Underground Film Journal

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Van Smith, R.I.P.

By Mike Everleth ⋅ December 16, 2006

Van Smith applies makeup to Divine's face on the set of Female Trouble

I first heard of Van Smith’s passing via a tiny blurb in Entertainment Weekly yesterday, but the costume designer/make-up artist died on Tuesday, Dec. 5 of a heart attack. Smith is most famous for — and why I’m posting this and why I’m really, really sad — his work with famed underground director John Waters, whose films may not have had the same resonance without Smith’s fabulously “ugly” work. The Washington Post has a very nice official obituary, and it’s nice to see that his passing warranted such a high profile piece; while the site Pop Matters has a really good article on Smith. He was only 61.

Ever since pairing up for Waters’ breakthrough hit Pink Flamingos, the two always worked together, having made more movies together than even Waters and his superstar Divine. I think the only other person who has worked more with the director is actress Mary Vivian Pearce, who has made at least a cameo in every single Waters film.

Working on both costumes and make-up, Smith created spectacularly freakish characters that have pretty much gone by completely underrated. The picture above is from my second favorite Waters film, Female Trouble, with Van applying Divine’s acid-scarred face, which she goes on to use to her advantage in a totally insane nightclub act. In the same film, Smith also made up Divine as a woman and a man, including the infamous scene where he/she rapes herself, plus created some totally outrageous costumes like Edith Massey’s laced leather dominatrix outfit and Mink Stole’s baby doll dress. These are costumes that, although I haven’t seen Female Trouble in a few years, the images are still frighteningly burned into my brain.

Smith also did some Oscar-caliber work both on the trashy fairy tale Desperate Living and by fantastically recreating the ’60s in Hairspray. Sadly, Van wasn’t working on the upcoming musical version of Hairspray and I think something will be lost in the translation because of it.