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HomeCraftsMakeupThe Academy Museum Is Celebrating The Godfather of Makeup, Dick Smith

The Academy Museum Is Celebrating The Godfather of Makeup, Dick Smith

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Dick Smith
Dick Smith and Marlon Brando on the set of The Godfather (Credit: Paramount)

A retrospective at the Academy Museum is shining a light on the extraordinary craft of legendary special makeup effects artist Dick Smith, best known for his realistic aging makeup. Programmed by K.J. Relth-Miller, who is the Interim director in the film program department, enthused about the series, “We are always excited through our film programs to highlight different aspects that go into filmmaking and any opportunity where we can move beyond the director’s chair to dive in and reflect on moments in our gallery through film series and highlight the crafts.”

Dick Smith is one of the most important figures in the history of film, he had a 6-decade career as a leader in the field of makeup for motion pictures and television. Based in New York, he had a basement workshop where he would hone his skill and become an innovator at his craft. In his youth, he said he worshipped the work of Jack Pierce the iconic Golden Era artist who was the author of the look of all the original Universal Monsters while Smith became the icon of the modern era.

He first established himself in the world of television on programs like Dark Shadows, The Untouchables, and Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight for which he won an Emmy – transforming Holbrook into Twain in a TV event that featured several close-ups. No stranger to old age makeup, Dustin Hoffman specifically requested him to age him to 121 in Arthur Penn’s classic revisionist western Little Big Man. In a short doc from the ’70s about Smith, Hoffman enthused that there was no one with the tools or talent that Smith possessed to do such detailed and realistic work.

This led to his work on The Godfather one of the most indelible films of all time turning middle-aged Marlon Brando into an old man. He worked out a special arrangement with Brando who did not want to wear heavy prosthetics in The Godfather, Smith used something called old age stipple which he developed. Smith’s experimentation with materials went beyond full-face masks to employ multiple overlapping foam latex pieces, allowing actors a fuller range of facial expressions and resulting in massive shifts in the field. Smith would go on to work on many essential classic films like The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, and The Deer Hunter, and into the ’80s with amazing genre films like Altered States and Scanners.

Miller adds, “I think Dick Smith is probably best remembered for his advanced aging work that can lead a character like David Bowie in The Hunger or F. Murray Abraham upwards of over a hundred years old and also on camera transformations that we see in Altered States and Scanners. I thought it was a fun opportunity to lean away from the prestige of The Godfather into more of these genre-specific films.” He would ultimately win an Academy Award (shared with Paul LeBlanc) in 1985 for transforming F. Murray Abraham into an old Antonio Salieri in Amadeus.

There was no makeup award earlier in his career not until his protégée, Rick Baker won the first one in 1982 for his groundbreaking work on An American Werewolf in London. “His nickname is The Godfather of Makeup truly has been responsible for so many iconic looks,” added Miller, “some subtle and naturalistic or some extreme and otherworldly and he also had so many protégées including Rick Baker… not only people he directly mentored but those who he shared his techniques with. He was adamant about not keeping trade secrets. He relished the opportunity to share with his fellow makeup artists. He understood that his advances in technology and in art also made the field of makeup and hairstyling that much better.”

His career achievements were celebrated in 2011 with an Academy Honorary Award “for his unparalleled mastery of texture, shade, form, and illusion.” To highlight Smith’s work on Marlon Brando’s makeup for The Godfather (1972), currently celebrated in our gallery The Art of Moviemaking: The Godfather, on view through January 5, 2025, this screening series showcases some of Smith’s greatest achievements in movie makeup magic.

The Godfather on 7/20
The Exorcist on 7/27
Altered States 8/3
Scanners 8/10
The Hunger with House of Dark Shadows 8/17
Amadeus 8/24

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