By Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions
A creative genius, an ingénieur, an innovator, a teacher: these words describe a man who has inspired and influenced generations of filmmakers. He is the Godfather of modern movie makeup, Dick Smith. His year film career spanned 50 years includes some of the greatest films ever made including: The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, Marathon Man, The Deer Hunter, Amadeus.
For The Godfather, Smith designed the makeup for Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone. He aged Brando significantly for the part and help create the iconic character. In Little Big Man, he turned a 30-something Dustin Hoffman into a 121-year-old Jack Crabb. He managed to age Walter Matthau for the Sunshine Boys so well that critics commented on how old Matthau looked and how he was losing his hair even though this was all the work of Smith.
Age makeup isn’t easy. It’s a delicate balance of artistry and realism. Dick Smith created realistic makeups that still hold up today. Max Von Sydow was only in his mid-40s when Smith turned him into the elderly Father Merrin in The Exorcist. In Amadeus, where Smith made a young F. Murray Abraham into an elderly Salieri, Abraham would later credit Smith’s amazing makeup for aiding his performance. He said it was 50% of why he won the Oscar for Best Actor.
Grace in Violence
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle shoots up a cheap hotel full of low-lives, blood flows from bullet wounds, and hands are stabbed or completely blown off. Dick Smith gave the film the realistic brutality the story required. He also was able to give Robert DeNiro his signature mohawk haircut without shaving his head. And for The Exorcist, he made lovely Linda Blair into a horrifying demon.
Smith the Ingenieur
One of the most amazing aspects of his work was the fact that he created his own makeup apparatus. For instance, when a sweet-faced Linda Blair had to projectile vomit green spew at the priests attempting to expel demons from her body in The Exorcist, Smith created a special device that fit around her mouth connecting to a system of tubes that shot pea soup several feet. It was incredibly effective, enough to create one of the most iconic scenes in horror cinema and convincing enough to shock audiences the world over.
People who worked with Dick Smith described him as generous. Like all great artists, Smith shared the knowledge of his craft, and he would often explain what he was doing step by step to anyone who wished to learn. Later in his career, he taught his techniques to up and coming special effects artists who wanted to follow in his footsteps. He taught classes and inspired his fellow artists. As a result both the practitioners of the art and film fans benefited.
Smith died in 2014 at the age of 92, but his legacy lives on in his work. Either directly or indirectly, any makeup artist who works in film has been influenced by him. He didn’t just create movie makeups. He helped great actors create characters that would become icons of American film and culture.