A student from the University of Texas’s radio, television, and film department ran into the small auditorium, wide-eyed, with her hands covering her mouth. “I saw him!” she said to her classmates, and the room erupted in giddy laughter. “He’s wearing glasses,” she added. “He’s very thin, though.”

There were about two dozen of them in the Harry Ransom Center’s Prothro Theater, and we were all excited to get our eyes on Robert De Niro. The 79-year-old movie star was in town to celebrate a new exhibit centered on his archives, which he has been steadily donating to the HRC since 2006. There would be a big, fancy gala that night, just a few blocks away at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center, celebrating Mr. De Niro and the substantial monetary donation he’d recently made to the HRC, which was used to endow the Robert De Niro Curator of Film. The center needed more money, though, hence the gala. Meryl Streep was coming, as were two out of three Wilson brothers (no Owen, alas). Leonard Maltin of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide fame was also attending (though I wondered if the Gen Z students would even know who he was). It was to be a night of glitz and glamour, complete with an after-party modeled after the wrap parties of old Hollywood.

But for now, we were huddled in the small theater off the Ransom Center’s lobby so that De Niro and his family could walk through the exhibit without a bunch of film students and members of the press ogling him. Eventually, we were led out of our holding cell and into the exhibit, where De Niro and inaugural Robert De Niro curator of film Steve Wilson (no relation to the bros) were sitting in two director chairs next to two real-life Academy Awards. “That girl was right,” I thought to myself. “He’s tiny.”

When I told people I was covering a gala that celebrated Robert De Niro’s archives, a common response was “What archives?” Fair enough. An actor isn’t a novelist or a painter, and their work (pretending to be another person) doesn’t necessarily result in a physical product. But Bobby De Niro saved a lot of stuff, and that stuff was very cool to look at. There was a late-1960s advertisement for American Express that he made as a still-struggling actor. There was a tackle box full of cosmetics from his student days, when he was responsible for doing his own stage makeup. There was a series of test photographs that helped Francis Ford Coppola see what a young Vito Corleone would look like with and without a mustache. And there was De Niro’s own copy of the Taxi Driver script, covered in notes and annotations, including a chicken-scratch “Mirror thing here?,” thought to be a reference to the “You talkin’ to me?” monologue that De Niro would eventually improvise.

A letter from Elia Kazan, the saxophone from New York, New York, Marty Scorsese’s storyboards for the Sugar Ray Robinson fight in Raging Bull—this was an opportunity to view one of the most impactful careers in cinema history through the physical detritus that accompanies any creative project. Having grown up at the height of the Planet Hollywood era, I was accustomed to being in the presence of movie memorabilia, but this was different. This was a peek at the process. These were the steps by which a character stopped being an abstract written construct and became a visceral, grounded human being, based on the way one artist decided to say the words that were on the page. This was invaluable insight for student filmmakers, or for anyone else who aspires to create such characters from whole cloth. Even for those of us who merely enjoy being members of the audience, this was a moving piece of education.

De Niro admitted he’s always been a pack rat. “I’ve kept my father’s art studio just the way he left it, right down to the dry cleaning hanging in the closet,” he said later during his speech at the gala, which was characteristically De Niro: lots of self-deprecation, some well-placed cursing, and a few political dad jokes. (“The Harry Ransom Center is a leader in that essential mission to preserve our cultural heritage. But the collection isn’t quite complete. There are still some papers in the basement of Mar-a-Lago.”) De Niro said he’d take his kids to that art studio, feeling that it’s one thing to tell them about their late grandfather and another to show them. “It seems more real when they can walk into the studio and see where he works and get a sense of his process and his spirit.” De Niro had saved every script, costume, prop, piece of correspondence, and calendar from his own projects, thinking he would pass them down to his children. But then he saw a copy of Marlon Brando’s annotated Godfather script for sale on eBay. “It made me very uncomfortable to think that this document, which could be a window into the mind and process of one of our greatest actors, would be sold to a collector or a fan who might keep it on the shelf or a drawer and never be shared with family, friends, students, historians, cinephiles.” De Niro wanted his collection to be somewhere safe, somewhere accessible not only to his family but to the public. The HRC was an obvious choice. “There’s even a Gutenberg Bible. A f—ing Gutenberg Bible,” he told the crowd. “I’m flattered just to be in the neighborhood.”

The gala itself was much cheesier than the exhibit at the HRC. It was, after all, a fund-raising effort designed to solicit more money from the rich film buffs in attendance. Guests were bombarded with old Hollywood decor. There were centerpieces made from director megaphones, and each table number was written on a small clapboard. My table had a “palm tree” crafted from metal and burlesque feathers that could have been pulled straight from the Cocoanut Grove. It looked silly, and, hilariously, it obstructed my view of the stage. But I couldn’t stay annoyed. Meryl Streep gave a heartfelt introduction for her Deer Hunter costar (adding that if she had anything “worth saving,” she’d donate it to the Ransom Center too), as did thee Leonard Maltin, himself a superstar to anyone who wanted to be a cinephile before IMDb and Netflix. Multiple films advertised the Ransom Center’s growing film-history collection (it has Paul Schrader’s and David O. Selznick’s archives, too), which the new Robert De Niro Curator of Film would oversee permanently, if the HRC could properly fund such a position. It wasn’t subtle, but it was effective. If I’d had any extra money, I might very well have given it.

Movies have brought a lot of joy and entertainment to my life, thanks to the talents and hard work of the directors, writers, makeup artists, set designers, and actors behind them. When it comes to film, I actually want to see how the sausage is made, at least from the creative side. Thank goodness the Harry Ransom Center is amassing a collection that makes that possible. When De Niro went on- and offstage, the band played the piano bit from Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.” I got teary-eyed because, boy howdy, do I love Goodfellas. I couldn’t believe one of its stars was right there in the same room as me, and his annotated script was in a building a few blocks away, available to anyone who wanted to learn from it.