We’ve never had a President named Charles. We’ve had several Presidents named John and a quite a few named James. We’ve even had three named George. But we’ve never had a Charles. We’ve come close. Charles Evans Hughes nearly beat evil old Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was nominated two times in a row by the Federalists but lost to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively. We’ve had three Vice Presidents names Charles — Fairbanks, Dawes, and Curtis — but never a President.
And, if we ever do elect a President named Charles, he’s probably go by either Charlie or Chuck. The United States has always liked to think of itself as being a country that has no official royal family and, as a name, Charles probably sounds far to aristocratic for most voters.
That’s why I’m sure that, once U.S. Sen. Charles Palatine won the Democratic presidential nomination back in 1976, he probably insisted that people start calling him Chuck. Of course, Sen. Palatine probably had no idea how lucky he was to win that nomination. If not for a few secret service agents, Sen. Palatine could very well have fallen victim to a psychotic taxi driver named Travis Bickle.
Sen. Palatine’s presidential campaign is a major subplot of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece of paranoia, Taxi Driver. As played by an actor named Leonard Harris, Sen. Palatine appears to be the epitome of a politician. He may smile at the right moment but his eyes are always shifty. Even his campaign slogan (“We Are The people!”) is vapid in an all too plausible way. (How different is “We Are the People” from “We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For?”) For the most part, Palatine remains a remote figure, giving speeches and appearing in television commercials. The only time that we get to know Palatine as a person is when he gets in a taxi being driven by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).
Travis recognizes him immediately and tells him that he tells everyone who gets in the cab that “they gotta vote for you.” Palatine smirks a little as he asks Travis what he thinks the most important issue of the election is. Travis goes on a bit about how someone needs to destroy all of the scum and filthy lowlifes who seem to populate Travis’s section of New York. As Travis rambles, Palatine’s smile disappears and it becomes obvious that he’s realized that he is essentially being driven by a psycho. Oh shit, Palatine is probably thinking, this guy is telling people that they gotta vote for me? However, Palatine quickly regains his composure and assures Travis that the wisest people that he’s ever met have been taxi drivers.
Of course, what Palatine doesn’t realize is that Travis only knows about the campaign because he happens to be obsessed with a Palatine campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). And Betsy even goes out with Travis a few times. But then Travis, who spends the majority of the film showing how little skill he has when it comes to understanding and relating to other people, takes Betsy to an adult film.
With Betsy refusing to take his calls, Travis’s attention shifts to Iris (Jodie Foster), a teenage prostitute. Obviously seeing himself as being a knight in shining armor, Travis tells Iris that she has to go back home to her parents. As Travis talks, it becomes apparent that he’s simply repeating talking points that he’s heard on TV. (If Taxi Driver was made today, Travis would be one of those people constantly sharing “inspirational” Facebook posts.) Iris laughs at Travis and goes back to her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).
And, of course, Travis goes even crazier than before.
38 years after it was first released, Taxi Driver remains a disturbing and powerful film. However, what makes it effective is that, in many ways, it’s perhaps the darkest comedy ever made. Throughout the entire film, Travis essentially tells everyone that he meets that he’s disturbed and potentially dangerous and, throughout the entire film, everyone seems to be determined to ignore all of the signs.
Critics always talks about the scene where Travis points a gun at his mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?” And that’s a great scene. It deserves to be famous, just as De Niro deserves all of the praise that he’s gotten for his iconic performance in Taxi Driver.
However, for me, there are two other scenes that are just as brilliant. The first is where Travis attempts to get some advice from an older cabbie named Wizard (Peter Boyle). Travis says he’s been having a lot bad thoughts. Wizard shrugs and says that everyone has those. What makes this scene particularly memorable are the lengths that Wizard goes to in order to avoid acknowledging that Travis is obviously disturbed.
And then, there’s the scene where Travis buys a gun from Easy Andy (Steven Prince). Andy is such a salesman and is so nonchalant about all of his weaponry that, for a few brief minutes, Steven Prince actually manages to steal the spotlight from Robert De Niro.
Whenever one thinks about Taxi Driver, one automatically pictures Robert De Niro. That’s why it’s all the more interesting that De Niro was not the first choice for Travis. When Taxi Driver was in pre-production and a pre-Jaws Steven Spielberg (of all people) was thinking about directing it, Jeff Bridges as briefly attached to the role. And while it’s always tempting to think about what a Spielberg/Bridges version of Taxi Driver would look like, I think we’re all right to be happy that the actual film was directed by Scorsese and starred De Niro. They truly made Taxi Driver into one of the most memorable films ever made.