When Robert De Niro heard that Marlon Brando’s personal, annotated Godfather script was for sale on eBay he was not too happy. How could such an important cultural artefact, created by an acting icon, a true 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 looking for a place to donate the extensive collection of props, costumes, scripts, letters and mementos he had accumulated through his six-decade career. He did not want his Taxi Driver script notes to wind up deteriorating in a stranger’s closet, he sought out a place where the archivists and staff would care for and preserve each piece, including the red boxing gloves and leopard-print robe he wore as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and the pages of letters that he and his Last Tycoon director, Elia Kazan, wrote each other.
“I wanted to keep it for my kids and I wanted to keep it all together,” De Niro tells me just after viewing an exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin showcasing part of his archives. He’s in town for the show and for a gala celebrating the centre’s 65th anniversary. The film critic Leonard Maltin is acting as master of ceremonies, and Meryl Streep has hopped over to Texas to honour her long-time friend and colleague with a speech.
“I don’t know, if you’re spelunking around in there, if you’re going to be able to find the secret of his power and what he does,” Streep says in her speech. “His strength comes from what he doesn’t say.”
Texas might seem like an odd home for De Niro’s two Academy Awards and personal photos, but he wanted an institution that would provide easy access to students, researchers and cinephiles from around the world. As he says in his own speech, “I had accumulated an appalling amount of stuff. It was going to be either the Ransom Center or an episode of Hoarders.”
The centre houses the papers of the acting teacher Stella Adler, Samuel Beckett, TS Eliot, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and Frida Kahlo, to name a few. In his speech, De Niro says he chose the centre because of the company his archive would be in. “I imagine my papers talking to their papers, or trying to anyway, and their papers asking my papers, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”
The Robert De Niro Papers show, which runs until January, features a portion of the 537 boxes, 601 bound volumes and 147 folders of items De Niro donated. Here are a few treasures on display, with insights from De Niro and the centre’s curator of film, Steve Wilson.
Early headshot and CV
The black-and-white photo of a very clean-cut young De Niro is accompanied by one of his early acting résumés, back when his film roles had names such as Friend of Lead. De Niro says he remembers typing those résumés, and when I ask him if he maybe, possibly exaggerated anything, he says, “I think I may have. Maybe I said I was in a play or had a role in a play, and I’d just done a scene.” Wilson says the CVs helped the archivists date some of the items from early in his career, including his old make-up 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 theatre. “The existence of these résumés was really interesting to me,” Wilson says. “It does look like he was probably padding résumés. For example, he might say he was in a touring play, but we know he performed a scene at Stella Adler or something.”
Fedora from Mean Streets
The hat, and the role, marked the start of one of cinema’s most enduring and powerful collaborations, between De Niro and the director Martin Scorsese. When De Niro wore this brown fedora to read for the role of Johnny Boy, the neighbourhood punk, Scorsese knew De Niro was his guy, he told New York magazine a few years later. In Vincent Canby’s 1973 review of the film for the New York Times, he wrote, “The look, language and performances are so accurate, so unselfconscious, so directly evocative.” De Niro’s performance (opposite Harvey Keitel and David Proval) and that now-iconic hat helped create the visceral realism that still manages to feel in-your-face and raw almost five decades later. “I wore that hat as a kid,” De Niro says when I ask where it came from. “I just liked it.” When it came time to audition for Johnny Boy, he says, 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 long time,” Wilson says. “It was kind of an arsenal.”
Licence from Taxi Driver
To prepare for his 1976 role as Travis Bickle, a haunted, lonely Vietnam veteran turned New York cabbie, De Niro spent a little more than a week actually driving a taxi. This was just after he had won an Academy Award for The Godfather Part II, and one passenger recognised him and commented that things must be especially tough for actors if an Oscar winner was trying to earn money driving a cab. The licence is another piece of the collection that illuminates his dedication to character and the lengths he goes to fully inhabit another life.
The exhibition also includes one of De Niro’s annotated Taxi Driver scripts, opened to a page where Bickle stares into the mirror. The action simply reads: “His eyes are glazed with introspection. He sees nothing but himself.” Just below that, in blue ink, De Niro wrote, “Mirror thing here?” That “mirror thing”, of course, became “You talking to me?” It’s an improvised moment that has become a hallmark of his career. College-age kids still yell that line to De Niro sometimes when he’s out in public. As for the licence, as soon as Wilson saw it for the first time he “knew immediately that it was the image of the archive. It speaks to his process and says it all. It’s a great piece.”
Military dog tags from The Deer Hunter
“I can’t remember if I wore those through the whole production; it was a long time ago,” De Niro says of the ID that his character, Mike, wore in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film about a group of friends from a Pennsylvania steel town whose lives are forever 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 known as PTSD) and detailed notes he took on the dialect of the specific area of Pennsylvania his character hailed from. (Sample: “these ones” and “those ones” can be used interchangeably.)
“I think this is where the archive really starts,” Wilson says. “There is a giant uptick in the amount of research material that we have 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 would have been in real life to keep the metal from making noise and alerting the enemy. By the time 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 stay true to the object’s original form.
Raging Bull annotated script
Like most of the screenplays in the collection, De Niro’s Raging Bull draft, dated “2-1-79″ and revised by “M.S. and R.D.N.” (the director and actor), is covered in handwritten notes. The hefty version is enclosed in a brown leather folder. Wilson says that several of the scripts “seemed to have a personality of their own” and that there were notes in 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 writer Paul Schrader’s handwritten scene outline, scribbled on a yellow legal pad. Several writers were credited in the film, but De Niro and Scorsese went away for a few days together to work on a final draft before production began. De Niro says they headed to the Caribbean because “it just seemed like a nice place to go. We worked on the script and on getting it to a good place. We worked on the character.”
The notes across the script pages are tough to decipher. When De Niro steps away for a moment I overhear his young daughter telling Wilson that her father has horrible handwriting, so bad that she doesn’t even think he uses the same alphabet as everyone else. That hard-to-decipher handwriting will probably not stop film lovers and researchers from travelling to the Ransom Center in their quest to decode De Niro’s career, his technique and the mystery of his process, one script note, costume choice and scribbled-on napkin at a time. — This article originally appeared in The New York Times