Exorcist‘s Makeup Effects 30 years later
By Scott Essman
At the dawn of the television age Dick Smith emerged as a makeup artist at the fledgling NBC TV network in New York. During the late ’40s and in the ’50s, he brought his perfected experiments with various makeup formulas to dozens of TV specials and soon became WNBC-TV’s first department head of makeup. In the late 1960s, moving from TV to film, he created his unforgettable old-age makeups for Little Big Man, The Godfather and The Exorcist, developing the technique of creating overlapping facial appliances for his actors—now a standard in the industry. He also created an old vampire character called Barnabus Collins with actor Jonathan Frid in the TV show and film Dark Shadows, a groundbreaker for both age and horror makeup.
Of all Smith’s work, The Exorcist stands out as him most memorable achievement. It featured the first use of what Smith came to call “special makeup effects,” whereby an actor’s face or body changed on camera without the addition of optical effects. Linda Blair’s famous rotating head, bulging neck and demonic configurations were all products of Smith’s groundbreaking merger of makeup and special effects, and The Exorcist spawned a horde of makeup-oriented horror films, artists and fan organizations.
As a result, not only did Smith set standards with his makeup résumé, he also served as a mentor to a procession of young newcomers who would eventually make their own marks in the field, including Craig Reardon, Rick Baker, and Kevin Haney.
“The professional makeup on Max Von Sydow [in The Exorcist] totally fooled me,” recalls Haney. “Dick asked what I thought of the old-age makeup for Father Merrin. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ That, to me, is still a benchmark for old-age makeup.”
“The Exorcist was a real landmark for makeup effects,” agrees Baker, a six-time Oscar winner for makeup. “It was the beginnings of a lot of the wacky makeup effects stuff that we’re doing today.”
“Dick knew how to make a person’s throat balloon out. He thought of how to make lettering rise up on her skin out of nowhere, [how to make] the rotating head absolutely believable” says Reardon, who did makeup for Poltergeist, E.T. and The Twilight Zone. “The driving engine for a lot of the illusions in that film is Dick Smith.”
With its tale of the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl, The Exorcist went on to become a huge hit with both horror fans and general audiences worldwide and showed viewers the extent to which makeup could affect the power of a film. Since actress Linda Blair was so young and director William Friedkin was unsure whether she could handle many of the scenes, Smith had a duplicate makeup that was prepared for her double, Eilleen Dietz. “Eilleen actually was only used in a couple of scenes,” according to Smith, “because Linda learned so fast and did so well.” For the scene where the possessed girl spews vomit at Jason Miller’s priest character, Smith made a device that fit in Dietz’ mouth, like a horse’s bit. Channels on either side of the cheeks were linked to a pressure mechanism that forced hot pea soup through it. “She couldn’t close her mouth,” said Smith. “It wasn’t comfortable to wear for hours, which is why it was done on Eilleen.”
To build the film’s rotating dummy head, Smith brought in Baker, then a young aspiring makeup artist. “The rotating dummy was one of the biggest single jobs,” Smith commented, “Rick and I made molds of Linda’s body from head to toe and we actually were able to life-cast her face with her eyes and mouth open. She had white contact lenses in her eyes to protect them and we got a smile from her lifecast which made the dummy look very life-like.”
Another of The Exorcist’s myriad effects marvels was achieved when Blair’s neck bulged out on camera. “To make an inflatable bladder, I cut up a condom, got a large section of thin flat latex and I literally cut it into a circle and glued it to the skin all the way around the perimeter,” Smith recalled. “Next, a thin foam latex appliance was glued over the bladder. Then, I inserted a tube under the bladder and sealed it. A difficulty was that when she twisted her neck, it could make big folds or wrinkles in this skin, so I found that as I applied the foam latex neck, I had to stretch it really tight to prevent it from wrinkling.”
The old-age makeup created for Von Sydow “consisted of appliances on the sides of his face, on his chin, and his upper lip, but the rest was old-age stipple around his eyes and neck, and he had a little waddle over his Adam’s apple,” Smith revealed. “That was actually a copy of my own neck to which I had applied three layers of old age stipple and then made a mold. Then, I blended the waddle in with the old-age stipple that I put on his neck.” Smith’s assistant, Bob Laden, executed the three-and-a-half hour application job.
Smith won much kudos from his peers and fans for The Exorcist, but no Academy Award category for makeup existed at the time (Baker won the first makeup Oscar in 1981 for An American Werewolf in London). Smith finally won his award in 1984 for Amadeus and retired in 1987, but to this day, he remains an active participant in the makeup community, teaching a correspondence class from his Connecticut home and serving as a mentor to countless young artists.