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“On the Road” actors used audio recordings from Ransom Center’s collections to prepare for roles

By Edgar Walters

The cover of a journal Jack Kerouac kept from 1948-49 while preparing to write "On the Road."
The cover of a journal Jack Kerouac kept from 1948-49 while preparing to write "On the Road."

The film On the Road, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s acclaimed novel of the same name, opens in theaters today. The Ransom Center holds a number of items related to the lives and works of the “Beat Generation” artists, including a journal Kerouac kept from 1948 to 1949 while preparing to write On the Road. In July 2010, a producer for the film contacted the Ransom Center with a request to help the actors access Beat culture and their characters’ personalities.

Kristen Stewart, best known for her role in the Twilight films, stars in On the Road as Marylou, a character based on Kerouac’s friend LuAnne Henderson. Kerouac once described Henderson as a “nymph with waist-length dirty blond hair,” but Stewart was eager to develop a more personal understanding of Henderson. Stewart, who said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival that On the Road has been her favorite book since she was 15, wanted to do Marylou justice.

To help with Stewart’s research, On the Road personnel requested a digitized copy of an interview with Henderson from the Ransom Center collections. Listening to Henderson offers a more personal understanding of her alter ego, Marylou, who remains something of an enigma. Stewart told CTV’s Canada AM, “[Marylou] is sort of, in the book, on the outskirts of things. You don’t know what’s going on inside her all the time.”

The interview was part of Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s research for their oral biography of Kerouac, titled Jack’s Book and published in 1978. (Their research materials reside at the Ransom Center.) Gifford also served as a consultant on the film. In the interview, Henderson recalls her passionate but unpredictable relationship with Neal Cassady, whom she married at age 15. Cassady was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s novel, played in the film adaptation by Garrett Hedlund.

Despite opening the interview with a disclaimer that her “memory is really lousy,” Henderson’s stories are captivating. The episodes she recalls involve drama with Cassady’s ex-girlfriends, her experiences hitchhiking, and run-ins with the police. Henderson also reveals a more intimate and intellectual side to her relationship with Cassady. She remembers, “At night Neal would read me Shakespeare and Proust and whatever he was into.”

The Beats’ travels have acquired legendary status, which undoubtedly puts pressure on actors hoping to portray them convincingly and accurately. Fifty-five years after On the Road was published, archival materials offer the insight to help achieve precisely that.

Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes from the Ransom Center

By Edgar Walters

Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.
Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.

The rich history of costume design and its most visionary personalities takes center stage in Hollywood Costume, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which opened October 20. Some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters are the focus of the exhibition, which spans a century of film history. Seven costumes featured in the exhibition are on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.

Costumes are significant to a film production because they allow an actor to inhabit the character. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “The costume of the character is the character—the tie a man wears can tell you more about him than his dialogue.” Four of the Center’s costumes on loan to the V&A are from Scorsese films, specifically Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The King of Comedy (1983), and Taxi Driver (1976).

For Robert De Niro, donning the costume was part of the transformation process necessary to fulfilling his role in Taxi Driver. Ruth Morley, costume designer for  the film, said, “When I finally found the plaid shirt Bobby wanted to wear, when I found the army jacket, the pants, well he wanted to wear them.” That army jacket and plaid shirt, part of the Ransom Center’s Paul Schrader collection, is on display at the exhibition. A fifth costume worn by De Niro, from Frankenstein (1995), is also featured.

Hollywood Costume is made up entirely of loaned objects, which made the curators’ job of featuring the “most enduring cinema costumes from 1912 to the present day” especially challenging. Historically, there has been a significant lack of documentation regarding Hollywood costumes, which compounds the difficulty of research in the field of costume design. Following the decline of the Hollywood studio system after its peak in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, many props, costumes, and related ephemera were sold off in public auctions. Not surprisingly, many of the more than 100 costumes displayed are on loan from passionate private collectors.

Two costumes from Gone With The Wind, part of the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection, also feature prominently in the V&A exhibition. The green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown, both worn by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), are particularly fragile and required special care, including customized textile boxes that would mitigate any movement or abrasion that might be caused by motion in transit. Jill Morena, the Center’s Assistant Curator for Costumes and Personal Effects, couriered the costumes and oversaw their installation at the V&A. Cara Varnell, an independent costume conservator who performed conservation work on the dresses, also assisted with the installation.

The exhibition offers a chance to explore what V&A Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick calls the “often misunderstood role of the costume designer.” That role, ever adapting to changes in the industry, is powerful enough to influence culture and memory far beyond the scope of a 90-minute film. Ultimately, the costume designer can develop a character into a cinematic icon.

Conservation work completed on "Gone With The Wind" dresses

By Alicia Dietrich

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.

Prior to the collection’s arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film’s production, and as a result were in fragile condition.

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012.

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.

The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.

“The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin,” said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. “It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching.”

A more detailed description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available, and the four videos here give a behind-the-scenes look at the work done on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown, the wedding veil, and the green velvet dressing gown.

Exhibition services team builds custom storage hanger for "Men of Honor" dive suit from Robert De Niro’s collection

By Wyndell Faulk

There are many factors to consider when housing very large collection objects. This was particularly true in the case of the deep sea diving suit worn by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie Men of Honor, which came into the care of the Ransom Center when Robert De Niro donated his archive to the Center in 2006.

The mandate was to create a storage device to increase the longevity and preserve the construction of the suit. The dive suit was too large and too heavy for housing in conventional preservation boxes, and flat storage could not have properly supported the suit’s own material from crushing itself.

The amount of storage space had to be considered, along with the construction of the support device, so the suit could be easily transported and exhibited. This dictated that the type of materials used to construct the device be archival and light weight, such as acrylic sheet and polyethylene foam.

The solution was a hanger designed to be simple, adjustable, and adaptable.  The main body and structure of the hanger is 1.25 cm thick acrylic sheet.  It was measured to fit the exact shape of the interior of the deep sea diving suit across the shoulders and into the arms.

The acrylic sheet panels were cut, drilled, and polished, then bolted together with two thick polyethylene foam planks placed between them. The Ethafoam serves as lightweight, highly compact archival filler. It also provides a porous surface to which layers of Ethafoam padding can be hot-glued to cover the surfaces and edges of the acrylic sheet and the bolt heads.

The central neck panel is also constructed from acrylic sheet, and screwed together to form an adjustable sliding block that is removable. This allows the shoulder support to be placed inside the suit without obstruction and refitted once the suit is ready to hang. The neck panel also has an adjustable swiveling eyebolt that provides easy attachment when transporting, hanging, and exhibiting.

The Ethafoam padding goes well beyond the shoulder seams of the suit and gives support across the entire upper half of the shoulders and well into the arms to reduce weight pulling on the shoulder seams of the suit. The width of the hanger from front to back completely supports the neck’s thick vulcanized collar, as well.

The hanger can readily be taken apart and modified for future adjustments or additions. One possibility being considered is the addition of fabric straps from the main body of the hanger to the interior of the waist for further support.

The hanger is unobtrusive in appearance but can also be covered easily for exhibition purposes. It is, of course, important that the stabilizing support that extends from the wall be securely mounted to ensure adequate support to the weight of the suit.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of the Western Association for Art Conservation newsletter.

Related content:

Video: What do costumes reveal about a film character?

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

In the Galleries: Robert De Niro’s King James Version-inspired tattoos in "Cape Fear"

By Io Montecillo

The 1991 Martin Scorsese–directed thriller Cape Fear may seem an unlikely candidate for documenting the use and influence of the King James Bible, but its central character, Max Cady, as played by Robert De Niro, wielded biblical verses like weapons.

This aspect of Cady was absent in both the original 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and in The Executioners (1957), the novel by John D. MacDonald on which the film was based.

Cape Fear follows Cady, a convicted felon, as he seeks vengeance against his attorney, Sam Bowden. While in prison, Cady learned that Bowden suppressed information that might have resulted in a lighter sentence or acquittal. The biblical story of Job’s suffering looms large as a model for Cady’s punishment of Bowden.

The research materials from the Robert De Niro collection reveal the extent to which De Niro was involved in the development of the Pentecostal past of and biblical influence on Cady. To prepare for the role, De Niro consulted multiple Bibles, a concordance, Bible study guides, Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book of Job, and books and articles about Pentecostalism and Pentecostal worship.

Screenwriter Wesley Strick recalled, “Every scene of Bob’s, he would call me and say, ‘Can Max say something else here about vengeance, from the Bible?’” De Niro also worked closely with Scorcese and artist Ilona Herman to identify Bible verses and designs for Cady’s extensive tattoos.

Cape Fear did not offer viewers a traditional Bible story. Indeed, Cady’s use of the Bible was troubling for many audiences, and it contributed to the tension of the film. One critic observed, “The dissonance between the cultural expectations we associate with the Bible and our immediate perception of this character [as evil] contributes to the sustained horror of the film.”

Materials from Cape Fear and other films influenced by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate intern Kelsey Handler unfolds a painting made by a Devil's  Island prisoner from the René Belbenoit Collection. Photo by Kelsey  McKinney.
Undergraduate intern Kelsey Handler unfolds a painting made by a Devil's Island prisoner from the René Belbenoit Collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center members enjoy an exclusive tour of the current exhibition,
Ransom Center members enjoy an exclusive tour of the current exhibition,
Filmmaker and special effects pioneer Tom Smith discusses his work at the KLRU studios. Photo by Pete Smith.
Filmmaker and special effects pioneer Tom Smith discusses his work at the KLRU studios. Photo by Pete Smith.

"What you are about to see is unrehearsed and uncensored"

By Io Montecillo

Mike Wallace interviewing Margaret Sanger on "The Mike Wallace Interview," September 23, 1957.  © Mike Wallace.
Mike Wallace interviewing Margaret Sanger on "The Mike Wallace Interview," September 23, 1957. © Mike Wallace.

“Whether you agree or disagree with what you will hear, we feel that none will deny the right of these views to be broadcast.”
-Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace rose to prominence in 1956 with the New York City television interview program Night Beat, which soon developed into the nationally televised prime-time program The Mike Wallace Interview.

Well prepared with extensive research, Wallace asked probing questions of guests framed in tight close-ups. The result was a series of compelling and revealing interviews with some of the most interesting and important people of the day, including Justice William O. Douglas, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pearl Buck, Salvador Dali, Oscar Hammerstein and Henry Kissinger. The interviews dealt with the issues of the times, including civil rights and the Cold War.

In the early 1960s, Wallace donated to the Ransom Center the show’s interviews on 16mm kinescope. The 30-minute interviews can be viewed online. Most of the episodes have not been seen on television since they aired.

Starting many of the interviews with “What you are about to see is unrehearsed and uncensored,” Wallace quickly became recognized for his tough questions and the forceful style for which he is still known today. Through the online videos, one can watch Wallace aggressively question his subjects, including Margaret Sanger about her support for birth control.

Almost half a century since their original broadcast, these interviews not only remain compelling and serve as a time capsule from the mid-twentieth century, but they also continue to resonate with many of the issues still being addressed today.

Q and A with Tom Smith

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.
Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.

The archive of visual effects producer Thomas Smith has been donated to the Ransom Center. Smith worked on the special effects for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1983), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Below, he shares why he chose the Ransom Center as the repository for his papers and why it’s important to preserve these materials.

Why did you choose the Ransom Center as the home for your archive?

I began making 16 mm films right after I was discharged from the Air Force. I worked in this small screen format for 15 years. During the years when I was making documentary and academic films, I often used the good services of many archives, in search of photos or audio recordings for my films. About eight years ago, after working on my last feature film project, Gods and Generals (2003), I made one more small screen documentary. For this, I needed photos of American poet Edgar Lee Masters. I came to the Ransom Center since they were the largest depository I could find of Masters’s material. I was very impressed with the organization of the library, the courtesy of its staff, and the care they showed for the Masters collection. After I retired from working in feature films, I felt there would be no better place for my collection of motion picture scripts, photos, storyboards, and notes than the Ransom Center.

Why is it important to preserve the types of materials found in an archive such as yours?

Nothing is permanent, but a well-organized and well-housed archive is our best bet for preserving documents from the past and keeping them available to future generations. The material I have donated to the archive represents working papers from the motion picture industry from around 1980 to shortly after 2000. Most of it concerns the visual effects work I was involved with. Some of this will be interesting to students and film scholars immediately and some decades from now as it takes on a historical value and in some cases may attract artistic interest.

You’ll be meeting with students during your visit to campus. What can students learn from an archive such as yours?

The collection of my papers represents over 20 years of feature film scripts and story boards. By reading and studying these working documents, they will hopefully get some insight into the enormous amount of planning that goes into the making of a feature film, particularly the ones with visual effects. I was fortunate to have worked on many films students will have seen, films that are part of the American memory of popular movies. Some of these include two early Star Wars films, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Poltergeist. I also produced films for Walt Disney such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and several 3-D theme park attractions, one with pop singer Michael Jackson and another with Jim Henson. This was Henson’s last film. Sadly he died just as we finished the work. For the Jim Henson Company, I produced not only the 3-D film currently running in all Disneyland parks, MuppetVision 3-D, I also produced the visual effects for three feature films. For the Ted Turner company, I produced the visual effects and directed battle scenes for the 2003 Civil War epic Gods and Generals. For the ABC Network, I directed a one-hour special for children, called Ralph S. Mouse. So this is a cross section of work from a variety of films that students may find informative, and there are documents associated with nearly all of them in the collection.

"Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" Visual Effects Producer Thomas Smith donates collection

By Alicia Dietrich

Student volunteer Carly Dearborn and Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson with materials from the Tom Smith collection. Photo by Pete Smith.
Student volunteer Carly Dearborn and Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson with materials from the Tom Smith collection. Photo by Pete Smith.

Thomas Smith (b. 1938), visual effect producer for such films as Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (1980) and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), has donated his archive to the Ransom Center. Smith was hired by George Lucas as the first head of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and worked on the special effects for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).

The Smith collection comprises 22 boxes and documents Smith’s professional work through the 1980s and 1990s. Spanning from 1979 to 2003, the collection contains special effects storyboards, screenplay drafts, scripts, pre-production research, production materials, newspaper clippings, photographs, and published materials such as fan magazines and cinematography periodicals. The papers also contain material relating to Smith’s time at ILM and Lucasfilm.

The collection will be made accessible once it is processed and cataloged.

Smith will visit The University of Texas at Austin to speak publicly on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m. in KLRU’s Studio 6A in the Communications Center Building B. As part of the Harry Ransom Lecture series, Smith will discuss his life and career. While on campus, Smith will also meet with students in the College of Communication’s Department of Radio-Television-Film.

Related content: Q & A with Tom Smith

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Library Assistant Richard Mikel works on placing a mylar cover on the book 'Gold Comes in Bricks.' Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Library Assistant Richard Mikel works on placing a mylar cover on the book 'Gold Comes in Bricks.' Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Junior work study Miles Foster-Greenwood has worked on compiling data for hundreds of photographer E. O. Goldbeck’s panoramic images. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Junior work study Miles Foster-Greenwood has worked on compiling data for hundreds of photographer E. O. Goldbeck’s panoramic images. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Senior work study Simonetta Nieto works on housing for a costume from Robert De Niro’s collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Senior work study Simonetta Nieto works on housing for a costume from Robert De Niro’s collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.