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Robert De Niro’s Profession in Five Artifacts


AUSTIN, Texas — When Robert De Niro heard that Marlon Brando’s personal, annotated “Godfather” script was on the market on eBay, he was not too pleased. How could such a vital cultural artifact, created by an acting icon, a real artist, be as easy to bid on as an old pinball machine, or a Las Vegas coffee mug?

This was around 2006, and De Niro had been searching for a spot to donate the extensive collection of props, costumes, scripts, letters and mementos he had amassed throughout his six-decade profession. He didn’t want his “Taxi Driver” script notes to wind up deteriorating in a stranger’s closet in Des Moines, so he sought out a spot where the archivists and staff would take care of and preserve each bit, including the red boxing gloves and leopard-print robe he wore as Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” and the pages of letters he and his “Last Tycoon” director Elia Kazan wrote one another. 

“I desired to keep it for my kids and I desired to keep all of it together,” De Niro told me just after he viewed an exhibition on the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas in Austin showcasing a part of his archives. He was on the town last month for the show, and for a gala celebrating the Ransom Center’s sixty fifth anniversary. Leonard Maltin served because the master of ceremonies, and Meryl Streep hopped over to Texas to honor her longtime friend and colleague with a speech.

“I don’t know, in case you’re spelunking around in there, in case you’re going to give you the chance to seek out the key of his power and what he does,” Streep said in her speech. “His strength comes from what he doesn’t say.”

Texas might seem to be an odd home for De Niro’s two Academy Awards and private photos, but he wanted an establishment that might provide easy accessibility to students, researchers and cinephiles from all over the world. As he said in his own speech that night: “I had amassed an appalling amount of stuff. It was going to be either the Ransom Center or an episode of ‘Hoarders.’”

The middle houses the papers of the acting teacher Stella Adler, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and Frida Kahlo, to call a couple of. In his speech, De Niro said he selected the middle due to the company his archive could be in. “I imagine my papers talking to their papers, or attempting to anyway, and their papers asking my papers, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”

The “Robert De Niro Papers” show runs through January and encompasses a portion of the 537 boxes, 601 sure volumes and 147 folders of things De Niro donated. Listed below are a couple of treasures on display, with insights from De Niro and the curator of film, Steve Wilson.

The black-and-white photo of a really clean-cut-looking young De Niro is accompanied by certainly one of his early acting résumés, back when his film roles had names like Friend of Lead. De Niro said he remembered typing those résumés, and after I asked him if he possibly, possibly exaggerated anything, he said, “I believe I can have. Perhaps I said I used to be in a play or had a job in a play, and I’d just done a scene.” Wilson said the résumés helped the archivists date a few of the items from early in his profession, like his old makeup kit, which holds used brushes, tubes and cosmetic sticks that helped De Niro get into character during his early years as a student, before he went to work onstage and in dinner theater. “The existence of those résumés was really interesting to me,” Wilson said. “It does seem like he was probably padding résumés. For instance, he might say he was in a touring play, but we all know he performed a scene at Stella Adler or something.”

The hat, and the role, marked the beginning of certainly one of cinema’s most enduring and powerful collaborations, between De Niro and the director Martin Scorsese. When the actor wore this brown fedora to read for the role of Johnny Boy, the neighborhood punk, Scorsese knew De Niro was his guy, he told Recent York magazine a couple of years later. In Vincent Canby’s 1973 review of the film for The Times, he wrote, “The look, language and performances are so accurate, so unselfconscious, so directly evocative.” De Niro’s performance (opposite Harvey Keitel, above left, and David Proval) and that now iconic hat helped create the visceral realism that also manages to feel in-your-face and raw, almost five many years later. “I wore that hat as a child,” De Niro told me after I asked where it got here from. “I just liked it.” When it got here time to audition for Johnny Boy, he said, he felt that it fit the character. “He had been keeping wardrobe items that he would use for auditions, like hats and glasses, for a very long time,” Wilson said. “It was sort of an arsenal.”

To organize for his 1976 role as Travis Bickle, a haunted, lonely Vietnam veteran turned Recent York cabby, De Niro spent a bit over every week actually driving a taxi. This was just after he had won an Academy Award for “The Godfather Part II,” and one passenger recognized him and commented that things should be especially tough for actors if an Oscar winner was attempting to earn money driving a cab. The license is one other piece of the gathering that illuminates his dedication to character and the lengths he goes to totally inhabit one other life.

The exhibition also includes certainly one of De Niro’s annotated “Taxi Driver” scripts, opened to a page where Bickle stares into the mirror. The motion simply reads: “His eyes are glazed with introspection. He sees nothing but himself.” Just under that, in blue ink, De Niro wrote, “Mirror thing here?” That “mirror thing,” in fact, became “You talking to me?” It’s an improvised moment that has turn into an indicator of his profession. College-age kids still yell that line to De Niro sometimes when he’s out in public. As for the license, as soon as Wilson saw it for the primary time, he “knew immediately that it was the image of the archive. It speaks to his process and says all of it. It’s an ideal piece.”

I can’t remember if I wore those through the entire production; it was a protracted time ago,” De Niro said of the ID his character, Mike, wore in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film a couple of group of friends from a Pennsylvania steel town whose lives are perpetually scarred by their experiences in Vietnam. Besides the dog tags, the archive displays De Niro’s prep work, including medical records from actual Vietnam veterans, articles about “returning vet syndrome” (now often known as PTSD), and detailed notes he took on the dialect of the particular area of Pennsylvania his character hailed from. (Sample: “these ones” and “those ones” may be used interchangeably.)

“I believe that is where the archive really starts,” Wilson said.There is a big uptick in the quantity of research material that we’ve got for any particular film once we get to ‘Deer Hunter’ and beyond. Sometime around 1979 or 1980 is when he really got serious about keeping things.” When the dog tags arrived, Wilson noticed they were covered in plastic, as they’d have been in real life to maintain the metal from making noise and alerting the enemy. By the point the dog tags reached Austin, the plastic was yellowed and leaching liquid, so the archivists removed the decaying material and had them encased again, to remain true to the thing’s original form.

Like a lot of the screenplays in the gathering, De Niro’s “Raging Bull” draft, dated “2-1-79” and revised by “M.S. and R.D.N.” (the director and actor), is roofed in handwritten notes. The hefty version is enclosed in a brown leather folder. Wilson said several of the scripts “looked as if it would have a personality of their very own,” and that there have been notes within the pockets of the folder, including one to De Niro from Vikki LaMotta, the real-life wife of De Niro’s character.

The script is displayed in a glass case next to the author Paul Schrader’s handwritten scene outline, scribbled on a yellow legal pad. Several writers were credited within the film, but De Niro and Scorsese went away for a couple of days together to work on a final draft before production began. De Niro said they headed to the Caribbean because “it just gave the impression of a pleasant place to go. We worked on the script and on getting it to a superb place. We worked on the character.”

The notes across the script pages are tough to decipher. When De Niro stepped away for a moment, I overheard his young daughter telling Wilson that her father had horrible handwriting, so bad that she didn’t even think he used the identical alphabet as everyone else. That onerous-to-decipher handwriting will probably not stop film lovers and researchers from traveling to the Ransom Center of their quest to decode De Niro’s profession, his technique and the mystery of his process, one script note, costume selection and scribbled-on napkin at a time.

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