1. “You talkin’ to me?,” Taxi Driver (1976)
For much of Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle rages in voiceover against “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies,” whatever “scum” he perceives responsible for his marginalization. And when his attempt at romancing a glamorous campaign operative (Cybill Shephard) fails utterly, women make the list, too, as well as politicians, pimps, and whoever else populates the urban cesspool of his imagination. The famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene comes after De Niro has resolved to take up arms and do something about it, and his interplay with a mirror off-camera cuts to the heart of the film. The “you” in “You talkin’ to me?” is anyone who’s wronged him—which is to say, everyone. De Niro no longer has to feel abused by the world. He’s a Western hero now, the quickdraw with a holster up his sleeve, and he has all the power that’s been robbed from him. It’s a disturbing scene, but also the funniest in the film, because his absurd fantasies have not yet become horrifyingly real.
2. Paul Rudd pre-coitus, Wanderlust (2012)
In David Wain’s Wanderlust, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston embark on a Lost In America-like odyssey from being married in the Starbucks-laden civility of New York City to going native at a hippie commune in rural Georgia. It’s initially liberating to cast off the moral and material strictures of conformist society for the free-living, pot-smoking, come-as-you-are environs of Elysium, a refuge for idealistic ’60s castaways. But for Rudd, the head and the heart—to say nothing of the “erection selection”—come into conflict when trying to get around the “emotional slavery” of monogamy and embrace free love. When the fantasy of coupling with a sexually voracious hippie (Malin Akerman) meets the terror of actually following through on it, Rudd finds himself in front of a mirror, trying to psych himself up. The brilliantly improvised monologue that follows, with its weird Southern inflections (“I’m gonna get it up in your vag!”) is the high point of the movie.
3. Final scene, Raging Bull (1980)
“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.” The quote comes from Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, but the speaker is Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta, a former boxing champion whose life after retirement has circled the drain. The comparisons between the two movies are explicit: Brando and De Niro regret the mistakes of the past without accepting their own culpability in making them, and they lay blame on a family member. It’s a rich thread that connects two classic stories of hubris and loss, but the greatness of the mirror scene in Raging Bull lies in how little De Niro’s pre-performance routine has changed. Now a washed-up novelty act in a cheap tuxedo, bloated and alone, he’s still the raging bull, shadowboxing in the violent flurries that made him a champion and ruined his life.
4. Final scene, Boogie Nights (1997)
In a deliberate twist on Raging Bull’s final scene—which itself nodded in On The Waterfront’s direction—Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about the rise and fall of the porn industry ends with Mark Wahlberg, its fallen stud, reliving old glories and trying to reanimate his flagging ego. He slips into the character of Brock Landers, his babe-bedding supercop from films like Angels Live In My Town, which were produced back in the ’70s, when porn movies had stories and could aspire to art. Wahlberg’s descent in the decade that followed finally brings him in front of a mirror, in Miami Vice clothes, finally showing viewers the 13-inch monster that made him a legend. “I’m a star. I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m a big, bright, shining star.” If he says it enough, perhaps it might be true again.
5. Tim Roth psyching himself up, Reservoir Dogs (1992)
“Don’t pussy out on me now. They don’t know. They don’t know shit. You’re not gonna get hurt. You’re fucking Baretta. They believe every fucking word ’cause you’re super-cool.” That’s Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange, psyching himself up before the robbery-gone-wrong in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and the film’s achronological structure makes viewers keenly aware that he’s going to get hurt. As he infiltrates a criminal syndicate, winning them over with tough talk and tall tales, Roth constantly has to assert his masculinity; Steve Buscemi excepted, he’s the runt of the gang, and a stranger besides. With his Silver Surfer poster hanging just right of the mirror, he gives himself a hero’s assurance that’s partially true. They do believe “every fucking word,” and the fact that he gets hurt is a matter of bad luck more than miscalculation.
6. John Travolta cooling off, Pulp Fiction (1994)
Charged with watching his boss’ wife for an evening of fun, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is mystified as to how he’s going to entertain Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman). After a trip to the nostalgia-soaked Jack Rabbit Slim’s that leads to lots of intimate conversation and a trophy-winning sock hop, Travolta and Thurman head back to the Wallace abode. It’s here that Travolta has to excuse himself to the bathroom, where he addresses himself in the mirror, reminding himself of his task: simply entertain Thurman, no more, no less. His libido is checked by his sense of self-preservation. He can’t make a pass on the boss’ wife when the boss has just dropped somebody out of a fourth-story window for giving her a foot massage. It’s all a moot point, anyway: While he’s cooling his heels, she’s snorting the heroin from his jacket, and the evening is about to take another dangerous turn.
7. The rubber-faced director, Schizopolis (1996)
“I guess it’s all downhill from here,” Steven Soderbergh famously said upon being awarded the Palme D’Or for his debut feature, Sex, Lies And Videotape. Seven years later, in the wake of three consecutive commercial disappointments, he decided to jump-start his creative battery with a micro-budget experimental comedy heavily influenced by Richard Lester, in which Soderbergh himself played the leading role. Watching Schizopolis, there’s a sense that Soderbergh is working to get years of frustration out of his system—never more so than when his character, Fletcher Munson, wanders into his office bathroom and proceeds to make a series of faces that aren’t so much funny as borderline deranged. There’s an unmistakable current of self-loathing animating this silent dialogue, which reaches its apex with what looks like a pantomime of inane chit-chat; the rolled tongue and darting head motions make viewers never want to attend a casual party again. Turned out to be a win-win for Soderbergh: He spent the next few years transforming himself into one of Hollywood’s most respected and sought-after directors, and the fact that he’s not really an actor means that nobody has used his psycho faces to create a bunch of ridiculous Internet memes. Yet.
8. Groucho meets “Groucho,” Duck Soup (1933)
Uniting lovers of physical comedy and psychoanalytic film criticism, the Marx Brothers used a doorframe as a stand-in for both a mirror and the screen itself in their brilliant Duck Soup. In an attempt to infiltrate the government of small-time despot Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), Harpo’s spy dresses up as the country’s ruler and sneaks into his bedroom, clumsily shattering a mirror as he does. When Groucho comes to investigate, Harpo pretends to be his reflection, mimicking a series of increasingly unpredictable moves before finally, absurdly, the man and his reflection switch places. It’s a delirious sequence enhanced by a slight hint of surrealism, and enough to found a film department all by itself.
9. Michael Keaton considers an affair, Mr. Mom (1983)
Michael Keaton begins Mr. Mom as a hands-off but loving breadwinner whose unemployment transforms him into a fully integrated family man in 90 minutes. That metamorphosis is sealed in a scene where he stands in front of a mirror and talks through a list of pros and cons of cheating on his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), whom he suspects of having an affair. With sex kitten Ann Jillian waiting for him in the next room, he breaks it down. “You’ve got a problem,” he says into the mirror as it gradually steams up. “Okay, all right, A) she’s an attractive woman. B) She wants you, Jack. She wants you bad. C) I don’t even wanna think about C.” It goes on like this, with director Stan Dragoti returning to Keaton in the mirror in between other scenes. “N) I could be in the middle of it, I could die, Caroline walks in, sees me there. Geez, I die and I get caught.” And finally: “Z) You’re not gonna do anything. ’Cause you, my friend, are in love with your wife.”
10. Edward Norton’s monologue, 25th Hour (2002)
The pivotal, explosive moment of Spike Lee’s post-9/11 drama 25th Hour comes as Edward Norton, on his last free night in the city, contemplates a piece of graffiti on a bar mirror that says, originally, “FUCK YOU!” Norton’s mirror image rails against everything else in New York City, taking down every stereotype (from Korean grocers to Hasidic diamond dealers to Sikh cab drivers to Wall Street fat cats) in a stream-of-conscious rant so quick and all-encompassing, there’s no time to blanch at its lack of political correctness. It’s an incredible piece of writing and acting that, despite its inherent theatricality, works beautifully with the film’s theme of coiled rage in the aftermath of terrorism and a million other smaller traumas.
11. The mirror has two faces, Spider-Man (2002)
The third film in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy wiped out some of the goodwill engendered by the first two entries, but it’s worth remembering how much energy, personality, and twisted humor he brought to the franchise. The scene in the first film where Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn confronts his alter ego is a perfect distillation of what makes those first two efforts so strong. Dafoe’s performance straddles the line between comic-book grandeur and pure camp, as he enters into a bravura back-and-forth with his own reflection. With the costume design for Green Goblin eliminating almost any ability to witness Dafoe’s performance, it falls to this scene to demonstrate how afraid he is of his own capacity for evil. The duplicity onscreen provides the emotional bedrock for his conflict with both Spider-Man and himself.
12. Bruce Campbell chokes himself, Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy often seems like a series of elaborate excuses to justify the ongoing torture of his stalwart leading man; fortunately, nobody suffers quite so memorably as Bruce Campbell, and Raimi’s inspiration for abuse rarely flags. Case in point: Early in Evil Dead 2, Campbell takes his girlfriend to a cabin in the woods for a romantic weekend, where he makes the mistake of playing a recorded reading from the Book Of The Dead. Campbell’s girlfriend is immediately possessed, and he’s forced to kill her and dismember her corpse. After enduring a variety of abuses, Campbell takes a moment to calm himself with a check-up in the living room mirror. His reflection quickly disabuses him of such hopes. In the original Evil Dead, Campbell touched a mirror and found it had turned into water. Here, his double reaches out and grabs him by the throat. Soon after, the entire cabin goes insane, but the gag, which manages to be both creepy and hilarious at the same time, captures the movie’s tone in miniature: a hapless Job forced to endure the torment of a force that wants to swallow his soul and mock the shit out of him.
13. The juror has reached his decision, Murder! (1930)
The early Alfred Hitchcock film Murder! stars Herbert Marshall as an actor called to serve on a jury—the only juror who isn’t convinced of the guilt of a young actress on trial for murder. After the case appears to be settled, Marshall has a scene in front of his shaving mirror, listening to Wagner on the radio as he thinks over the facts of the case, while the audience listens to him musing to himself in a voiceover monologue. (By the end of the scene, he’s decided that he has to investigate the murder himself and clear the girl.) It’s a simple, functional scene in terms of the plot, but it’s also a technical feat: At a time when directors and actors were just learning to make movies with sound, Hitchcock and Marshall set up a situation in which the actor’s spoken thoughts on the soundtrack had to match up with his subtle changes of expression in the mirror, timed to climax in sync with the music.
14. Kris Kristofferson reassures himself, Songwriter (1984)
Sometimes one line, spoken to nobody, can give the audience a better sense of a whole character than a five-page monologue. A hilarious ode to the spirit of outlaw country, Songwriter stars Willie Nelson as a legendary songwriter who has retired from performing, and Kris Kristofferson as his best friend, who is happily addicted to life on the road. While the sometimes-melancholy Nelson tries to get out from under an onerous contract arrangement and dreams of reconnecting with his estranged wife, Kristofferson is tearing around the country, singing and playing for rowdy crowds and bedding a different woman every night. One morning, he wakes up in an unfamiliar motel room, staggers out of bed with his disco-bondage sleep mask still on, and bumps his forehead on the bathroom mirror. Without lifting his mask, but knowing his reflection is in front of him somewhere, he whispers softly to himself, “You good-lookin’ son of a bitch, don’t you never die!”
15. Travis Bickle’s mirror image, Star 80 (1983)
Bob Fosse’s final film stars Eric Roberts as Paul Snider, the bodybuilder and pimp who murdered his wife and meal ticket, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), after she sought to end their marriage and leave him behind. Roberts is everything that De Niro’s Travis Bickle was thinking of when he hoped for “a real rain” to come and “wash all the scum off the streets.” But on some level, they might be twins: Roberts is every bit as crazy and alienated, but instead of retreating into himself, he struggles to become a socially adept, popular guy. Alone in his room, dressed in bikini underwear and with what looks like the cargo of the Exxon Valdez in his hair, he practices being sociable in the mirror, offering his hand and saying, “Hi… Hello… Yeah, I’m Paul Snider. How ya doin’?” But even under these controlled conditions, he can’t keep his paranoid hostility under wraps for long before he’s reflexively snarling, “Fuck you, fuck you all. Bastards.”