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'You Talkin' To Me?' Robert De Niro's 'Taxi Driver' Question, Explained

Entertainment | September 29, 2020

Source: IMDB

The meaning of the line "You talkin' to me?," uttered by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, is closely tied to the themes of the film as a whole. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver tells the story of a loner whose life, much of it spent behind the wheel of a New York City taxi cab, is unsatisfying. Bickle fantasizes about doing something of consequence -- he has the vague notion of "fighting back" -- and even rehearses his big moment. That's where the line comes in -- some imaginary punk starts giving him a hard time, and Bickle starts talking tough like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. "You talkin' to me?"

Source: (Netflix).

In 1976, when Scorsese's Taxi Driver was released, New York City was a hotbed of crime and corruption. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, returns home to a city that repulses him, and applies for a job driving a cab. As he travels the streets at night, he is privy to New York’s underworld. Bickle struggles to make connections with people, living a lonely, isolated life, and becomes obsessed with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who is working on Charles Palantine’s campaign for president. When Betsy agrees to go on a date with Travis, but she is repulsed when he takes her to an X-rated film. Travis is genuinely surprised that Betsy didn't like the movie and he is, once again, alone.  

Inside Bickle's Darkness

Source: (The Spool)

Bickle, who becomes determined to clean up the city, starts to amass a significant number of guns. Through his journal and his interior monologue throughout the movie, the audience has a glimpse inside Bickle’s dark mind. Incidentally, Bickle’s character was inspired by real-life figures, such as Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. Bremer’s diaries served as an inspiration for Travis Bickle’s own diaries. Apparently, Bickle’s order for a slice of apple pie with cheese was also inspired by a serial killer, Ed Gein, who had the same request when he was arrested in 1957. Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, also drew on his own inner demons as he wrote the screenplay, which he completed in two weeks.

DeNiro Improvised The Line

The iconic scene. Source: (Pinterest).

As Bickle descends into darkness, with a half-baked plan of assassinating Palantine, he stands in front of a mirror, and begins the scene that includes the iconic, oft-quoted line, “you talkin’ to me.” The scene, incidentally, was one of the last ones filmed. The script simply indicated, according to Schrader that Bickle “looks in the mirror and plays like a cowboy, pulls out his gun, talks to himself.” Since the script did not have dialogue for the scene, they locked the other actors out of the room so that DeNiro could improvise and create the lines they would eventually use.

The Line Reveals A Lot About Bickle

Prior to the failed assassination attempt. Source: (IndieWire).

Prior to the creation of the dialogue, when DeNiro asked Schrader what the character says, Schrader responded “Well, act like you’re a kid and you got that little holster and cap gun and you’re standing there.” From there, DeNiro improvised the line. As the scene was eventually filmed, Bickle strides over to the mirror, and while staring at himself, says “You talkin’ to me? ... Well, I'm the only one here,” before pulling a gun out of his sleeve.  While it is the first part of the line that has become iconic, the second part really reveals Bickle's isolation.  After the scene, Bickle transforms his appearance with a mohawk, seeming to allow his inner darkness to take hold.

The Origins Of An Iconic Line

Cybill Shepherd as Betsy, Bickle's unrequited love interest. Source: (IMDb).

There are various origin stories for both the line and the scene. According to Scorsese, he was inspired by Marlon Brando’s character, who was facing a mirror in one scene in John Huston’s1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye. According to saxophone player Clarence Clemons, DeNiro said that the line was inspired by something Bruce Springsteen said onstage while his fans were chanting his name during a concert. 

Hero Or Villain?

Jodie Foster as a young prostitute. Source: (IMDb)

After Bickle transforms, he goes to a rally, determined to kill Palantine, but when he fails, his plans change. He had told Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12 year-old prostitute that he would save her, and then kills her pimp and the man she is sleeping with. The film ends with a letter from Iris’s parents, thanking him for saving her. Had he succeeded in his original goal, assassinating Palantine, he would have been a villain, but since his crime saved a young girl, he becomes a hero, reflecting the dual nature that is hinted at by the iconic line.  

The Success Of The Film And The Quote

Scorsese, Foster, and DeNiro. Source: (Pinterest).

Despite the darkness of the film, it was the 12th highest grossing film of 1976, and it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including nominations for DeNiro and Foster, as well as a Best Film nomination. The Writer’s Guild of America named Schrader’s screenplay the 43rd best screenplay ever written. The improvised quote was ranked number eight on the Hollywood Reporter’s list of 100 favorite movie quotes of all time and number 10 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. As Schrader has said, "It’s the best thing in the movie, and I didn’t write it."  

"You Talkin' To Me" Again

DeNiro recycled the line as Fearless Leader. Source: (Pinterest)

The line became the title of a 1987 film in which the main character is obsessed with Taxi Driver. DeNiro used the monologue a second time, albeit with some alterations, when he played the role of Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000). Michael J. Fox reenacted the scene including the iconic quote in Back to the Future III (1990)   

Tags: Famous Quotes From The 1970s | Martin Scorsese | Movie Quotes | Robert De Niro | Taxi Driver

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!