached with the film, would rather forget is the name of the infamous John Hinckley Jr.

The film is a gritty reflection of the decay streets of New York. Though fictionalised, the film was a somewhat accurate portrayal of the Big Apple’s worm-infested underbelly, something usually reserved for the eyes of sex workers and drug users. The imagery of Bickle as a vigilante force for good is, at best, a reductive one. While DeNiro’s character does display some classic heroic qualities, his flaws cannot be overlooked, especially with a modern viewpoint. However, for a while, the no-nonsense gunslinger became an icon.

Bickle’s journey is a complex one. Starting life as a socially awkward observer, happy to take a role as a cabbie on the NYC streets, he soon becomes infatuated with a sex worker named Betsy. As well as being protective over the young teenage sex worker Iris, played by Jodie Foster, who was actually only 12 at the time and a bone of contention for many revisionist audiences, Bickle decides to eradicate the crime he witnesses on a nightly basis.

After Bickle tries to take Betsy to a pornographic cinema, his forceful attempts leave Betsy no choice but to reject Bickle. As you can probably imagine, it was this moment that pushes Bickle towards his iconic mohawk haircut as well as his arsenal of weapons as he aims to “was the scum off the streets.” The climactic scene is one of the most brutal in Hollywood history and is remembered as one of the greatest endings in Scorsese’s canon.

The uncompromising nature of the film was a huge, affecting force in the life of John Hinckley Jr. It ended up forming part of a delusional fantasy that would trigger Hinckley Jr’s 1981 assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t necessarily the figure of anti-hero Bickle that enraptured Hinckley Jr. but the Jodie Foster’s Iris. Hinckley Jr. became fixated on Foster and was desperate to impress her. It was then that he would turn to Iris’ only friend, Travis Bickle, for inspiration.

The would-be killer ended up adopting Bickle’s mohawked appearance at the Palantine rally and began plotting to end the President’s life. Hinckley Jr. fired a shot at President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton, hitting both the president, a Secret Service agent, and the Press Secretary James Brady.

The mimicking and the fixation with Foster would lead Hinckley Jr’s defence attorney to push for “not guilty by reason of insanity”, even concluding his 1982 case by playing the movie for the jury. It was enough to push Scorsese into the possibility of quitting filmmaking altogether.

Thankfully, Scorsese would see the error of his ways and continue with his art.

It may not be one of the most glowing endorsements for Scorsese’s filmmaking but the potency of his characters and the vibrancy of the story clearly had the power to transform those around them. Fortunately, nobody was mortally wounded in what could have been one of the most infamous moments in history.

Credit: Wikimedi