Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Spring 2013 Newsletter

Robert De Niro's Method: Acting, Authorship, and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980)

Makeup stills. Click to enlarge.

Makeup stills from Raging Bull.

R. Colin Tait. Click to enlarge.

R. Colin Tait at the Ransom Center.

By R. Colin Tait

Despite the fact that Robert De Niro is one of the most famous and iconic stars of the past 40 years, there is surprisingly very little writing devoted to the actor and his artistry. The result is a vacuum in film and cultural histories, which miss not only his immense contributions to moviemaking, but to the legacy of film acting.

The donation of his career's worth of scripts, papers, costumes, memos, and correspondence to the Ransom Center, then, is one of the most exciting and significant new film acquisitions in recent years. The Robert De Niro papers chronicle all of the films that De Niro was involved with (including films that he has produced and directed) from start to finish, revealing a more comprehensive account of how a film is made, and chronicling his significant creative input into all aspects of production.

In my dissertation "Robert De Niro's Method: Acting, Authorship, and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980)," I argue that Robert De Niro's contributions to 1970s film permanently changed our understanding of screen performance while expanding the previously rigid boundaries between authorship, agency, and acting. I provide rarely seen evidence of his meticulous research, his collaborations with directors, and his extreme bodily transformations, re-centering De Niro as a major intellectual and creative force in a decade that has largely focused on directors instead of actors.

Some of the most interesting items in the De Niro papers illuminate the actor's creative process—something that has largely been obscured due to his privacy, and, above all, modesty. De Niro's acting method is a comprehensive enterprise, beginning immediately after he is cast in a production and often going on for months before the film shoots. This was certainly the case in Raging Bull, and the Ransom Center provides new evidence of his extreme preparation for this role, including his supervision of the script-writing process, his training as a boxer to emulate the real-life Jake La Motta, and his influence over Martin Scorsese, who De Niro persuaded to direct the film.

The Raging Bull files include transcripts of De Niro's interviews with La Motta's ex-wife Vikki, congratulatory correspondence from his acting peers such as Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, and Al Pacino, among many others, as well as photos from make-up and costume tests. Above all, the De Niro papers provide evidence of the actor's active role in writing the film by crossing out and rewriting much of his character's dialog in the screenplay—something that occurs in almost every script in which De Niro is involved.

Looking into these files for the past several years has revealed to me that he is not only an active collaborator within a production, but an intellectual force who wields a great deal of power to shape films around his understanding of a character. I am extremely grateful for the Ransom Center's support of my work and look forward to defending my dissertation in April.  

R. Colin Tait, a PhD candidate and University Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, received a Dissertation Fellowship at the Ransom Center. Tait has used the Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, "Robert De Niro's Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980)." He plans to use the De Niro papers to expand this work into a book-length study that traces the actor's career from 1967 to the present day, accounting for De Niro's transformation into a corporate brand as a producer, a director, and a film festival impresario.

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