Taxi Driver is a defining moment in cinema. It was the crystalising distillation of a genre, it built on what Mean Streets offered and announced the arrival of a visionary auteur in the form of Martin Scorsese, and it gave the world Travis Bickle; a character that has been ripped off ever since. Achieving such cinematic perfection does not come easily.
The remarkable lengths that Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro went to for their roles are testimony to the hard work behind the craft. If the movie encapsulates anything, then the surface take-home is the grit of the New York grind. It is these acting backstories that embody that notion.
Method acting was a technique first put forth by the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski and later sprung upon Hollywood namely via Marlon Brando in A Street Car Named Desire. Both Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro got on board with this school of thought right away.
In order to get into the right mindset to play Travis Bickle for Taxi Driver, DeNiro literally took to the New York streets in a yellow cab. For two weeks prior to shooting, DeNiro trawled the streets day and night, developing a feel for life from the driver’s seat in the seedier areas of New York. It was an essential education.
This was not only an arduous undertaking that showed off the star’s willingness to put in the hard yards required to achieve a great performance, but it was also downright dangerous. The areas around Precinct 75, where he would patrol, were notorious crime hubs and, often, that would spill from the streets into the backseats. Famed New York photographers Joseph Rodriguez or Robert Weiderman both rose to artistic prominence by capturing the dangerous grit of the streets from behind the wheel of cabs.
DeNiro was not alone when it came to arduous undertakings for the sake of the movie. His pal Harvey Keitel also dived headfirst into his cocaine laden pimp role. Most people would want to spend their time offset cleansing themselves of the underage sex pedalling horrors that Keitel’s character pushed onscreen, but Keitel wanted to do the role justice.
Keitel went to Time Square, where he spoke with prostitutes and asked whether they could arrange some meetings with their employers. When the actor was met with reluctance, he eventually managed to locate a former pimp who was happy to rehearse scenes with him, apparently intoxicated by Hollywood’s draw. It allowed Keitel to add a dash of realism to his character that had so far been missing from cinema.
This method of putting yourself on the frontline not only helped the actors find the right headspace to tackle the script, but it imbues the movie with a startling sense of fidelity to the New York underbelly. The film is permeated with so much grit and grime that the glossy world of Hollywood seems a million miles away, and on this occasion, that is certainly for the better.