''Taxi Driver'' won at Cannes in 1976 -- The controversy of that decision is revisited

The year before, a bomb had rocked the Cannes Film Festival’s main viewing hall before dawn on opening day. The year after, another explosive device would be discovered in the same building and defused by French police just a few hours before it was set to go off. But at the 29th Cannes festival in 1976, the big blowup came on May 28, when it was announced that Taxi Driver, director Martin Scorsese’s incendiary study of urban isolation, had won top prize, the Palme d’Or.

Already a hit in the U.S. — it would gross $29 million that year — the $1.3 million movie dramatically raised the 33-year-old filmmaker’s international standing; he’d beaten out such continental legends as Polanski (The Tenant), Bertolucci (1900), and Bergman (Face to Face). Despite protestations by Cannes jury president Tennessee Williams about the escalating level of violence in the year’s entries, the film’s toxic, fever-dream mood was widely considered an aesthetic triumph. No one disputed the eerie power of Robert De Niro, who, as Vietnam-vet cabbie Travis Bickle, seemed to buttonhole each person in the audience with the hostile query ”You talkin’ to me?” But debate at the festival did grow heated over the moral implications of the bloody climax, in which Travis guns down a seedy pimp (Harvey Keitel) and other heavies to ”save” Iris, the curly-haired 12-year-old hooker played by 12-year-old Jodie Foster.

By the time the award was announced at the Cote d’Azur colloquium, Scorsese was back in Los Angeles working on his $9 million musical New York, New York. Had he been present at the awards conference, he would have faced festivalgoers who heartily booed the jury’s decision.

It was Taxi Driver‘s ultimate fan, though, who unsettled the director far more than any detractors. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 31, 1981, a few minutes after Scorsese had lost the Best Director Oscar (for Raging Bull) to Robert Redford (Ordinary People), he got some shocking news backstage: John Hinckley Jr., whose attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life the day before had delayed the Academy Awards ceremony by 24 hours, was citing Taxi Driver as his inspiration — part of his warped attempt to ”impress” Jodie Foster. For a while afterward, Scorsese told friends that he didn’t want to make any more films. ”Maybe my films do strike a nerve,” the provocative director said at a 1983 press conference. ”That’s what they’re supposed to do, isn’t it?”

Time Capsule
May 28, 1976
Paul McCartney and Wings ruled radio with ”Silly Love Songs”; Woodward and Bernstein bedeviled Richard Nixon with The Final Days in print and All the President’s Men on film; and Sanford and Son talked trash in prime time.

Taxi Driver
  • Movie