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.
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.
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.
Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader has donated his collection to the Harry Ransom Center. Schrader wrote screenplays for such iconic films as Taxi Driver (1976), Blue Collar (1978), Raging Bull (1980), American Gigolo (1980), The Mosquito Coast (1986), and Affliction (1997).
Schrader had previously donated Robert De Niro’s costume from Taxi Driver after De Niro donated his archive to the Ransom Center in 2006. The costume is now on display in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Making Movies, which runs through Aug. 1.
The Schrader collection consists of more than 300 boxes and includes outlines and drafts of scripts and screenplays, correspondence, production materials, videos, audio tapes, press clippings, photographs, and juvenilia.
The collection will be made accessible once it is processed and cataloged. A small case of materials from the collection will be on display in the Ransom Center lobby through March 21.
The Ransom Center is encouraging the Austin community to read “The Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe” as part of The Big Read campaign, which kicks off today.
To generate interest in the work of Poe, the Ransom Center will unveil daily photos of various community figures, performers, and writers reading Poe’s works. At least one image will be revealed every weekday through the end of October on this blog.