Thursday, July 31, 2014

Remembering Dick Smith (1922-2014)

Dick Smith - the cinema's most important makeup artist since the immortal Lon Chaney - has passed away at the age of 92, leaving behind him a treasure trove of character and horror makeups whose imagination and scientific detail were truly indistinguishable from magic: LITTLE BIG MAN, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, ALTERED STATES, THE SENTINEL, GHOST STORY... and so many more. As many of the stories being repeated today confirm, he was also one of the great gentlemen of the business. This - I'm happy to say - I got to experience, a few times, by telephone.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dick a couple of times, back in the 1980s and 1990s - first in relation to an uncredited favor he did for his protégé Rick Baker in relation to David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME (in the basement of his home, he and Steve Johnson took a full body cast of Deborah Harry for a scene that was ultimately not filmed), and then again as Donna and I were preparing VIDEO WATCHDOG's sixth issue, devoted to THE EXORCIST - an issue whose impact directly led to the publication of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics books on the film, his documentary on the making of the film (which appears on the DVD and Blu-ray of the film, and William Friedkin's own "The Version You Thought You'd Never See" recut.

While interviewing Dick for a VW piece about the film's subliminal imagery, I asked him about this now-famous facial makeup done for THE EXORCIST. At that time (in 1990), he had - or, I briefly suspected, pretended that he had - no recollection of it, because the moment had the aura of a secret that wanted to be kept, and no one had really explored this aspect of the film in it's nearly 20 years of release. I explained that it was a subliminal image, something I had first seen pop out at me in a darkened theater the day before the film officially opened in December of 1973; I promised to send him a copy of the image to examine and comment on. To get one, I had to freeze-frame my VHS of the film, sit in front of my analog television set, and shoot a whole reel of film of the image, hoping to get just one that wouldn't have "roll bars" interfering with it - this was long before digital frame grabs. It worked - and I was later also able to pull some other shots of the makeup (not in the film) from a rare 16mm reel of withdrawn TV spots.

When Dick saw the images, he remembered doing the makeup and - something I'll never forget - he congratulated me on the acuity of my vision, one of the nicest compliments I've ever received, considering from whom it came. William Friedkin separately had identified the actor wearing the makeup to my co-author Mark Kermode as Eileen Dietz - this was something not previously known, though Eileen's participation elsewhere in the film was well-known at the time; Friedkin said that the "Apparition" image, as he called it (which I dubbed "Captain Howdy" because this is how Regan identifies the voice inside her elsewhere in the picture), was actually that of a demon test makeup that "didn't work" in its intended use on Linda Blair, but which he later decided might have power if used onscreen briefly.

Mark and I were not at all sure, given its crude, high-school theatrics look, that Dick had done the makeup, but he did admit to doing it, explaining that it was something done in relative haste and not really agonized over. It wasn't anything meant to be seen clearly. He remembered it appearing in the film only once, in a brief scene where the Apparition was double-exposed onto the face of the rotating head model, giving it the brief appearance of literal possession as Regan's room was shaking and quaking - which he considered "probably the most terrifying image in the picture." He was genuinely surprised to learn that it had appeared elsewhere in the movie.

We published the Captain Howdy image for the first time anywhere back in June 1991, and it has since gone on to be paused on countless VCRs and DVD players, to appear on T-shirts and even album covers. But seeing it linger in a still frame is quite different to having it flash out of you in the dark of a big-screened theater. Though it was a makeup that Dick Smith had literally done so quickly that it was instantly forgotten as he pursued some other on-set challenge, it has gone on to become one of the most famous horror images of all time, and I'm sure - in retrospect, and rightfully so - one of his proudest accomplishments.

See also this earlier blog entry about the origins of Captain Howdy.

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