Top 10 Films celebrates the work of late make-up artist Dick Smith whose deft touch has been seen in some of the most influential and popular films made by modern Hollywood.
The late make-up artist Dick Smith (1922-2014) worked on some of the most influential and popular films made by modern Hollywood – including five Best Film Oscar winners. To mark his recent passing, Mark Fraser looks at 10 movies which may have been very different had it not been for Smith’s deft touch.
10. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)
When the biological clock of youthful vampire John Blaylock (David Bowie) suddenly starts grinding to a halt, rapid aging kicks in, turning him into a decrepit old man within a matter of hours. While Tony Scott’s handsome looking big screen debut is atmospherically shot, it’s a frighteningly dull affair – even with the less-than-titillating soft core lesbian scenes between Blaylock’s wife Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) that permeate the movie’s second half. Although Smith’s make-up “illusions” for the Thin White Duke are impressive, they are not enough to save this turkey. In the end he was one of five cosmetic artists who worked on the film. Interestingly, while Best Make-Up became a mainstay Oscar category after 1981, the academy didn’t see fit to recognise this area of expertise for any work produced during 1983.
9. Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981)
Credited as a special consultant, again as part of a team of five, Smith employed inflatable air channels filled with fake blood to create the pulsating veins on brothers Vale (Stephen Lack) and Revok (Michael Ironside) during their big climatic mental battle at the end of the movie. According to English film writer Martyn Sadler, these veins were covered with translucent plastic skin and applied to real actors as well to a dummy head (Ironside’s) that also hosted exploding eyes of breakable polyester resin. In a semi-related incident, Smith acolyte Rick Baker received the 1981 Oscar gong (his first of seven) for his ground-breaking work on An American Werewolf in London.
8. Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970)
Possibly one of the most overlooked Hollywood films ever, Little Big Man only received one Academy Award nomination (for Chief Dan George as Best Supporting Actor), despite the fact it was amongst the best American movies of the 1970s. Unlike with Marlon Brando for The Godfather and F Murray Abraham for Amadeus (see below), Smith was unable to help leading man Dustin Hoffman win Best Actor for his performance as the 121 year-old Jack Crabb, who served as the story’s omnipotent narrator. In fact Hoffman didn’t even get nominated for his efforts, so far off the mark was the academy’s review panel back in 1970.
7. The Sentinel (Michael Winner, 1977)
A truly creepy moment in 1970s American horror cinema occurs when fashion model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) ventures upstairs during the dead of the night after hearing footsteps above the bedroom ceiling of her Brooklyn brownstone, only to discover the rotting, naked corpse of her dead father (Fred Stuthman) emerging from the darkness. Smith and co-special make-up artist Bob Laden’s talents again came to the fore during the movie’s climax when a number of other ghouls (including Burgess Meredith) try to convince Ms Parker to join them in Hades before the Catholic Church can install her as its new sentinel at the gates of Hell. Director Michael Winner attracted a little stick after he used real disfigured people for this scene; one now has to wonder why he bothered when he had a make-up team of this calibre at his disposal.
6. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
As Harvard Professor Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his screen debut) messes with hallucinatory drugs and an isolation chamber to test his mental boundaries, he starts to physically transform – at one point turning into a roaming stone-age primate. This film really deserved to be better than it was. However, it was ultimately dragged down by a sluggish mid-section and a less-than-satisfying denouement. Nevertheless, while some of the back projection moments have dated, the make-up effects still look pretty good. Again, Smith was one of five cosmetic specialists who contributed to this movie.
5. Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
With Amadeus, Smith was able to do with F Murray Abraham what he couldn’t do with Dustin Hoffman – help him win the Academy Award for Best Actor. As with Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, an old and haggard Antonio Salieri (Abraham) – erstwhile court composer for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) – looks back on his life as he confesses to the murder of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Although Smith (for his work on old Salieri) and Paul LeBlanc (make-up/wigs) both won Oscars for their efforts, the late Pauline Kael wasn’t impressed with the former’s efforts, accusing director Milos Foreman of “load(ing) the aged Salieri with too much froggy, rotting old man make up” in her October 1984 review published in The New Yorker. Amadeus eventually won the Best Picture Oscar for 1984.
4. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
“These sequences are as explicitly bloody as anything you’re likely to see in a commercial film. They are so rough, in fact, that they raise the question of whether such vivid portrayals don’t become dehumanising themselves.” Thus wrote Vincent Canby in his December 1978 New York Times review of The Deer Hunter, a movie that will be remembered for a number of reasons, not least being the now infamous Russian Roulette scenes, which inevitably ended with somebody shooting themselves in the head. Obviously the critic didn’t consider gore movies “commercial cinema”, as there had been far more violent moments in Hollywood’s vast history than the forced suicides in director Michael Cimino’s second feature. Nevertheless, these moments of brutality still pack a punch. Furthermore, they make sure that these 10 or so minutes of violence in the story are strong enough to keep its audience interested in the rest of this three hour-plus epic melodrama. No doubt their collective impact helped The Deer Hunter win a few major Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
3. The Godfather (Francis Coppola, 1972)
Smith achieved two great things with his work on this film – he made sure Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor (which the eccentric thespian eventually turned down) thanks partly to the use of a dental device; plus he helped the assassination scene come of age with the shooting of Captain McClusky (Sterling Hayden) and Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) by Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in an Italian restaurant. This was the second Best Picture Smith worked on after his credit as a make-up consultant for John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. The third was 1974’s The Godfather Part II. In both gangster films he was part of a two man team (working with Philip Rhodes on the first and Charles Schram on the second).
2. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Spurting arteries and plenty of blood – that’s what we mainly remember about the destructive climatic/cathartic moment of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver when loopy cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) rescues teenage prostitute (Jodie Foster) by slaughtering her pimp (Harvey Keitel), her sleazy hotel time keeper (Murray Moston) and her John (Peter Savage) with an arsenal of weapons he has just purchased from all-round dealer “Easy Andy” (Steven Prince). Fingers get shot off, a bullet wound to the neck gushes blood, while the brains of the gun-wielding paedophile client get splattered against a wall. What a finale!