I have chosen Robert De Niro as the focus of this paper. De Niro is a multi Academy Award winning actor whose career spans more than three decades. Born in New York City in 1943 to two artist parents, he caught the “acting bug” as a young man. He won critical success for his first film, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). However, it was 1976’s Taxi Driver that imprinted his range as an actor into many audience members’ minds. De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, is A Vietnam vet, apparently suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This theme of mental illness would be played out in two of De Niro’s subsequent films: The Deer Hunter and Awakenings.
“Travis Bickle is a prototypical De Niro character. He is an angry, violent, obsessive, urban, alienated, lower-class, repressed loner” (Parker, 72). The New York City of the early seventies was very different from today. This film portrays the city as how society once viewed urban living: Filthy, crime-ridden and full of degenerates. We can see this theme through many of the films shot in New York City in the early to late seventies.
After being rejected by Betsy, the object of his affection, Travis becomes hysterical, violent and obsessive. He loses all perception of reality and begins to believe that shooting a presidential candidate and himself would be a heroic act. Iris’ attempts prevent him from turning into a psycho-path by distracting him from his perception of the world around him. Even in his deranged frame of mind, Travis worries about Iris. While planning his violence he still wonders how he will save her. The complexity of De Niro’s Travis is apparent in that Travis believes that he is numb of all feelings and emotion as he is training to be a soldier. However, his worry for Iris suggests otherwise. Although we are never enlightened about what happened to Travis in Vietnam, we assume that his experiences there have shaped the man he has become. We are also strangely sympathetic of Travis. I believe this in itself highlights De Niro’s ability to bring his audiences on a journey through his films. It is only when you have a prolific actor cast in a role like Travis Bickle can you feel fear, hate, disgust and sympathy simultaneously. A true method actor, De Niro takes on the persona of his characters while filming. Not only did De Niro actually drive the taxi during all of the shoot but he had spent the weeks before filming driving a New York City cab and taxiing passengers around to get a feel for his role. It was De Niro’s idea for Travis to wear a Mohawk haircut. He felt it would better portray the influence of his experience in the army on his character. “The 101st Airborne paratroopers made this a popular haircut for American soldiers to wear in combat when they flew in on D-Day in World War II” (Parker, 82).
In 1978 De Niro took on the role of Michael Vronsky in Michael Cimino’s, The Deer Hunter. Once again a stellar performance. Michael at first appears to be a very two dimensional character. A Pennsylvania steel worker, he is an avid deer hunter and the leader in his circle of friends. Early in the film we discover that Michael and his two close friends are shipping out to Vietnam. The films main focus is on the aftermath of Vietnam and its impact on the lives of Mike, Nick and Steven. “A powerful theme running through this movie is chance. There are constant references to bets and gambling, the blind luck of the draw that selects three friends to go to war, the blind luck that decides who lives and who dies” (everything2.com). In an interview given to Vanity Fair in 1982, De Niro explains the reason for Christopher Walken’s intensity and emotion in the Russian roulette scene. Robert De Niro and the director Michael Cimino jointly decided that they would not tell Walken about some of the things that were about to happen: notably, his being slapped repeatedly in the face. This is true De Niro. Improvisation is second nature in his performances....
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