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Making Movies: "Casino"

By Alicia Dietrich

Costume worn by Robert De Niro in 'Casino.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Costume worn by Robert De Niro in 'Casino.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

A story of greed, violence, deception, money, and power, Casino is set amid the world of gangsters in 1970s Las Vegas. It is the eighth film of a remarkable series of collaborations between actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese.

A film based on true events, Casino stars De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a character based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a sports handicapper from Chicago who earned the attention of the mob due to his genius with numbers. His friend Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, was based on Tony Spilotro, a violent mob enforcer who protected the “skim,” or illegal casino profits. Ace’s wife, Ginger McKenna, based on Rosenthal’s real life spouse, Geri McGee, a Las Vegas call girl, is played by Sharon Stone.

The costumes worn in Casino are as flashy and gaudy as the city in which the film is set. Nearly all of the costumes in Casino were custom made and reference vintage clothing from the 1970s and 1980s to emphasize and enhance the larger-than-life characters of the film. The costumes had to be both grounded in the fashion of the time and in tune with the characters and plot turns of the film.

As Ace Rothstein, Robert De Niro wears this costume at the beginning of Casino when a bomb planted in Ace’s car explodes. Ace survives with only burns on his arm. Multiple copies of this costume were made for the necessary additional takes.

Rita Ryack and John Dunn designed the costumes in Casino. Ryack’s work can be also seen in such films as Cape Fear, Apollo 13, Wag the Dog, and Hairspray. Dunn designed costumes for Basquiat, The Notorious Betty Page, and I’m Not There, among many others.

Making Movies: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

By Alicia Dietrich

Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962 and gained notoriety for its profanity and sexual themes. It was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but the trustees of Columbia University overruled the advisory committee and awarded no prize for drama that year. Despite the controversy, Warner Brothers acquired the film rights to the play in 1964 and recruited Hollywood’s top screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, to write and produce the movie.

Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The usual procedure for adapting a play is to “open it up,” adding characters and locations to make the film more visually appealing. Lehman worked his way through several drafts of the script but eventually returned to the original play, making only a few minor changes. He was able to cast, against type, “the world’s most famous couple,” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and he hired Mike Nichols for his first film directing job.

In spite of the scrutiny surrounding the film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became one of the highest grossing films of 1966 and earned every eligible Academy Award nomination. Yet the film’s impact reached far beyond its artistic and financial success. Despite fierce opposition, Lehman and Nichols prevailed in their fight to keep the original language of the play intact. The movie was directly responsible for the Motion Picture Association of America abandoning the old system of self-censorship and adopting the film rating system that is still in use today.

Shown here are Ernest Lehman’s notes about his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on November 19, 1964, to discuss their roles in the film.

The "Dawn" of FX

By Jennifer Tisdale

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The Ransom Center’s exhibition Making Movies explores the collaborative processes that take place behind the scenes in filmmaking.  For another two weeks, visitors have the opportunity to see original materials from the Center’s film collections in the exhibition, which demonstrates the responsibilities of those involved in films, ranging from the producer to the special effects designer.

One portion of the special effects section highlights special effects techniques devised by Norman Dawn (1886–1975) in cinema’s earliest years. Dawn was a little-known yet historically significant early special effects cinematographer, inventor, artist, and motion picture director, writer, and producer. He worked with several important film pioneers, including Mack Sennett, Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg, and Erich von Stroheim.

The Dawn collection at the Ransom Center consists of 164 display cards that illustrate over 230 of the 861 special effects that Dawn created in more than 80 movies.  Each display card documents one of his special effects, most often a refinement or improvement of a matte shot process. Information about Dawn’s experiences working with various studios and managers such as Universal’s William Sistrom and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) Louis B. Mayer are also noted.

The display cards could easily be interpreted and viewed as pieces of art, assembled and constructed personally from Dawn’s own field notebooks and methodical records.

The cards contain original oil, watercolor, pencil, and ink sketches used to sell the effects to skeptical film executives and directors; production and personal photographs; detailed camera records; film clips and frame enlargements; movie reviews, advertisements, and other trade press clippings; explanatory texts and recent sketches to illustrate his methods; and pages from an unpublished autobiography.

Norman Dawn's special effect card for 'Master of Women'
Norman Dawn's special effect card for 'Master of Women'

Costumes reveal character revelations

By Jennifer Tisdale

As the Making Movies exhibition demonstrates, a costume can reveal much about a film character. For example, a character’s social and economic class can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing also exposes a character’s unique personality traits and self-image. Steve Wilson, the Ransom Center’s Associate Curator of Film, talks about Robert De Niro’s costume in Taxi Driver, and how it supports and enhances the interpretation of the character Travis Bickle.

Film curator discusses "Making Movies" exhibition

By Jennifer Tisdale

Associate Curator of Film Steve Wilson elaborates about Making Movies, an exhibition that focuses on the artistic collaboration that is unique to the medium. Wilson shares how the Ransom Center’s holdings document the history of the motion picture industry to illustrate the highly collaborative nature of the movie-making process.

Making Movies: "North by Northwest"

By Alicia Dietrich

Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Psycho. At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest, a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina and The King and I, wrote the screenplay, his only original one and now widely regarded as his best.

The film follows Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, in a journey that travels “in a northwesterly direction” through New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and eventually Alaska. The plot emerged through Hitchcock and Lehman’s usual process of batting around ideas and imagining their character into impossible situations, then figuring out ways to extract him.

This brochure from Mount Rushmore National Memorial shows notes made on the cover by Lehman during his research trip. You can view a slideshow of more photos that Lehman took during this trip to the national monument.

Art Director: Set design for boathouse in "Rebecca"

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
The art director, in creating the environment that a character inhabits, reveals much about a character’s personality through the type of house, the style of furniture, the pictures on the walls, and even the items on the coffee table or in the kitchen sink. Furthermore, the sets designed by an art director must correspond to the geographic and historical context of the story.

Here, producer David O. Selznick writes in a memo to director Alfred Hitchcock and art director Lyle Wheeler that their movie’s title character, Rebecca, would have decorated her boathouse in a style reflecting her personality, and that the inside would look much different from the outside.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
“I have been thinking about the furnishing of the boathouse,” Selznick writes, “and I feel that we may be missing an opportunity here in not dressing the interior as incongruously with the exterior as possible. I think that it was after all Rebecca’s pet rendezvous and she would certainly have done it up beautifully. I have accordingly asked Wheeler to submit some new sketches on this.”

This is just one item from the “Art Director” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center.