Surrounded by family and friends, Dick Smith made history on Nov. 12 as he became the first make-up artist to receive an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Smith received the award at the Academy’s Third Annual Governors Awards, held at the Hollywood & Highland Center’s Grand Ballroom.
“Please forgive me—my memory is not very good these days,” said Smith as he accepted the statue from make-up artist and longtime friend Rick Baker. “When I watched the wonderful film they just showed, I kept thinking, gosh, that fellow had a great career.”
As tears welled in his eyes, Smith quickly added that he would never forget all the people that had come to celebrate his award. “This has been an incredible joy, one of the greatest I’ve ever had in my whole life,” he continued. “I have loved being a make-up artist so much, but this kind of puts a crown, a cap, on all of that. To have so much kindness given to me all in one huge piece is just too much.”
“I’m so proud to be honoring Dick Smith,” said Academy president Tom Sherak in his opening remarks for the ceremony, which also honored James Earl Jones with an honorary Oscar and Oprah Winfrey with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “He’s such a gifted artist.”
The 600 or so guests at the event included make-up artists Greg Cannom, Kazuhiro Tsuji, Mike Elizalde, Sue Cabral-Ebert, Jill Rockow, Leonard Engelman and Todd Masters, as well as actors John Travolta, Sidney Poitier, Ellen Barkin and Glenn Close. Kicking off the tribute to Smith, actress Linda Blair told attendees of the difficult challenges Smith faced creating the make-up for The Exorcist.
“The problem was that our director Billy Friedkin did not want me to wear a mask … He came to me one day and said, ‘If the audience does not know it’s you, the movie is a joke,'” said Blair.
She went on to describe Smith’s relentless pursuit to make sure they got it right. “Eventually what he did was he had the smallest of pieces that changed my eyebrows, changed my face, did all the scarring effects,” she continued, indicating that Smith appeared to be having much more fun with the process than she was. “And then he painted and painted. And we did all of the chem work over and over and rehearsed and tested until Billy Friedkin got what he wanted. And that took Dick Smith an enormous amount of effort.”
Director J.J. Abrams emphasized Smith’s generous willingness to help anyone who wanted to learn about the craft of make-up—even an aspiring ninth-grade filmmaker. Abrams recalled writing to Smith for guidance about make-up effects, and to his amazement and joy, receiving a cardboard box one day with Smith’s return address on it. “The enclosed note read, ‘Dear J.J., here’s an old, but clean, tongue from The Exorcist. Put peanut butter inside it to stick it on. Or, moisten inside and sprinkle dental- plate adhesive powder in it. Yours, Dick.'”
Calling Smith his idol, mentor and friend for more than 43 years, Baker explained why Smith is often called The Godfather of Make-up. “It’s not just because he did Brando’s make-up for [The Godfather], but because he took make-up to a whole new level,” Baker said. “His work inspired a whole generation of up-and-coming make-up artists, myself included.”
Smith did win one Achievement in Makeup Oscar for the 1984 film Amadeus, and was nominated for another for 1989’s Dad. He began his long career in 1945 as NBC’s first make-up artist and left his imprint on major motion pictures. He is also known for pioneering make-up techniques and educating make-up artists. (continued below)
For complete coverage of the Governors Awards and other recent events celebrating Dick Smith’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar, see Issue 94 of Make-Up Artist magazine. For video clips from the awards, follow this link: http://www.oscars.org/video/watch/ga_2011_all.html.