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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.

 

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Bloody costumes in De Niro collection present unusual challenge for conservation team

By Apryl Voskamp

Blood runs through the archive of renowned actor Robert De Niro. From bloodstained props to grisly costumes, artifacts of some of Hollywood’s most iconic thrillers are preserved at the Harry Ransom Center. Although the fake blood that marks these materials might share a similar chemical makeup, each bloody stain has its own secrets.

 

One such artifact is a shirt De Niro wore in a Cape Fear (1991) fight scene that has several gashes surrounded by fake blood. Twenty years later it is still sticky to the touch, which has posed complicated housing issues. The tackiness of the blood is what made this artifact a preservation challenge because traditional archival materials used to cushion textiles were adhering to—rather than protecting—the shirt. I learned that silicone-coated polyester film proved to be the best storage solution.

 

I learned that fake blood recipes vary depending on the specific effect a director or special effects supervisor aims for in a movie. For instance, in the film 15 Minutes (2001), the blood contained titanium oxide to give it an opacity that would photograph better. In the film Ronin (1998), the fake blood’s consistency enabled it to splatter from an explosive blood bag apparatus in the armpit of De Niro’s jacket.

 

These “bloody” artifacts have proven to be a puzzle to conservators and curators since knowing the makeup of these fake blood recipes poses issues when it comes to storing and exhibiting cinema history.

 

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Application process open for Ransom Center’s fellowships

By Jennifer Tisdale

Cover of Eric Gill's
Cover of Eric Gill's

The Harry Ransom Center invites applications for its 2014–2015 research fellowships in the humanities.

Information about the fellowships and the application process is available online. The deadline for applications, which must be submitted through the Ransom Center’s website, is January 31, 2014, at 5 p.m. CST.

More than 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support projects that require substantial on-site use of its collections. The fellowships support research in all areas of the humanities, including literature, photography, film, art, the performing arts, music, and cultural history.

All applicants, with the exception of those applying for dissertation fellowships, must have a Ph.D. or be independent scholars with a substantial record of achievement.

The fellowships range from one to three months, with stipends of $3,000 per month. Also available are $1,200 or $1,700 travel stipends and dissertation fellowships with a $1,500 stipend.

Information about the Ransom Center collections can be found online and in the Guide to the Collections.

The stipends are funded by Ransom Center endowments and annual sponsors , including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Jewish Studies, the Robert De Niro Endowed Fund, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment, the Woodward and Bernstein Endowment, the Frederic D. Weinstein Memorial Fellowship in Twentieth-Century American Literature, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the South Central Modern Language Association, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.

Applicants will be notified of decisions on April 1, 2014.

The 2014–2015 academic cycle will mark the 25th anniversary of the Ransom Center’s fellowship program. Since the program’s inauguration in 1990, the Center has supported the research of more than 800 scholars through fellowships.

Scholar discusses research in De Niro collection

By Edgar Walters

R. Colin Tait, a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Ransom Center’s Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, “Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).” Tait argues that De Niro has been a major intellectual and creative contributor to the world of film and acting and writes about his research in the De Niro archive. Tait shares how the papers reveal the actor’s commitment to his craft with examples of his “meticulous research, collaborations with directors, and extreme bodily transformations.”

In the above video, Tait discusses De Niro’s place in the film canon.

R. Colin Tait works with papers in the Robert De Niro archive in the Ransom Center’s reading room. Photo by Pete Smith.
R. Colin Tait works with papers in the Robert De Niro archive in the Ransom Center’s reading room. Photo by Pete Smith.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Head of Paper Conservation Heather Hamilton treats an animated scroll for a 2014 exhibition on “Alice in Wonderland.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Head of Paper Conservation Heather Hamilton treats an animated scroll for a 2014 exhibition on “Alice in Wonderland.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Library Assistant Emilio Banda pulls a film poster from “Heat” in the Robert De Niro collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Library Assistant Emilio Banda pulls a film poster from “Heat” in the Robert De Niro collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Preparator Wyndell Faulk cuts mat board to frame materials in the upcoming exhibition “Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive,” which opens June 11. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Preparator Wyndell Faulk cuts mat board to frame materials in the upcoming exhibition “Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive,” which opens June 11. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Robert De Niro’s “Silver Linings Playbook” costume ensemble on view

By Jill Morena

Robert De Niro received his seventh Academy Award® nomination for his supporting role in Silver Linings Playbook (2012). The Ransom Center holds De Niro’s collection of papers and costumes and props, which includes materials from each of his nominated roles in Cape Fear (1991), Awakenings (1990), Raging Bull (1980), The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Godfather Part II (1974). De Niro won Oscars® for his leading role in Raging Bull and his supporting role in The Godfather Part II.

One of the costume ensembles worn by De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook is on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby, alongside his character’s television remote controls and Philadelphia Eagles handkerchief. Below, Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects Jill Morena writes about the importance of costumes and props to actors.

One of Robert De Niro's costume ensembles worn in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Robert De Niro's costume ensembles worn in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Costumes and props aid an actor to arrive at the mental and physical place of inhabiting and expressing the character he or she is portraying. They can also help illuminate the physical aspect and embodiment of performance.

In director David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Robert De Niro plays Pat Solitano, Sr., a passionate Philadelphia Eagles fan who is struggling to reconnect with his troubled son, Pat Jr., and support his family with a bookmaking enterprise after losing his job. Costume designer Mark Bridges chose and modified clothing that would express Pat Sr.’s lifelong love of the Eagles. He imagined and selected clothing pieces that Pat Sr. would have worn and cherished through the years, such as this classic cardigan in the team color, green, to which Bridges added a patch representing a vintage Eagles logo.

The television remote controls are Pat Sr.’s game day talismans, which he deploys with anxious precision. They must be arranged in particular configurations or held by certain “lucky” persons, with the belief that the Eagles will prevail if these actions are followed. The Eagles handkerchief is held firmly by Pat Sr. throughout the game, or placed over the remote controls. Pat Jr. overtly expresses that Pat Sr. suffers from OCD and takes game day superstitions too far. The film implies that Pat Sr.’s obsessions may have been the genesis of Pat Jr.’s own mental health struggles.

Related content:
“Martin Scorsese” exhibition features items from Ransom Center.

R. Colin Tait, a PhD candidate and University Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).

"Martin Scorsese" exhibition features items from Ransom Center

By Edgar Walters

Makeup stills from "Raging Bull."
Makeup stills from "Raging Bull."

Martin Scorsese’s influential filmmaking legacy is the focus of a new exhibition, aptly titled Martin Scorsese, at the Deutsche Kinemathek—Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Berlin. The exhibition, which opened in January and runs through May 12, purports to examine “the rich spectrum of Scorsese’s oeuvre,” including his sources of inspiration, working methods, and lasting contributions to American cinema. The Ransom Center loaned 19 items from the Robert De Niro and Paul Schrader archives to supplement materials from Scorsese’s private collection. Together, they constitute the first international exhibition about Scorsese.

Martin Charles Scorsese grew up in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood in the 1950s, surrounded by a large Italian family and the high-pressure world faced by working-class immigrants. While life on the streets proceeded according to the rules of local gangsters, Scorsese’s asthma kept him largely confined to the house; he followed the outside world from his perch at the window. His older brother Frank recalls: “Marty had a tough childhood. But I used to keep him close. Take him to movies.”

The role of family, blood kin or otherwise, has been a central theme in Scorsese’s works, starting with the short films he made as a student. Throughout his career, he repeatedly cast family members as extras. Brotherly relationships are particularly prominent in Scorsese films, perhaps a product of growing up with tight bonds to his own brothers, or of the close partnerships he had with friends like Robert De Niro. For example, Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull features brothers Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci) as a New York boxer and his manager, respectively. Six Ransom Center items related to Raging Bull appear in the exhibition, including De Niro’s boxing gloves and trunks, and makeup test photographs with De Niro’s annotations.

Keychain used in "Cape Fear" by Robert De Niro. Photo by Pete Smith.
Keychain used in "Cape Fear" by Robert De Niro. Photo by Pete Smith.

Scorsese’s extensive knowledge of film history has undoubtedly reinforced his talents as a filmmaker. His 1991 remake of Cape Fear, originally a 1962 thriller directed by J. Lee Thompson, was met with positive critical reception, even inspiring a parody episode of The Simpsons. De Niro received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor for his role in the film. Five items related to Cape Fear are featured at the Deutsche Kinemathek.

The exhibition pays tribute not only to Scorsese’s legacy as an American cinematic icon, but also to his commitment to the preservation of our international film heritage. The items on display are a testament to the enduring presence of film history as a referential guide for the ever-changing medium.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.

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.

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?

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