Every day since 1976, someone has asked Robert De Niro, “You talkin’ to me?"
The fact that a legendary actor with five decades under his belt is still called out for a role he inhabited over 40 years ago speaks to the cultural significance of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and the character of Travis Bickle (De Niro).
Scorsese’s masterpiece, “a film now scorched into our cinematic unconscious”, follows the Vietnam vet as he navigates the alienation and spiritual dislocation of 1970s America via his unraveling psyche. Bickle, who considers himself “one of God’s lonely men”, prepares to exorcise his rage by assassinating Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris). After assembling a small arsenal, Bickle fortifies his toxic machismo with a perverse pep-talk in the mirror.
The scene is one of the most memorable in cinema and the “You talkin’ to me?’ line has been parodied, quoted and honoured endlessly, scoring fourth place on IGN’s Top Movie Moments and routinely listed in the top movie quotes of all time.
Despite the line turning up everywhere, one place it never appeared was in Paul Schrader’s original script. Speaking at the 40th anniversary of the film for the Tribeca Film Festival, Schrader recounted how the line ended up in the movie.
“The script said he looks in the mirror and plays like a cowboy, pulls out his gun, talks to himself. So Bob called me and said, ‘What does he say?’ and I said, ‘Well, act like you’re a kid and you got that little holster and cap gun and you’re standing there.’ He took it from there.”
To say the rest is cinematic history would be an understatement. As IGN writes, “The phrase has entered the pop-culture lexicon, so familiar it is”, and it’s also entered pop culture in a number of forms. From spoofs in The Simpsons and Rugrats to its homage in La Haine and Back to the Future III, “You talkin’ to me” has solidified its place in our collective consciousness.
Even Melbourne taxi drivers tried their hand at it for our SCORSESE exhibition.
But its reach extends outside the silver and small screens, with the clip cut-down and reappropriated across the internet, most commonly as a reaction GIF – something that potentially introduces Taxi Driver to new audiences before they’ve even seen the entire film.
– Matt Millikan