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Fellow’s Find: Ties to director Brian De Palma found throughout film collection at the Ransom Center

By Harry Ransom Center

Ethan de Seife is an independent scholar and the author of the book Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin. He is currently an arts writer for the Burlington, Vermont, alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days. His research was supported by a Ransom Center travel grant. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

The best-known cinematic collaboration between actor Robert De Niro and director Brian De Palma is surely the 1987 film The Untouchables, in which De Niro memorably portrays a bloated, vengeful Al Capone. But the two artists have a shared history that goes back to 1968, when De Niro was a raffish young actor in New York’s off-off-off-Broadway theater scene, and De Palma, fresh from Sarah Lawrence’s ambitious film program, was a director whose head was filled with visions of the French New Wave, Alfred Hitchcock, and avant-garde weirdness.

 

To my mind, De Palma is the most talented of the directors of the so-called “Film School Generation.” He’s also the most misunderstood: critical writing on his work has been stuck in the same ruts (Hitchcock, violence, misogyny) since the 1970s. It’s getting boring. A filmmaker as gifted as he is deserves better.

 

In the first of what I hope are several archival expeditions in preparation for a book-length re-evaluation of De Palma’s work, I visited the Ransom Center on a travel grant in January 2014 to comb through the Robert De Niro papers. The two men made three unusual and fascinating films together before “reuniting” for The Untouchables: Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). These three titles represent the earliest feature films of both of these artists, each of whom would very soon go on to much greater fame.

 

It was a good first choice for this project, as the artists’ shared body of work is pretty small and is mostly confined to early in their careers. I’d hoped to find some information on De Palma’s working methods, though this was not really in evidence. (Memo to the Ransom Center: Please solicit and archive the papers of Brian De Palma.) A few handwritten script notes did offer tantalizing clues, though.

 

The film Hi, Mom! is a vicious satire of Vietnam-era politics and liberal empty-headedness; it remains one of the most subversive of all American films. Much of its deserved reputation for challenging satire rests on the infamous “Be Black, Baby” sequence, in which the members of a black radical group stage a work of participatory theater designed to allow white people to “experience” blackness. Patrons are subjected to all manner of abuse… and then rave about the show. It’s a deeply ambiguous and still pretty shocking scene.

 

De Niro’s own notes for this scene are, in total: “At ‘Be Black, Baby’ play where I play a cop and beat up the white liberals painted black.” The paucity of this description itself speaks to the importance of improvisation to both De Niro’s and De Palma’s art; this, in turn, reveals a great deal about the nature of the film’s production.

 

The most intriguing of my finds in the De Niro papers pertains to a De Palma film in which De Niro does not even appear. De Palma made Home Movies in 1980 in an unprecedented collaboration with film students at Sarah Lawrence. In the collection was a treatment (a kind of synopsis) of the script dated from 1970; apparently De Niro had been considered for a part in it. The treatment differs in significant ways from the film as it was made a decade later, and those differences themselves may also prove revelatory of De Palma’s evolution as an artist.

 

Once I’d exhausted the parts of the De Niro papers that pertain to De Palma, I moved on to two other Ransom Center collections that, coincidentally, also overlap with De Palma’s career: the papers of playwright and screenwriter David Mamet and that of screenwriter Paul Schrader. The former wrote The Untouchables and the latter wrote De Palma’s 1976 film Obsession.

 

The Mamet papers offered mostly old marked-up scripts, which would have been useful had the object of my quest been Mamet’s writing methods. The Schrader papers, though, yielded a few gems, including a usefully comprehensive compendium of reviews of the film, collated by the writer’s clipping service. A few financial documents also provided potentially valuable clues about the film’s budget and production methods.

 

A few snapshots of promotional ephemera from Greetings allowed me to put a fun capstone on my perusal of the De Niro papers, to which I returned when time allowed on the last day of my brief residency. Had I wanted to don the “fat suit” that Robert De Niro wore in The Untouchables, I think I might have been able to arrange it. Maybe on my next visit.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

In the galleries: David Mamet's "Homicide" outline

By Alicia Dietrich

David Mamet's outline for 'Homicide." Click on image to view full-size version.
David Mamet's outline for 'Homicide." Click on image to view full-size version.

David Mamet is one of America’s best-known and most celebrated playwrights and filmmakers. He has received numerous awards and honors for such plays as American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), Speed-the-Plow (1988), and Oleanna (1991), and films including The Verdict (1982), Homicide (1991), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Wag the Dog (1997), and State and Main (2000). The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. Since then, Mamet has visited the Ransom Center several times to speak at public events, university classes, and student reading groups, and to lead a screenwriting workshop for students.

Materials such as Mamet’s typescripts and journals, as well as materials related to his 1991 film, Homicide, can be found in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Mamet wrote and directed Homicide, which follows homicide detective Bobby Gold, who—while trying to solve a murder—discovers a secret Zionist organization operating in the city. A series of circumstances awaken in Gold a deeper connection with his Jewish upbringing and test his loyalty to the badge. The film stars Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy, actors who frequently collaborate with Mamet.

In this outline for Homicide, Mamet structures the plot of the film following the classic sequence of action that mythologist Joseph Campbell identified in his theory of the “hero’s journey” or “monomyth.” In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell theorized that a fundamental structure could be found in ancient myths from around the world. He identified a number of “steps” or actions that were common to many ancient myths, from the “call to adventure” to the “freedom to live.” Mamet lists these steps in the middle column at the top of the page and correlates them with the film’s action in the middle row of this chart.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Don DeLillo and David Mamet honored by PEN

By Alicia Dietrich

Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.
Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.

Two writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center received 2010 PEN Literary Awards.

Novelist Don DeLillo received the 2010 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. He is the author of 15 novels, 4 plays, and a number of short stories and essays. The PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction goes to a distinguished living American author of fiction whose body of work in English possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career, which places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.

Author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and film director David Mamet received the 2010 PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for a Master American Dramatist. Mamet is the author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award. The PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama recognizes a master American dramatist whose literary achievements are vividly apparent in the rich and striking language of his or her work.

“The fact that the archives of Don DeLillo and David Mamet, two of PEN’s literary award winners this year, are at the Ransom Center is a reminder of the extraordinary collections at the Center,” said Steve Isenberg, executive director of the PEN American Center, a member of the Ransom Center’s Advisory Council, and a former visiting professor of humanities at The University of Texas at Austin. “It’s wonderful that these collections are readily available to scholars, students, faculty, and the public to see firsthand.”

Read a Q&A with DeLillo on PEN’s website.

David Mamet papers now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

The papers of David Mamet, author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award, are now open at the Harry Ransom Center.

A finding aid for the collection can be accessed here.

The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. The collection is made up of more than 300 boxes of material, covers his entire career through 2007, and contains manuscripts, journals, office and production files, correspondence, and multiple drafts of each of his works, including the acclaimed plays American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1982) and screenplays The Untouchables (1987), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), and Wag the Dog (1997). These materials record the writing and revision of all of his published texts, as well as several that are unpublished or unfinished.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center

By Patricia Bruckmann

Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’
Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’

Patricia C. Brückmann, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Toronto, recently spent time working in the Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center for a book she is writing about his work. Gorey (1925–2000) was a writer, illustrator, and a designer of books, sets, and costumes. Born in Chicago, Gorey attended the Francis Parker School (which also claims Ransom Center playwright David Mamet as an alumnus). He spent a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later attended Harvard University, where he roomed with Frank O’Hara. He is well-known for animating the opening sequence of PBS’s Mystery! series, and he won a Tony award in 1978 for his costume design for the Broadway revival of the play Dracula.

The Ransom Center’s Gorey collection includes books, manuscripts, illustrations, correspondence, material related to Dracula

, and some material from Gorey’s college days.

Brückmann, whose research was funded with a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, shares her ruminations on her work in the Gorey papers.

 

“So I cannot come to your musicale…..love, Mildred.” This cryptic note, from Edward Gorey to Frank O’Hara, typifies their exchanges in the late ’40s when they shared rooms at Harvard in Eliot House. Although O’Hara’s musical, artistic, and literary talents were already manifest, Gorey’s mother was suspicious about her gifted only child’s friend, writing “I know nothing about this boy except what you tell me.”

Mrs. Gorey also worried about his future. Rejected by The New Yorker (the drawings were strange, they wrote, and the ideas “not funny”), she proposed that he send earlier work, perhaps more to their taste. The editor did suggest that he drop in, but said that he need not rush. The collection contains only two letters from his father, scrawled on Chicago City Council paper, the salutation “dear Son,” the sign-off “Ed.”

I can’t imagine anyone addressing Gorey with “Hi, honey,” but the birthday card in the collection, from a Chicago neighbor, I think, is real.

These, with tests of scansion and rhyme, scribbled all over yellow sheets (and on bills from the Harvard Coop) are among the papers found in three manuscript boxes at the Center. They include Gorey’s undergraduate essays, from a particularly suggestive one on La Rochefoucauld to a dull study on ship-building in Bath, Maine, and reveal the C+ Gorey received on the essay. The lively voice of his mother’s sister, Isabel Garvey, who shared and may have inspired his interest in dance, theater, and old books, leaps out—most often on 3 x 5 cards.

There are also many limericks, some printed later, and a large box of photostats (similar to a photocopy) from drawings for Dracula, these from a later time, and another box of sketches. The clippings in the vertical file, sent from home, often relate the engagements and marriages of his classmates at the Francis Parker School. The art master there, a Chicago painter, gave him, his mother says, “practically a major in art.” So he did have training in addition to the semester at the Institute. The saddest query, in a letter about Harvard, reads “Who was that professor who jumped out of a window?” The professor was F. O. Matthiessen. Harvard was not just pastoral in the ’40s. It was also, as Lillian Hellman said, “Scoundrel time.”

UT Students: Apply to participate in seminar with playwright, writer, and director David Mamet

By Danielle Sigler

Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe
Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe

The Harry Ransom Center is pleased to provide current University of Texas at Austin graduate and undergraduate students with the opportunity to join playwright, writer, and director David Mamet on “A Journey Towards Meaning.”

The Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum, is home to David Mamet’s archive, which is open and available for use.

Mr. Mamet will meet with 10 students 1-4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9 and 1-4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10. Students must be available on both days in order to participate. The Ransom Center encourages students to consult with their professors before missing class to participate in this seminar.

Currently enrolled University of Texas at Austin students should submit no more than TWO LINES explaining why they should be chosen to mametseminar@gmail.com. Entries longer than two lines will not be considered.

Entries must be received by March 2, 2010. Selected students will be notified by March 4, 2010.

The Ransom Center cannot offer further guidance about entries.