J. Roy Helland with his 2012 Oscar
J. Roy Helland with his Oscar for his 2012 win for ‘The Iron Lady’

Three Oscar-winning make-up artists—J. Roy Helland (The Iron Lady, The Devil Wears Prada), Greg Cannom (Mrs. Doubtfire, Titanic, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Robin Mathews (Dallas Buyers Club, Into the Wild)—shared their industry experiences with an attentive audience of approximately 200 at a New Yorker Festival panel, held on Oct. 11 in Manhattan’s Directors Guild theater.

Marilyn Monroe worked with only one make-up artist—Allan “Whitey” Snyder—her entire career, said Helland. Like Snyder was for Monroe, Helland has been Meryl Streep’s personal make-up artist for nearly her entire career, and one of the stories he told demonstrates how much Streep has relied on him. In the ’80s, when she signed on for Out of Africa as adventurer Karen von Blixen, she and Helland decided her character should have dark hair. Director Sydney Pollack was planning for a blond Streep, but Helland assured him, “She’ll never be prettier.”

In a character-defining Africa scene, screened during the panel, Robert Redford expertly washes a glowing young Streep’s hair. (You can see it below.) “How did he know to do that?” asked panel moderator Judith Thurman, a New Yorker writer who also wrote a von Blixen biography.

“Pretend like you’re in there with dirty socks,” Helland said he told Redford, who looks competent onscreen. Streep, meanwhile, looks radiant and her make-up is perfect: both Helland’s advice and his make-up worked.

Robin Mathews and Adruitha Lee with their 2014 Oscars
Robin Mathews (left) and Adruitha Lee with their 2014 Oscars for Dallas Buyers Club

A pragmatic attitude was, in fact, one theme of the panel. For her Oscar-winning make-up on Dallas Buyers Club, which she called the “most under-budgeted movie” she’s ever worked on, Mathews resorted to a paste made from grits and cornmeal to depict the physical ravages of AIDS. “God, this is the end of my career,” she remembered thinking when she applied her home-made mix to the supposedly stricken actors.

That kind of responsibility—and fear—is something Cannom understands, too. Working on movies such as Benjamin Button, “scares the crap out of me,” he said, because the whole film depends on what he does.

When faced with the transformation of Robin Williams into a woman for Mrs. Doubtfire, his first thought was, “How the hell am I supposed to do that?” He studied picture after picture of possibilities, without finding the right woman with the right look. Then finally, he saw an image of a big-boned Midwesterner:

Greg Cannom with his 2009 Oscar
Greg Cannom with his 2009 Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mrs. Doubtfire! He still imagines that one day he’ll find her and tell her she was the movie’s inspiration, Cannom said, drawing audience chuckles.

Both Cannom and Helland have worked at their craft for decades, so it’s no surprise that in this era of digital actors and sets, they welcome the news that the new Star Wars movies will employ old-style craft and make-up effects for the “retro” look of the original movie. “Yes, everybody’s pretty happy about that,” Cannom said. “We’re old-fashioned,” Helland agreed.

Click the links for more on the Oscar wins for Cannom, Helland and Mathews. Check out Issues 76, 94 and 105 for more on their work.