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"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" helps propel Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor to stardom

By Elana Estrin

Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'
Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series at the Ransom Center continues tonight with Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Despondent ex-athlete Brick Pollitt (Newman) resists the affections of his enticing wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Taylor). Tensions climax during cotton tycoon Big Daddy’s 65th birthday celebration on the Pollitt Plantation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof helped propel Newman and Taylor to stardom. Although Taylor did not fit Williams’s own “idea of Maggie the Cat,” she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal and was praised by Walter F. Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”

Williams offered his literary agent Audrey Wood a list of eight “acceptable” directors for the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. MGM, however, preferred to work with a director they already had under contract. MGM offered George Cukor the directorial job, but Cukor turned it down when he realized that the Hollywood version of the story cut out most of the play’s implications of Brick’s homosexuality. The changes also infuriated Williams, who is said to have cautioned audiences to stay away from the 1958 film, charging that “this movie will set the industry back 50 years!” Richard Brooks, whom Wood identifies as “maybe!” qualified for the job, was eventually chosen to direct the film.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.

Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Vivien Leigh takes a mad turn in "A Streetcar Named Desire"

By Alicia Dietrich

Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'

The Harry Ransom Center kicks off the Tennessee Williams Film Series tonight with Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a 1951 film adaptation of Williams’s 1947 play, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. No other play of Williams’s rivaled A Streetcar Named Desire for its intensity, insight, or impact, and it was Williams’s favorite because it embodied “everything I had to say.”

In the story, Blanche DuBois (Leigh) moves in with her sister in New Orleans and is tormented by her brutish brother-in-law (Brando) while her reality crumbles around her.

British actress Vivien Leigh was the only leading member of the screen cast not originally in the 1947 Broadway production of the play. Leigh was given the movie role because the film’s producers felt Leigh had more box office appeal than Jessica Tandy, largely for her Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind.

Leigh’s performance earned positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “haunting,” adding that “Miss Leigh accomplishes more than a worthy repeat of the performance which Jessica Tandy gave on the stage…Blessed with a beautifully molded and fluently expressive face, a pair of eyes that can flood with emotion, and a body that moves with spirit and style, Miss Leigh has, indeed, created a new Blanche Du Bois on the screen—a woman of even greater fullness, torment, and tragedy.”

Later, Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder for much of her life, would claim that the part was responsible for her illness following the film’s production. She was hospitalized multiple times and treated with electroshock therapy.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

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.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

By Alicia Dietrich

Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.

Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).

Grant will allow restoration of four Jorge Prelorán films

By Margaret Rine

Jorge Preloran accepting the International Cinema Artist award from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2008. Photograph by Juan Tallo. Image courtesy of the Human Studies Film Archives.
Jorge Preloran accepting the International Cinema Artist award from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2008. Photograph by Juan Tallo. Image courtesy of the Human Studies Film Archives.
The Ransom Center recently received a grant from the Tinker Foundation, based in New York City, to restore and make accessible four films by Jorge Prelorán. The series, “The Argentine Gaucho Today,” resides in the Edward Larocque Tinker collection at the Ransom Center.

Born to an Argentine father and Irish-American mother, Prelorán held both American and Argentine citizenship. He grew up in Buenos Aires, studied architecture and then film at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1961, began filming at the University of Tucumán, and moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to teach at UCLA until he retired in 1994. Prelorán died in 2009.

A cultural icon in Argentina, Prelorán donated his archive to the Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution in 2008. He is celebrated for having developed a cinematic genre known as ethnobiography.

What makes this grant special is that the Tinker Foundation provided the original grant to Prelorán to produce the films in 1961. “The Tinker Foundation has come full circle in that it supported the creation of the films, and now it is making certain that the films will continue to benefit students and scholars interested in documentary film well into the future,” said Steve Wilson, Curator of Film at the Ransom Center. “Not only will students and scholars be able to study the films at the Ransom Center, but through our collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution, they will also be available for exhibitions and dissemination via video, television, and the Internet,” he added.

Prelorán’s interest in documentary film production was fueled by work in Hollywood as an assistant director for documentary films and television. In 1961, he received an opportunity to further develop his documentary talents: a $35,000 grant from the Tinker Foundation to make a film on gauchos in Argentina. In an interview, Prelorán recalled, “With $8,000, a borrowed jeep, and seven hours of film, I set out with Horst Cemi, also a UCLA graduate, to discover my country, Argentina.”

The result was not one film, but a four-film series on the gauchos found in representative cattle raising areas.

Among his many honors, Prelorán received the Golden Astor award for life achievement at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina (2005) and was also declared a Distinguished Citizen by the City of Buenos Aires (2005). In 2008, Prelorán was awarded the International Cinema Artist award by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. A feature-length Argentine documentary film on Prelorán’s life’s philosophy, Huellas y Memoria (Footsteps and Memory), was released in 2009.

Learn more about the Ransom Center’s film collections.

Only two weekends left to see "Making Movies" and "¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence"

By Alicia Dietrich

Costumes in the Ransom Center's 'Making Movies' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Costumes in the Ransom Center's 'Making Movies' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Harry Ransom Center’s exhibitions Making Movies and ¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence close Sunday, August 1.

Featuring items from the Ransom Center’s extensive film collections, Making Movies reveals the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process and focuses on how the artists involved—from writers to directors, actors to cinematographers—transform the written word into moving image.

If you can’t visit the exhibition before it closes, view a video interview with Associate Curator of Film Steve Wilson discussing how the Ransom Center’s holdings document the history of the motion picture industry.

¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence showcases materials from the Ransom Center’s collections including the 1529 document appointing Hernán Cortés Captain General of New Spain; unpublished letters exchanged between Ferdinand Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, and his wife Carlotta; documentary photographs of the Mexican Revolution; and period broadsides illustrated by José Guadalupe Posada. The year 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, pivotal events in Mexico’s struggle for self-governance.

Free docent-led tours of the exhibitions are offered Tuesdays at noon and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through the end of the exhibition.

The permanent exhibitions, the Gutenberg Bible and the First Photograph, remain on display in the lobby. A new exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection opens in the galleries on Tuesday, September 7.

The galleries are open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday evenings to 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays. Admission is free.

Making Movies: "Black Narcissus"

By Alicia Dietrich

Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
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 Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), starring Deborah Kerr and David Farrar. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Arguably Britain’s greatest production designer, Alfred Junge was born in Germany and spent his teenage years working as an apprentice to a painter. At 18 he was “kissed by the muse” and began working in the theater, painting sets, designing costumes, and operating special effects. In the late 1920s he began working with British International Pictures and later Gaumont British, where he gained a reputation not only for his brilliant designs but also for his organizational skills in running a large staff of art directors and craftsmen.

Alfred Junge’s best known film work is on Black Narcissus, the story of emotional tensions among a group of Anglican nuns who try to establish a convent in the remote reaches of the Himalayas. Director Michael Powell gave Junge unusual freedom in terms of color, composition, and technique, and Junge received the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the film in 1947. Audiences are still surprised to learn that the film was not shot on location in the Himalayas but on sound stages in England.

The notes shown here, written and drawn on a letter from Junge’s son, are believed to be the earliest notes on the design of the film. Note the comments about the colors of the costumes and the dramatic effect of the bell tower.

You can also view a previous blog post that shows a scene design that Junge created for this film. Also, view a trailer for the film.

Making Movies Film Series: Duel in the Sun

By Alicia Dietrich

'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. Click image to enlarge.
'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. 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 King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946), starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

This matte painting from the David O. Selznick collection was used for the opening shot in Duel in the Sun. The camera starts at the top of the painting and tilts down while zooming in on the cactus at the bottom. This perspective accounts for the stair-step configuration at the bottom of the painting.

No wire hangers: Costumes in Robert De Niro collection receive a set of custom padded hangers

By Elana Estrin

In a scene from the 1995 film Heat, Robert De Niro storms into Ashley Judd’s hotel room, grills her for answers, and knocks a line of wire hangers off the rack. According to Ashley Judd, detail-oriented director Michael Mann chose those particular metal hangers for just the right visual and sound effect.

The Ransom Center also carefully selected hangers specifically for the costumes of Robert De Niro, whose film archive resides at the Ransom Center. Last October, the Ransom Center’s preservation lab constructed 100 custom-made hangers for heavy coats and jackets in the De Niro collection.

“Robert De Niro had a lot of large, heavy coats. For one film, for example, he could have five full-length leather jackets. We had to have something that would be very sturdy and also very good for the textile,” says Apryl Voskamp, Preservation Housings Manager.

Before acquiring De Niro’s collection, the Ransom Center had few costumes to house and could afford the space to store the costumes in the ideal environment: lying flat and in the dark. But with thousands of costumes arriving in the De Niro collection, Helen Adair, Associate Curator for Performing Arts, and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, inspected the costumes and deemed some costumes appropriate for hanging storage, including many of the jackets.

“It takes less space to store things hanging,” says conservator Mary Baughman. “Things like the leather jackets are pretty tough as long as they’re out of the light.”

The challenge was to find or make padded hangers appropriate for De Niro’s jackets.

“We didn’t have any hangers here that would work,” Baughman says. “Some of the De Niro costumes are pretty heavy, and the hangers we had here were too flimsy. And we couldn’t find a commercially made hanger that would work. There are a lot of archival quality hangers out there for your wedding dress, but for a big, heavy leather coat, not so much.”

The range of costumes worn by De Niro’s varied film personae created some unique circumstances for the team. For example, a large, heavy canvas coat worn by the swashbuckling, cross-dressing pirate Captain Shakespeare in Stardust (2007) was treated by the wardrobe department to look weathered and beaten by the elements. This distinctive costume “got an even more macho hanger,” according to Baughman.

Other costumes selected to hang include full-length jumpsuits worn by De Niro’s jewel thief in The Score (2001), as well as the jumpsuits worn by his stunt double. The suits bear burn holes from the blowtorch used by De Niro’s character to break open a safe.

The preservation team also decided not to hang certain jackets. For example, De Niro’s characters get shot, burned, or injured in many of his films, and Voskamp and Baughman were worried about hanging bloody jackets, many of them still sticky.

“I learned that fake blood is an industry secret,” Voskamp says. “Studios don’t want to divulge their recipe because they think it’s the best. It would be helpful to know what’s in the fake blood to know if it will damage other items, but that’s very difficult to figure out. So we decided to isolate these costumes and house them lying flat to make sure the fake blood doesn’t migrate onto other materials.”

Baughman is the mastermind behind the design. She searched for just the right hanger, eventually choosing a sturdy long-necked stainless steel hanger to serve as the main frame. The next step was to construct shoulder supports to cover the metal hanger which would prevent the metal from distorting the garment’s original shape.

“We didn’t want to have this sharp edged metal hanger up against the cloth of the garment. It would’ve left a mark in the garment. After a few years, the fibers will break along those creases,” Baughman says.

Baughman designed the shoulder supports out of lignin-free board. For decades, “lig-free” board has been used to create a variety of custom archival containers at the Ransom Center. Each piece of lignin-free board had to be cut, creased, and tied with twill tape to simulate the shape of human shoulders. The final component of the hanger was a padded cloth covering to go over the shoulder support. Each cloth covering has three parts: two cloth sides and a long cloth tube filled with polyester batting.

It took a team of seven—including Voskamp, Baughman, University of Texas work-study student Liz Phan, and four volunteers—one month to complete the project, spending the entire month exclusively making hangers. Each hanger took an hour and a half to construct for a total of 262 hours. For the Ransom Center’s preservation team, it’s worth getting hung up on the details.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.