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Altered States

The Dick Smith Type of Film

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995

Strangely enough, for most horror fans the name Dick Smith does not conjure up images of a bespectacled head floating above electronic supply stores, or a self-professed adventurer with enough ready cash to zip down to the Antarctic every now and again [1]. It's pretty immaterial if 'our' Dick Smith wears glasses or not (he does), because he also happens to have created some of the most spectacular, and least spectacular, makeup effects that ever graced a genre movie.

He is most famous for The Exorcist, has won an Oscar for work on Amadeus, and has covered pretty much the whole spectrum from low-budget horrors to sweeping mini-series, and from main-stream cinema to the classiest scare flicks. He is generally regarded as being the leader of his field, and is certainly the pioneer upon which Rick Baker and the rest of the modern makeup artists have built their craft. But while some of the newer artists are fully recognised horror stars in their own right, Dick Smith has always been in the background, pre-dating the effects boom of the eighties, and quite literally held a little more reverently and unapproachable to the crowd that send Tom Savini his fan-mail.

Dick Smith was born in Larchmont, New York in 1922, a town which has remained the site of his home and studio during his career. His original intention was to become a dentist (inspired partly by his mother's problem teeth, and his fascination with the dental instruments [2]), and was attending Yale as a premedical student when he found a book called Paint, Powder and Makeup. While he has described the text as being quite terrible, the whole idea was a small miracle to him, and he immediately starting practising the techniques he found therein, trying to reproduce all the Universal monsters, making himself and his friends up. Then World War II came along, which distracted everybody, and Smith joined the army.

It was the war, though, which finally made him decide on his career, and after his discharge he saw no point pursuing a normal 'WASPy course', as he described it in an interview: "To hell with this! I'll do this cockamamie-thing, which I'll be miserable at. But I'll do it" [156]. He applied for, and received, a job with WNBC-TV in New York in 1945.

Makeup is a field that constantly demands new techniques and ways of approaching problems, both to encounter the enormous number of situations the artist is going to find himself rendering, and to add variety to the brew, trying to do something better, or something that hasn't been done before. The trouble Smith found himself in in the Forties was that not only were their no decent manuals to his craft, there was no communication or help from the people already in the industry. The secrets of the trade were just that, and kept closely, especially from a novice the width of the country away from Hollywood. There was something like a dozen or so professionals in New York at the time, and it was an unprofitable business. But Dick Smith prospered, he became head of makeup at NBC in two years and in 1950 he had a staff of twenty artists under him.

The job lasted for some sixteen years before he moved on to bigger things, into the world of cinema, introduced by his boss at the TV station, one David Susskind. His first movie was Requiem for a Heavyweight (Ralph Nelson, 1962, written by Rod Serling no less), a successful film about boxing. It was not until 1970 though that his work really became noticed, starting with Arthur Penn's Little Big Man. This was a critically acclaimed cross between a Western and vaudeville, narrated by Dustin Hoffman and climaxing with Custer's defeat. Smith's major contribution was makeup turning Hoffman into a 120 year old man.

Old age makeup is one of the most common challenges outside the bodily transformations of horror films and the like. The trick of course is to build in all the sags and wrinkles without calling attention to them -- not helped by the fact that you are working with a face that is usually well known to the audience in its current form. This sort of realistic character work was Smith's speciality, and naturally enough, creating believable human flesh is the first step in disintegrating it. Or putting bullets through it, as was the case in his next major project, Francis Ford Coppola's little gangster flick, The Godfather (1972).

Dick Smith has put a lot of thought into the presentation of bloodshed on screen, both technically and morally. Smith saw The Godfather (which Coppola was making to get enough money to do Apocalypse Now) as glorifying both the violence and the Mafia itself. Whether or not his concerns were justified, he continued the job and produced an excellent and realistic portrayal of gangland brutality. It's an interesting difference that is drawn here between such effects as the ghouls and mummies he would later achieve, human flesh falling away in intricate detail, and simple gun-shot wounds. The whole controversial question of what exactly is violence anyway seems to teeter somewhere in that spectrum. Smith would go on to orchestrate the mayhem of Taxi Driver (Scorcese cut and played down the worst of Smith's effects, still leaving a sequence reviewed by Variety as 'brutal, horrendous and cinematically brilliant') and Michael Winner's The Sentinel, a film made in the mainstream of the same year, alienating most of the audience with its uncompromising gore. Smith also handled both the sequels to The Godfather.

In the end, he says, it is not the makeup artist who is responsible for any moral implication of their art, but the writers and directors who order them. His concern is not an uncommon one, even in his own profession (don't forget Tom Savini himself has spoken out against slasher flicks, saying he much prefers creating on-screen monsters then ripping apart various human-shaped body bits). But it is the makeup artist's job to create the best and most believable effect he possible can do. Which brings us quite naturally to The Exorcist, the film in which Dick Smith's art took centre-stage.

Not to diminish the rest of the production, of course, which was superb at all levels. And recognising that it is not only the use of makeup that can provide moments to stun your audience. After all, one of the most powerful scenes basically used a very careful camera angle.

But The Exorcist showed it could deliver much more than just ideas, and Regan's transformations, the pea soup, the quieter moment of the trapped girl's plea for help, all shown in a fashion that could be filmed and could be believed, for those so inclined. And perhaps the most extraordinary effect of all was one that nobody noticed. When Max von Sydow was approached for the role he assumed it was for the younger priest, Karras -- after all the actor was only 44 years old at the time. It took three to four hours in the makeup chair each day to turn Sydow into a seventy year old man, one that could be examined by the camera in close-up. You might ask why they bothered, as the actor himself did, but somebody obviously thought they had the right man for the role, and Dick Smith did the rest.

Smith was still working on a fairly small scale at that stage, and only had one assistant for his work on The Exorcist. That happened to be a young man by the name of Rick Baker, who would later become famous in his own right, not to mention Academy Awards for American Werewolf and Ed Wood. The two artists were very close, often describing it as a father-son relationship. Baker describes the first time he met Smith, writing a letter asking to meet him at Larchmont. Smith agreed immediately and, when Baker arrived, gave the younger man, who was expecting a brief meeting to profess his admiration, a notepad. "I'm going to be telling you a lot of things, and I don't want you to forget anything" [158].

That generosity was not reserved for Rick Baker by any means. In part because of his frustrated memories of the closed-mouthed experts he contended with thirty years previously, Dick Smith went out of his way to distribute his techniques, experiments and findings to anyone interested. He published a book on the subject, Dick Smith's Do It Yourself Monster Make-Up Book in 1965, updated it in 1985, and in the late Eighties ran an Advanced Professional Make-Up Course by correspondence. If not exactly retired, by that stage he was cutting down on the amount and complexity of the work he was undertaking, for example Al Pacino's old age makeup in Godfather 3 (1990).

But between The Exorcist and the latest Godfather there was still plenty of groundbreaking and breathtaking work. He could afford to be choosy about his projects and generally seemed to favour stylish horror films over all else. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) is a good example, a great movie on all counts, not least of all because of David Bowie's slow but inevitable ageing. Until the age of 55, Bowie's transformation was the work of Ann Brodie, head of the conventional makeup crew, after that Dick Smith took over. He also, naturally enough, handled the disintegrating corpses at the end of the film. Other work included the different stages of Eva Galli's putrefaction in Ghost Story (John Irvin, 1981, pictured), and giving Rick Baker uncredited assistance with Brian De Palma's The Fury (1978, which includes the famous exploding John Cassavetes). He was bought in at the end of Cronenberg's Scanners (1980) to handle the psychic duel, and he worked on a small Canadian film called Spasms because he came up with an idea for doing their effects. And of course there was Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984). It was his old age makeup that finally gave Dick Smith his much-deserved Academy Award, competing against Baker's work in Greystoke.

Whilst Smith is not slow to complain about directors who water-down or ineptly shoot his work (his only complaint about The Exorcist was that Friedkin cut the letters rising from Linda Blair's stomach half-way through the shot designed to be a complete smooth transition), his most troubled project was Altered States (1979). The main (if by no means only) trouble was that whilst Ken Russell finished the film, it was Arthur Penn who had started it, and the two directors had completely different ideas about doing the effects. After a year spent on the project (his work being a small but memorable percentage of the whole) Smith finally admitted the frustration had come to a worthwhile ending, and indeed the film shows remarkably little sign of the stress of its creation.

Since the 1970s, the special effects of the cinema have transformed themselves into a wonderfully detailed and appreciated art-form of their own. Dick Smith was not only the forerunner and inspiration for the new artists that spearheaded that change, but he was in the midst of it, lending his steady hand to many excellent and influential movies. The horror genre owes him a great deal. As he said to Fangoria (no small part of that change itself) there is a young part of him that doesn't quite believe it has all happened, but he had exceeded all his wildest dreams and that's the most incredible joy there is.


* Man of a Thousand Faces, Lynne Ames, in The New York Times, April 24th, 1983.

[156] Dick Smith: A Conference with the Dean, in Fangoria #61, Starlog Communications, New York, February 1987. Plus various other articles detailing individual film work.

[157] Dark Visions: Conversations with the Masters of the Horror Film, Stanley Wiater, Avon Books, New York, 1992. The companion volume to Dark Dreamers (and not to be confused with the Douglas Winter anthology that seems to have had more names than contributing authors).

[158] Rick Baker: The Wonder Years, in Fangoria #34 and 35, March 1984.


[1] For those of you who don't live in Australia, don't worry about it, you don't want to know.
[2] On a distantly related note, one of the options Smith recommended for people interested in his field but without the willingness or energy to put up with the movie business was dental technician, which can require a great deal of artistry.

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