I remember, as a teenager, seeing Taxi Driver for the first time in a double bill with Mean Streets at an arthouse movie theatre in London. I came out of Martin Scorsese’s muscular 1976 noir, a searing indictment of American excess after the Vietnam war, and thought to myself: “Boy, I hope they pick up this story again, many years later, preferably in order to sell access to an exploitative ride-sharing app!”
Lo and behold the news this week that Robert De Niro – the actor who turned Travis Bickle’s “you talkin’ to me?” into one of cinema’s most famous lines – would be lending his dramatic chops to an advert for Uber. “Why Bob would do this is beyond my reckoning,” wrote Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver’s screenwriter, on Facebook, prompting a hasty denial from Uber’s publicists. The advert, they said, would not see De Niro reprise his iconic role, nor its iconic dialogue. But this is really just an elaborate contortion. If you put Robert De Niro in a taxi – any taxi – the reference is clear. Much as if you put a martini in Daniel Craig’s hand, a fedora on Harrison Ford’s head, or a kilt around Mel Gibson’s nether regions. The implication? Bickle rides again.
This is just the latest in a sickness to have struck Hollywood in recent years. Remember, for example, Harvey Keitel’s stint reprising his role as Winston Wolf (from Pulp Fiction) in a series of commercials for British insurance firm Direct Line? Now, for a generation of young TV watchers, Keitel’s Wolf is a corporate mascot out of the Gio Compario or Aleksandr Orlov school, not a minor character from an ensemble drama that won the Palme d’Or in 1994. But Keitel was hardly the only screen legend to get sucked into the world of commercials: Jeff Bridges returned as The Big Lebowski’s The Dude for a Stella Artois campaign, Bill Murray journeyed back to Groundhog Day-world for Jeep, and both Pierce Brosnan and Judi Dench revived their James Bond characters for Diet Coke and Money Supermarket, respectively. Perhaps most bafflingly, Matthew Broderick came back to Ferris Bueller for a 2012 Honda advert, a particularly tasteless collaboration given his fatal involvement in a high-profile 1987 car crash.
Look, actors have to make a living, and they often employ large retinues of hangers-on who want a piece of the pie. I can hardly blame Kevin Bacon, who has become synonymous with EE in the UK, for his advert addiction, given he once said he lost “most” of his money to Ponzi swindler Bernie Madoff. And adverts provide easy returns, often involving days (rather than weeks or months) of filming, usually in clement locales. But De Niro is arguably the greatest screen actor of his generation, and a man who has had the privilege of being cast in some of the best films of the past century. “Ashes to ashes,” De Niro’s solemn voice intoned in a 2019 Warburtons advert titled GoodBagels. “Crust to crust,” a scrawny associate adds.
“If that was a movie I would watch it in a heartbeat.” “Probably the best script he’s gotten in years.” “It would be fantastic to see more of those type of ads based on his movies. [sic]” These are just a selection of the comments on YouTube, underneath the aforementioned advert. People eat this sort of thing up like salt beef on a warm Warburtons bagel.
But the complex reality of the business, as Schrader notes, is that actors do not have the right to continue stories beyond the pages of the original script. A movie is a delicate thing, one that begins and ends quite deliberately. How would the late John Hughes have felt about some advertising executives creating a middle-aged Ferris who drives around Los Angeles in an SUV? An article published in the Psychology & Marketing journal (a fascinating read) presented findings from a study revealing that companies could mitigate the risks of employing a celebrity endorsement by having them appear in character. Legolas, for example, was a more effective brand ambassador than Orlando Bloom. In a world where the boon of celebrity familiarity runs hand-in-hand with fears about negative public image or misdemeanour, perhaps a return to the movies feels safer.
It is not without its risks: Peloton unleashed a (briefly) heralded advert featuring Chris Noth as Sex and the City’s Mr Big, shortly after his character was killed off on the show’s revival And Just Like That…. Just days later, allegations of sexual misconduct emerged, and the advert was pulled. In that moment, the actor and the character were inextricably linked.
And De Niro will always be bound to his greatest characters in the public imagination. Whether that’s unhinged vigilante Travis in Taxi Driver, violent gangster Jimmy in GoodFellas, turbulent pugilist Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, wanted thief McCauley in Heat, or, my favourite, presentable widower Ben in The Intern, De Niro’s characters are part of him. Most sequels are not The Godfather Part II and the elision of a clear line between narrative and commercial only weakens this tricky manoeuvre. The terrifying prospect of a world in which genuine, feature-length sequels, prequels and franchises spring up as backdrops to elaborate product placement is altogether less fanciful than it sounds.
So yes, Mr De Niro, I am talking to you. Leave Taxi Driver and GoodFellas alone and enjoy your wealth and global veneration. Or reprise your role from Dirty Grandpa because I don’t suppose anyone would expend column inches worrying about that.