As May of 2015 drew to a close, an announcement was made that, in its’ own small way, changed the course of film history. Rick Baker, the winner of seven Oscars for his achievements in film make-up, announced that not only was he selling material from his past projects, but he was retiring. As a tremendous fan of retro pop culture, I thought back on the times that I saw Rick Baker’s work. Whether it was on film or at a theme park, I was impressed by Mr. Baker’s work even before I knew his name. Herewith, I would like to pay tribute to this versatile talent.
I first saw Rick Baker’s work in the classic music video “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. I rented “The Making Of Thriller” from a local video store several times in the early 90s (this was the period before Michael Jackson’s career took a downward spiral). As I watched the music video, I thought that the character designs were amazing. Seeing those “grizzly ghouls from every tomb”, as Vincent Price put in his rap, was something amazing. Each character was a unique design, and to see them was to know what practical effects could truly accomplish.
That wasn’t Rick’s only collaboration with Michael Jackson that I saw. Another one was the famous Disney Theme Parks attraction “Captain EO”. Having been born in 1982, I was old enough to see it in its’ original incarnation, as well as the revival that came about after Jackson’s death. When I saw the revived “Captain EO” in 2011, I tried to distract myself from my brother’s frequent “Family Guy” references (I couldn’t turn to him and tell him to stop because I didn’t want to ruin other people’s concentration). Seeing it a little over two years later, I was able to enjoy it on my own during a solo visit to Epcot near the end of the vacation, and I was able to take it all in.
The work by Baker in “Captain EO” that most impressed me was the design for the villain played by an unrecognizable Anjelica Huston. She was a unusual creature with black-and-white facial make-up wrapped up in cords that moved her back and forth. It was an interesting design that made the character’s eventual redemption that much more rewarding to watch. It’s strange how special effects and make-up can do that.
Rick Baker was also well-known for his collaborations with Eddie Murphy. The first of these collaborations that I saw was 1996’s “The Nutty Professor”. I received the VHS of it as a gift near the end of 1996, and I enjoyed watching it. I laughed at all the fart jokes and sex references, since I was still a teenager and that’s the type of stuff they’ve always found funny. Looking at it through older eyes, though, I found that Rick Baker’s make-up work helped to make Eddie Murphy’s Sherman Klump a sympathetic figure. Looking at Klump being disrespected by most everybody around him, one can feel the character’s sadness. When Klump smiles, the make-up smiles with him. When he’s sad, the make-up does the same again. It’s essential to Murphy’s role.
That was not Baker and Murphy’s first collaboration, though. That honor would go to 1988’s “Coming To America”, which I rented for the first time in the late 90s. The first time that Eddie Murphy would play multiple parts, it was amazing to see the different guises Baker came up with for him. This is best viewed in the barbershop scenes where Murphy plays Prince Akeem, Clarence the barber, and Saul, an old Jewish man, all in the same sequence. Once again, it’s part Murphy and part Baker. The two were an amazing duo, Murphy in front of and Baker behind the camera. With Murphy’s career having slowed down and Baker’s retirement, it’s doubtful we’ll see anything like it again.
In 1997, I saw “Men In Black” in theaters with my Mom and brother when we were on vacation in upstate New York. The make-up work was amazing, and done by Baker again, assisted, as he was on “The Nutty Professor” and several other projects, by David Leroy Anderson. The movie was an excellent combination of practical effects make-up and CGI, and that was very evident in the character of Edgar, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Edgar was a big, hulking fellow, and to see him lumber around, knowing that he was serving as the disguise for an alien, was a creative combination of two different technologies. I really think that, if enough time can be made, there can be space for both practical and computer effects.
One of Baker’s last projects before he announced his retirement was last year’s “Maleficent”, where he created the make-up for the title character, played by Angelina Jolie. The animated Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty” was a scary villain without redeeming qualities, but the live-action Maleficent looked good, and more importantly, had a good spirit. In the same way that Baker’s make-up enhanced the emotions shown by Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor”, his work allows Jolie to express the fullness of the live-action Maleficent. From a gentle forest spirit to a fierce revenge seeker to an unlikely mother figure, Baker and Jolie created a very unique character.
When one looks back on the past 35 years or so of film technology, one can be amazed by the progress that has been made, but one can also be saddened. For his make-up work, Baker took home a whopping 7 Oscars. Unfortunately, when he announced his retirement, an era started its’ sunset. While there will always be make-up in movies, no one will ever do what Baker did. He could make creatures that would haunt your nightmares or create visions that could brighten your spirits. For him to sell all the material was sad. I really hope that there is an aspiring filmmaker or two out there who might turn to Baker for help. If so, perhaps we might have something new, done in an old-fashioned way to look forward to.