Top 10 Dick Smith Contributions To American Cinema

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.

Dick Smith with some of his greatest creations

Dick Smith with some of his greatest creations

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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsWhen 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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsCredited 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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsPossibly 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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsA 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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsAs 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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsWith 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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 films“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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsSmith 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)

Dick Smith best work greatest movies top 10 filmsSpurting 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!

1. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

Make-up artist Dick Smith works with Linda Blair on the set of The Exorcist (1973)

Make-up artist Dick Smith works with Linda Blair on the set of The Exorcist (1973)

Why did people originally go to see The Exorcist in droves when it was first released back in 1973? Was it because the story concerned itself with a tormented Catholic priest who has to take on the Devil in order to restore his faith in God? Or did it have something to do with the fact that it involved a classic fight between good and evil over the soul of an innocent pre-pubescent girl (Linda Blair)? It’s likely there were some cinemagoers who went to watch it for these reasons. However, it’s also arguable that most audiences really only wanted to see one thing – the make-up effects; they wanted to watch Blair’s Regan MacNeil vomit green bile and turn her head 360 degrees while yelling obscenities. Back to Sadler: “… (to) create a vomiting effect in the Exorcist, he (Smith) stuck two thin tubes across Linda Blair’s cheeks and covered them with false skin. These tubes then went into the corners of her mouth and met inside like a horse’s bit, whereupon hot pea soup was pumped through the tubes and spewed out as ‘vomit’.” However, “he believes his best work in the film was the elaborate latex make-up used to age Max von Sydow (who played Father Merrin): each day it took three days to apply, but the unusually dramatic nature of it caught the public’s imagination”. Smith also did make-up work on John Boorman’s follow-up, Exorcist II: The Heretic, which bombed critically and financially when it hit the screens during 1977.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: What are your favourite works of Dick Smith in the movies..?

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About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    CineGirl Reply

    Really interesting overview of Dick Smith’s work. Altered States and Scanners are visually incredible and Smith’s work on those movies is fantastic. I think The Exorcist is great but its power was definitely enhanced by Smith’s work with Linda Blair.

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    Andrew F Reply

    A genius. Brought so much to the films he worked on.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Terrific article Mark. When I think of some of the giants of the make up business I think of Tom Savini, Rob Bottin and of course Rick Baker and Stan Winston. I had never really paid attention to Smith’s name but I’m glad you brought it to my attention. He really built himself into legendary status.

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    Orla Kiwezwecz Reply

    Dan mentions (in the comment above) some fine artists in their own right but I have always admired Smith’s imagination the most. I was introduced to his work through The Exorcist – a truly unforgettable experience – and have enjoyed keeping abreast of his films ever since. He certainly is the master of taking the human face and distorting in such a way as to make it believable yet somewhat alien. Well done Mark on such a terrific celebration of his filmography.

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    ArchE Reply

    Smith had a distinct taste for the aging man – he even managed to turn a sweet and innocent teenage girl into one (of course, I’m talking about The Exorcist).

    I suppose Tom Savini has the biggest stature (and ego) of these live-action effects makers. But that’s probably a virtue of his own self-congratulatory star performances in which he lops off his own limbs for personal thrill.

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