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Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes from the Ransom Center

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

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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?

Once hanging, the suit doesn’t touch the walls or the floor, which helps preserve the material.  Photo by Wyndell Faulk.
Once hanging, the suit doesn’t touch the walls or the floor, which helps preserve the material. Photo by Wyndell Faulk.

In the Galleries: Robert De Niro's King James Version-inspired tattoos in "Cape Fear"

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The 1991 Martin Scorsese–directed thriller Cape Fear may seem an unlikely candidate for documenting the use and influence of the King James Bible, but its central character, Max Cady, as played by Robert De Niro, wielded biblical verses like weapons.

This aspect of Cady was absent in both the original 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and in The Executioners (1957), the novel by John D. MacDonald on which the film was based.

Cape Fear follows Cady, a convicted felon, as he seeks vengeance against his attorney, Sam Bowden. While in prison, Cady learned that Bowden suppressed information that might have resulted in a lighter sentence or acquittal. The biblical story of Job’s suffering looms large as a model for Cady’s punishment of Bowden.

The research materials from the Robert De Niro collection reveal the extent to which De Niro was involved in the development of the Pentecostal past of and biblical influence on Cady. To prepare for the role, De Niro consulted multiple Bibles, a concordance, Bible study guides, Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book of Job, and books and articles about Pentecostalism and Pentecostal worship.

Screenwriter Wesley Strick recalled, “Every scene of Bob’s, he would call me and say, ‘Can Max say something else here about vengeance, from the Bible?’” De Niro also worked closely with Scorcese and artist Ilona Herman to identify Bible verses and designs for Cady’s extensive tattoos.

Cape Fear did not offer viewers a traditional Bible story. Indeed, Cady’s use of the Bible was troubling for many audiences, and it contributed to the tension of the film. One critic observed, “The dissonance between the cultural expectations we associate with the Bible and our immediate perception of this character [as evil] contributes to the sustained horror of the film.”

Materials from Cape Fear and other films influenced by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from "Cape Fear."
A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from "Cape Fear."

"What you are about to see is unrehearsed and uncensored"

Mike Wallace interviewing Margaret Sanger on "The Mike Wallace Interview," September 23, 1957.  © Mike Wallace.
Mike Wallace interviewing Margaret Sanger on "The Mike Wallace Interview," September 23, 1957. © Mike Wallace.

“Whether you agree or disagree with what you will hear, we feel that none will deny the right of these views to be broadcast.”
-Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace rose to prominence in 1956 with the New York City television interview program Night Beat, which soon developed into the nationally televised prime-time program The Mike Wallace Interview.

Well prepared with extensive research, Wallace asked probing questions of guests framed in tight close-ups. The result was a series of compelling and revealing interviews with some of the most interesting and important people of the day, including Justice William O. Douglas, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pearl Buck, Salvador Dali, Oscar Hammerstein and Henry Kissinger. The interviews dealt with the issues of the times, including civil rights and the Cold War.

In the early 1960s, Wallace donated to the Ransom Center the show’s interviews on 16mm kinescope. The 30-minute interviews can be viewed online. Most of the episodes have not been seen on television since they aired.

Starting many of the interviews with “What you are about to see is unrehearsed and uncensored,” Wallace quickly became recognized for his tough questions and the forceful style for which he is still known today. Through the online videos, one can watch Wallace aggressively question his subjects, including Margaret Sanger about her support for birth control.

Almost half a century since their original broadcast, these interviews not only remain compelling and serve as a time capsule from the mid-twentieth century, but they also continue to resonate with many of the issues still being addressed today.

Q and A with Tom Smith

Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.
Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.

The archive of visual effects producer Thomas Smith has been donated to the Ransom Center. Smith worked on the special effects for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1983), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Below, he shares why he chose the Ransom Center as the repository for his papers and why it’s important to preserve these materials.

Why did you choose the Ransom Center as the home for your archive?

I began making 16 mm films right after I was discharged from the Air Force. I worked in this small screen format for 15 years. During the years when I was making documentary and academic films, I often used the good services of many archives, in search of photos or audio recordings for my films. About eight years ago, after working on my last feature film project, Gods and Generals (2003), I made one more small screen documentary. For this, I needed photos of American poet Edgar Lee Masters. I came to the Ransom Center since they were the largest depository I could find of Masters’s material. I was very impressed with the organization of the library, the courtesy of its staff, and the care they showed for the Masters collection. After I retired from working in feature films, I felt there would be no better place for my collection of motion picture scripts, photos, storyboards, and notes than the Ransom Center.

Why is it important to preserve the types of materials found in an archive such as yours?

Nothing is permanent, but a well-organized and well-housed archive is our best bet for preserving documents from the past and keeping them available to future generations. The material I have donated to the archive represents working papers from the motion picture industry from around 1980 to shortly after 2000. Most of it concerns the visual effects work I was involved with. Some of this will be interesting to students and film scholars immediately and some decades from now as it takes on a historical value and in some cases may attract artistic interest.

You’ll be meeting with students during your visit to campus. What can students learn from an archive such as yours?

The collection of my papers represents over 20 years of feature film scripts and story boards. By reading and studying these working documents, they will hopefully get some insight into the enormous amount of planning that goes into the making of a feature film, particularly the ones with visual effects. I was fortunate to have worked on many films students will have seen, films that are part of the American memory of popular movies. Some of these include two early Star Wars films, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Poltergeist. I also produced films for Walt Disney such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and several 3-D theme park attractions, one with pop singer Michael Jackson and another with Jim Henson. This was Henson’s last film. Sadly he died just as we finished the work. For the Jim Henson Company, I produced not only the 3-D film currently running in all Disneyland parks, MuppetVision 3-D, I also produced the visual effects for three feature films. For the Ted Turner company, I produced the visual effects and directed battle scenes for the 2003 Civil War epic Gods and Generals. For the ABC Network, I directed a one-hour special for children, called Ralph S. Mouse. So this is a cross section of work from a variety of films that students may find informative, and there are documents associated with nearly all of them in the collection.

"Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" Visual Effects Producer Thomas Smith donates collection

Student volunteer Carly Dearborn and Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson with materials from the Tom Smith collection. Photo by Pete Smith.
Student volunteer Carly Dearborn and Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson with materials from the Tom Smith collection. Photo by Pete Smith.

Thomas Smith (b. 1938), visual effect producer for such films as Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (1980) and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), has donated his archive to the Ransom Center. Smith was hired by George Lucas as the first head of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and worked on the special effects for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).

The Smith collection comprises 22 boxes and documents Smith’s professional work through the 1980s and 1990s. Spanning from 1979 to 2003, the collection contains special effects storyboards, screenplay drafts, scripts, pre-production research, production materials, newspaper clippings, photographs, and published materials such as fan magazines and cinematography periodicals. The papers also contain material relating to Smith’s time at ILM and Lucasfilm.

The collection will be made accessible once it is processed and cataloged.

Smith will visit The University of Texas at Austin to speak publicly on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m. in KLRU’s Studio 6A in the Communications Center Building B. As part of the Harry Ransom Lecture series, Smith will discuss his life and career. While on campus, Smith will also meet with students in the College of Communication’s Department of Radio-Television-Film.

Related content: Q & A with Tom Smith

Fellows Find: Analyzing the fight scenes from "Raging Bull"

Paul Schrader's outline for the 1980 film 'Raging Bull.'
Paul Schrader's outline for the 1980 film 'Raging Bull.'

Leger Grindon is a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College where he has taught since 1987.  He is the author of Knockout:  the Boxer and Boxing in American Cinema (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), Hollywood Romantic Comedy:  Conventions, History and Controversies (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Shadows on the Past:  Studies in the Historical Fiction Film (Temple University Press, 1994).  Grindon spent time working in the Robert De Niro collection in July on a Robert De Niro Fellowship.  He is preparing an essay, “Filming the Fights in Raging Bull,” for a forthcoming critical anthology on the films of Martin Scorsese edited by Aaron Baker and to be published by Wiley-Blackwell.

The object of my research was the film Raging Bull (1980). Robert De Niro’s performance in the film earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. I was particularly interested in the evolution of the nine boxing sequences in the film. With that in mind, I carefully examined five different screenplay drafts that were among the De Niro papers. These drafts by Emmett Clary, Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese demonstrated the development in thinking about the filming of the various boxing sequences and how they would be integrated into the other dramatic action in the movie.

Jake La Motta, the subject of the film, had 106 professional fights, so the question arises as to why these particular fights were chosen? As a result of my research in the archive, I now have a much clearer picture of the development and meaning of these choices. I was also able to get a better picture of how the staging of the fights changed over the course of the various screenplays. One lasting impression of my work in the archive was that the filmmakers of Raging Bull never stopped making adjustments and changes in their conception of the film. The notes I reviewed on the adjustments made in the final shooting script were illuminating. Furthermore, I was able to look at the many storyboard drawings of the boxing sequences. Some of the boxing sequences have more than 100 drawings and diagrams that were made in preparation for the filming. One sequence has only one drawing. These drawings, diagrams for figure and camera movement, and other notes, give me considerable insight into the planning, conception, and execution of these sequences. I have also received more than 50 photocopied pages from various screenplay drafts and storyboard images from the archives. I will continue to consult them while writing my forthcoming essay.

Win a copy of "The Journals of Spalding Gray"

'The Journals of Spalding Gray" was edited by Nell Casey.
'The Journals of Spalding Gray" was edited by Nell Casey.

Writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive opens for research today, is best known for his highly personal monologues and for helping to define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Gray’s archive was acquired by the Ransom Center in 2010.

Writer Nell Casey had access to the archive before it arrived at the Ransom Center, and her book The Journals of Spalding Gray has been released today. Cultural Compass interviewed Casey about her work in the archive and the surprises she found in Gray’s journals.

In honor of the book’s release, the Ransom Center is giving away two copies of the volume. Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Spalding” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.

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"The Journals of Spalding Gray": An interview with editor Nell Casey

Page from Spalding Gray journal, which spans from February to April 1990.
Page from Spalding Gray journal, which spans from February to April 1990.

Spalding Gray was an actor, performer, and writer. He appeared on Broadway in various one-man shows and is widely accredited with the invention of the autobiographical monologue.  His archive, recently acquired by the Ransom Center, is composed of more than 100 private journals that span more than 40 years of Gray’s career. Nell Casey, editor of the book The Journals of Spalding Gray, which was released today, distilled the mass of journal entries into a portrait of the man behind the magnetic performer who ended his life in 2004. Cultural Compass spoke with Casey about her interest in Gray, the surprising notes she found in the journals, what she admires about his work, and more.

Casey’s interaction with Gray began in 1992 when, after moving to New York, she wrote one of her first magazine articles about him. After Gray’s death, Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow, created the play Leftover Stories to Tell, which told the story of Spalding Gray’s life through excerpts from his monologues and journals.  Casey interviewed Russo for The New York Times and says that the journal entries that appeared in the play were “incredibly beautiful.”

“One of the things about the play was that with other people reading [Gray’s] work you got a sense of his incredible talent as a writer,” said Casey.  “When I saw the play and the writing was taken out and away from him and other people were reading it, I realized that his writing was a talent that had been sort of overshadowed by his personality and performance.”

When Russo approached Casey to ask if she would be interested in writing a book about Gray, Casey enthusiastically agreed. She had always loved Gray’s work. Her first step was to read the journals. Initially, she was concerned that the material found in the journals would be repetitive of what Gray himself told in his monologues.  What she found was anything but.

“[The journals] are this incredible under life and sea of experience that he had not included in his monologues, and part of that experience was the struggle he had,” said Casey.

The writings are so raw and intimate that Casey says she was “caught off guard by almost every journal entry.” On paper, Gray reveals himself as a more extreme version of the person he portrays in his monologues. Casey describes him as a self-reflective narcissist with a broad sense of himself.

“He had this unbelievably broad sort of analytic and therapeutic sense of himself, so he could explore himself, even though he could not stop himself from actions that were very self-destructive and brutal,” said Casey.“The monologues are where he found perspective. The journals were where he showed himself to be completely lost.”

While Gray’s entries do correspond to his monologues, his writings are not for performance but for his life. Casey says, “There is some similarity, but you see in the journals that he just hasn’t gotten his footing yet.”

The themes present in his monologues come up in the book, but they are explored more deeply. As Casey read through the thousands of journal entries, she found that there were very specific themes: his drinking, his narcissism, his performance, his struggle with relationships, his mother’s suicide, and his fantasy life. These themes acted as a guide to help Casey winnow the mass of information into a chronological account of Spalding Gray’s private life.

Above all, Casey says that her years with Gray’s journals have led her to admire him for his writing. She admires it for “its beauty but also for the incredible, tender, searching thought that went into what he wanted to find in life.” Gray’s quest for truth was relentless.  “Honesty is really guesswork, isn’t it?” Casey questioned, quoting British editor and writer Diane Athill.

“The point being, what is truth?” Casey says. “Your own truth is just a stab in the dark, and I admire Spalding Gray for his endless attempts at trying to find his truth.”

“We have lost Gray,” Casey writes in her introduction to the journals, “but there is still more for him to tell us.”

The New York Times recently published an article containing excerpts from the journals.

Nell Casey is the editor of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Elle, and Glamour. The Journals of Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey is published by Alfred A. Knopf and available for purchase October 18, 2011.

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Filmmaker Nicholas Ray's archive opens for research

Dennis Hopper and Nicholas Ray, ca. 1971. Photo by Mark Goldstein.
Dennis Hopper and Nicholas Ray, ca. 1971. Photo by Mark Goldstein.

The archive of film director Nicholas Ray (1911–1979), best known for his film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), is now open for research. Spanning more than 35 years, materials in the collection include original treatments, annotated scripts, photographs, journals, notes, audio reels, video recordings and film that provide an account of Ray’s working methods and ideas. View the finding aid for the collection or read an article about the collection in the Chronicle of Higher Education.