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A Conversation with Robert De Niro’s Film Archivist | New Dish on Gone With The Wind

LunchAtMichaelsI was joined today by my good friend ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong who I first met (where else?) in this very dining room seven years ago. Joe has introduced me to countless interesting folks over the years including Carl Bernstein, Elton John and the late Elizabeth Edwards. He’s had a long and storied career in journalism having been at the top of the masthead of Rolling Stone and New York Magazine as publisher and has served as a trusted advisor to ABC News. These days when he’s not holding court here at Michael’s or dispensing invaluable advice to his faithful friends in the media biz, he’s a tireless champion of many worthwhile causes and institutions including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin where he sits of the board of directors. Back in the day, Joe was editor in chief of the Texas Law Forum at the University of Texas School of Law. (Harry Ransom was his beloved mother’s English teacher — “Everything comes full circle!”) Today, he invited me to join the Center’s film curator Steve Wilson,  Alicia Dietrich, public affairs representative and  Jennifer Tisdale director of public affairs who dazzled me with fascinating stories about the Center’s extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia among many other types of cultural and literary artifacts — just in time for the upcoming Oscars.

At Table One: Front (from left) Steve Wilson, Diane Clehane, Jennifer Tisdale; Back: Alicia Dietrich and Joe Armstrong

At Table 1: Front (from left) Steve Wilson, Diane Clehane and Jennifer Tisdale; Back: Alicia Dietrich and Joe Armstrong

The gang was in town to meet with various news outlets to discuss the Center’s upcoming ’The Making of Gone With the Wind” exhibition, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of one of the most iconic movies of all time. The exhibition will run from Sept. 9 through Jan. 4, 2015 and is a must-see for film buffs. Gone With the Wind was the most nominated film of 1939, scoring 13 Academy Award nominations, including a nod for Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to be nominated and win for Best Supporting Actress. No small feat since that year was truly one of Hollywood’s best with Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz also competing for little gold men that year. Among the 300 items drawn from the Center’s collection from David O. Selznick‘s archives that will be on view: rare audition footage, storyboards from the film and three original gowns worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, including the famous “green curtain” dress, marking the first time these costumes were on view together in 25 years. A gloriously illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title was published by the Center and University of Texas Press last fall with a foreword written by Turner Classic Movie host and film historian Robert Osborne.

The film, which took three and a half years to make, has been a subject of fascination since its debut and remains (with its receipts adjusted for inflation) the highest-grossing film of all time. It continues to fascinate today with a back story as epic as the one that made it to the big screen. Once Steve dove into the 5,000 document boxes, millions of frames of film and hundreds of photographs that came to the Center from Selznick’s sons via a storage facility in Los Angeles (which took two years to catalog), he learned that both Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead (who promised to give up drinking for the role) desperately wanted the role of Scarlett. “When Selznick called Bankhead on Christmas Eve in 1936 to tell her they needed someone who could convincingly play Scarlett as a much younger woman, she bowed out because she was a working actress and needed to know then if she had the role,” Steve told me. He also discovered that Selznick was such a prolific letter writer (“He was taking ‘pep pills’ at the time of the making of the movie, which obviously fueled very long letters”) that he employed an army of secretaries who did nothing but type his 10-page, single-spaced dictated missives related to the making of the film. Fans were so excited about the movie having read Margaret Mitchell‘s book that over 3,000 of them responded to a nationwide talent search initiated by Selznick, who was searching for the perfect Scarlett. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was so inundated with letters about it that she resorted to throwing bags of mail away unopened. Luckily, 300 of those letters remain and are part of the exhibition. “It’s an amazing window into Hollywood history,” said Steve. If you’re interested in a sneak peak, ten storyboards from the exhibition will be on view from April 10 through April 13 at The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.

The Harry Ransom Center is an internationally renowned humanities research library and museum that is filled with a treasure trove of cultural artifacts. Most notably are those works of many of the country’s most respected writers and artists, which includes 42 million (!) manuscripts and nearly a million rare books, such as the Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455); and the film archives of Robert De Niro, donated by the actor (who sent two 18-wheelers down to Austin, filled with all the costumes, props, scripts and personal notes from all of his films in 2006 and continues to send new materials to the Center after every film). Also included are the manuscripts of James Joyce, Tennessee Williams and Tom Stoppard; papers from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate era; correspondence from Norman Mailer (“He was really, really nice when he came down here,” said Steve) and David Foster Wallace (“A great letter writer”); as well as the recently acquired collection of 21 letters written by J.D. Salinger to a female friend during his college years. The New York Times has heralded the Center’s collection as the most important cultural collection in the country outside of the Library of Congress. There are also magnificent photo collections, including the Magnum Collection that Michael Dell bought for the Center for a cool $100 million. Even more amazing is that this wealth of cultural artifacts is available to everyone. Serving as a giant research library, visitors can come and immerse themselves in these works requesting files as you would in your local public library. Steve also works with many authors and journalists overseas and all over the country, supplying them with digital files of whatever works they are interested in seeing.

In discussing why the Center has been the institution of choice for so many extraordinary collections Steve explained to me that they have been selected to house these storied works and extensive archives because “So few places are equipped to handle everything from personal papers, film archives and costumes — we have one of the most collections of costumes from Hollywood’s Golden Age anywhere.” Actors like De Niro, said Steve, “really want their collections in one place.” De Niro also convinced Taxi Driver director Paul Schrader to donate his collection from the film so all the materials could be viewed together. Among the screen gems: De Niro’s very own taxi license he got to prepare for his role as Travis Bickle. “We had to do some soul searching when considering taking it all,” said Steve because of the enormous amount of work involved in preserving and maintaining it all. “Now we are thrilled that it is such a valuable part of our collections.”

While so many writers and filmmakers of the past were meticulous about keeping every shred of paper relating to their works so they may be studied and enjoyed by future generations, there is some concern about the preservation of today’s valuable works. While directors like Martin Scorsese are committed to restoration and preservation, inexplicably there are many in the arts today who don’t share that view. “I’ve heard from people [in the film business] that there is a trend towards purging your emails once you finish a film,” Steve told me. One only need to look at this year’s top contenders for Best Picture and imagine what would be lost if there were no archives for future filmmakers to study. “The correspondence surrounding the making of a film is really where there is so much to be learned,” said Steve. “There can be no real replacement for that once it is lost.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. “Mayor” Joe Armstrong, Steve Wilson, Jennifer Tisdale, Alicia Dietrich and yours truly

2. Louis Vuitton’s Nancy Murray and Judy Price

3. Soethby’s Eva Mohr

4. Faye Wattleton

5. Bill Siegel and Ambassador Bolton

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Andy Bergman and a mystery guest. Anyone?

7. PR maven extraordinaire Cindi Berger

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and Rosina Rucci (designer Ralph Rucci’s sister, in case you didn’t know)

9. Simone Levinson

11. Social swan Nina Griscom

12.  Sol Kerzner

14. Marc Rosenthal

15. Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel

17. Discovery Communications’ Henry Schleiff

18. Literary lion Luke Janklow

20. The lovely Joan Jakobson

21. Lou Korman

22. Mitti Libersohn

23. Bookseller Glenn Horowitz

24. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Gordon Davis

26. Producer Bev Camhe

27. PR princess Susan Blond

28. Jim Friedlich

29. Patrick McGregor

81. Tom Goodman and Ed Adler

Faces in the crowd: Kira Semler and Vi Huse toasting the rising temps at the bar. Cheers!

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

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