My latest Agony Booth work looks at two classics from the 1970s that have more in common than you may think.
The former, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, is about a massive great white shark terrorizing an island community, while the latter is about the mental disintegration of a lonely insomniac. So on the one hand, these two movies, which were released within less than a year of each other, couldn’t be more different. But given that both were released in the middle of the American Film Renaissance of the 1970s, it can be argued that there’s a kinship of sorts between these two classics.
I first thought of this years ago when I read a book (for the life of me, I forget the name) which made comparisons of the films of different directors.
The book stated that in Jaws, Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody reveals that, despite his fear of water, he moved to the island of Amity to raise his kids in what he believed to be a safer environment than his native New York. The Big Apple is also the setting for Taxi Driver which, the author wrote, illustrated the reason why Brody went to Amity.
In addition, both Brody and Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle are guys who aren’t looking to become public heroes. Brody is simply focused on raising his family and maintaining law and order in Amity, where he’s the chief of police. Bickle is a Vietnam vet who becomes a taxi driver simply as a way of coping with his psychological scars, even after he’s rejected by a beautiful political campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Although the fact that he takes her to see a porno probably doesn’t help matters.
But both protagonists are compelled to take action as their respective stories go on. Brody must take his aquaphobia head on when the shark that’s been terrorizing Amity strikes again, nearly killing one of his sons. Likewise, Bickle feels obligated to help guide teenager Iris (Jodie Foster) out of the life of prostitution she’s trapped in.
Both men also face obstacles along their new journeys. Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) have quite a time convincing Amity’s mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) to close the beaches, as doing so will drastically cut into the summer revenue Amity depends on to survive during the winter. But Brody eventually talks Vaughn into paying the huge fee that shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) has asked for in order to secure his boat and services towards stopping the shark. However, Quint turns out to have issues himself, which he basically explains to Brody and Hooper by revealing that he was one of the few survivors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. That ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine toward the end of World War II, and nearly all the crewmen who survived the sinking were left in shark-infested waters for days before help finally arrived to save whoever was left. This mentality is what drives Quint to later burn out his ship’s engine, hence stranding the three of them in the middle of the ocean at the mercy of the shark. The beast manages to kill Quint and tear apart the shark cage Hooper is in before Brody blows it up by shooting an oxygen tank that’s in its mouth.
Bickle must contend with Sport (Harvey Keitel), Iris’s pimp. But while Brody is still able to keep his sanity in dealing with Quint, Bickle briefly loses his mind and attempts to murder presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), whom Betsy is campaigning for. It’s only after this attempt ends in failure that Bickle goes to Sport’s hideout, where he proceeds to gun down him and others. Bickle is stopped from killing himself when he runs out of ammunition.
However, both ordeals produce the same result: the protagonists unexpectedly become heroes. The shark no longer terrorizes Amity (yes, I’m ignoring the Jaws sequels and I advise you to do the same), while Iris is returned to her family.
Jaws director Steven Spielberg and Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese first met in the late 1960s as they were beginning to direct movies. By the mid-’70s, Spielberg had attained critical acclaim with Duel and The Sugarland Express, as had Scorsese with Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But both Jaws and Taxi Driver would mark a turning point in their careers, and the making of both films proved difficult.
The production of Jaws was horrendous to say the least, mainly because of the mechanical shark not working properly as the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean (where the boat sequences were shot) kept damaging it. This caused the production to go over budget and over schedule, leading some to think it would flop when it reached cinemas.
During this time, however, some of Spielberg’s friends, including Scorsese, came by the set to give him moral support. These friends even suggested to Spielberg that the shark blow up in the film’s climax. This gave the movie a more exciting ending than the book, in which the shark drowns after being weighted down, and is one reason why this is one of only two movies that I believe are better than the book (for the record, the other is The Godfather).
Scorsese had trouble finding an actress to play Iris. Many young actresses (including Linda Blair and Mariel Hemingway) turned down the role because of the subject matter, before Foster (who previously worked with Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) agreed to take the part. In addition, Scorsese also had to deal with the MPAA, which initially gave Taxi Driver the dreaded X rating for violence.
During post-production, Scorsese reportedly obtained the desired R rating by de-saturating the blood seen in the final shootout in order to make it less prominent. Spielberg also visited him and helped edit the last 10 minutes of the movie, as well as watched legendary composer Bernard Herrmann score what became his final movie (Scorsese tells a funny story about this on the special features section of the Vertigo DVD). Sadly, Herrmann died just one day after completing his work on the film.
The success of both of these films changed the course of American cinema. Jaws brought about the summer blockbuster phenomenon, while Taxi Driver influenced the world of independent films. Hence, without Jaws, we may not have had The Matrix (I’m ignoring those sequels, too), while without Taxi Driver, we may not have had Clerks (you know, the good Kevin Smith film).
These two films each received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Score. Infamously, both were locked out of the Best Director category. This illustrates how the success of these movies became a double-edged sword for their directors for a time.
Jaws began the association Spielberg ended up having with escapist entertainment (which later included Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park), while Taxi Driver prompted people to associate Scorsese with more gritty fare (such as Goodfellas and Casino). This is why eyebrows were raised when they were later directing different types of films such as The Color Purple and The Age of Innocence.
But the two directors’ willingness to branch out in this manner is a reason why both are revered as the legends they are now. Heck, as far as I’m concerned, Spielberg and Scorsese have been doing those “experimental movies” that their pal George Lucas has been wasting his breath for years saying he plans to do.
However, both Jaws and Taxi Driver brought about less-than-desirable ramifications, as well.
Morons who didn’t know any better took Jaws as a message that all sharks should be hunted to extinction. As a result, there have been instances of massive shark hunting which has impacted not just the ocean, but humanity as well. Sharks keep the ecosystem in check by, among other things, keeping the zooplankton population down. Without sharks, zooplankton can increase overwhelmingly, making it impossible for people to enjoy activities on the beach. In addition, sharks have exceptional immune systems, which allow them to consume the carcinogens thrown into the ocean without being harmed. Hence, they help keep the oceans clean.
This is another reason why I prefer Jaws as a movie over the book: it clearly states that the shark in the story is not an ordinary shark! To his credit, Benchley, who co-wrote the Jaws screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (who had a small part in the movie), dedicated the rest of his life to preserving sharks before his passing in 2006. He even wrote a non-fiction book about sharks entitled Shark Trouble.
One person who saw Taxi Driver was a disturbed individual named John Hinckley, Jr. His fascination with Foster in that movie led him to take a page from Bickle’s book (including sporting the character’s mohawk) by attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.
Shockingly, Hinckley’s attempt came close to being more successful than Bickle’s. A policeman and a Secret Service agent were both hit, while Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head. Reagan himself was shot in the chest, but happily would make a complete recovery. The other three victims survived as well, although Brady’s wound left him paralyzed, and his death in 2014 was ruled a homicide as the result of the shooting. Hinckley was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was institutionalized until September 2016. At present, he lives with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Some may consider Jaws and Taxi Driver dubious achievements as movies, but there’s no denying the impact they, and by extension their respective directors, ended up having on both cinema and the world.