Those Oscar Missed: Stuart Freeborn

Today it was reported that Stuart Freeborn had died at age 98.  Mr. Freeborn had worked for over five decades in the motion picture industry as a makeup artist, and worked on some very high-profile films during that time.  He is known to many as the grandfather of modern makeup design and is best known for his work on the original Star Wars trilogy and the Christopher Reeve Superman films.  But let’s start at the beginning.  Freeborn was born on September 5, 1914, in London, England.  The son of an insurance broker, Freeborn’s future was already being planned out by his father, who wanted him to follow in his footsteps.  He was fascinated by motion pictures, particularly the ones featuring unique makeup work (films such as 1922’s Nosferatu, films featuring Lon Chaney, and the first Universal horror films such as 1931’s Dracula and 1931’s Frankenstein).  He worked on his own home-made makeup designs, and worked a lot of jobs to pay for makeup tools and accessories (he was also fired from a lot of jobs).  He took pictures of his makeup work and sent them to film studios, hoping one of them might give him a job.  He finally got a response from Denham Studios, the home of Alexander Korda’s film productions (Korda, a Hungarian immigrant, was intent on making high-quality British films using Hollywood techniques, starting with 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII).  Guy Pearce, a top makeup artist from Hollywood, was hired by Korda to bring in young makeup artists to train and work on Korda’s productions.  Pearce hired Freeborn and put him in charge of the makeup for the top stars, including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien  Freeborn experimented and created new types of makeup.  He did uncredited work for several films, including Alexander Korda’s 1936 film Rembrandt, Herbert Wilcox’s 1937 film Victoria the Great, and Alexander Korda’s production of 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad.  He also served for a while during World War II as a fighter pilot.  He managed to squeeze in some time for work on the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (he created the potbelly for Roger Livesey).

After the war, Freeborn moved on to head makeup artist for films that included Sidney Gilliat’s 1946 film Green For Danger, Edward Dmytryk’s 1949 film The Hidden Room, Charlie Chaplin’s 1957 film A King In New York, and Jack Arnold’s 1959 film The Mouse That Roared (one of a few films where Peter Sellers played multiple characters).  Freeborn also had collaborations with some famous directors.  He collaborated with Ken Annakin on 1952’s The Story of Robin Hood (a Disney production) and 1965’s Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines; with David Lean on 1948’s Oliver Twist (including the controversial Fagin makeup), 1950’s Madeleine, and 1957’s The Bridge On the River Kwai; with Richard Attenborough on 1969’s Oh! What A Lovely War and 1972’s Young Winston; with Wilder on 1975’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and 1986’s Haunted Honeymoon; with Richard Donner on 1976’s The Omen and 1978’s Superman; and with Stanley Kubrick on 1964’s Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (making up Peter Sellers as three distinct characters) and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (including the ape-men and the Keir Dullea old-age makeup).

Freeborn’s other late-career credits include Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film Murder On the Orient Express and Jim Henson’s 1981 film The Great Muppet Caper.  Freeborn’s most famous works, as previously mentioned, have been the original Star Wars trilogy (1977’s Star Wars, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, and’s Return of the Jedi) and the Christopher Reeve Superman films (1978’s Superman, 1980’s Superman II, 1983’s Superman III, and 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace).  Freeborn’s creations included Chewbacca, Yoda, (who was supposedly based on Freeborn’s own face as well as Albert Einstein’s), and Jabba the Hutt (a giant puppet which required room for up to three puppeteers to operate at the same time).

Despite Freeborn’s important cinematic contributions, he was never nominated for an Academy Award.  Granted, the Best Makeup Oscar wasn’t created until 1981 (which is a shame considering all the great work that was done in the prior years), but Freeborn had a shot at a competitive Best Makeup Oscar when he should’ve been nominated (and won) for his work on 1983’s Return of the Jedi (he created a whole new batch of aliens for the film).  Unfortunately, there was no award given that year (not even a Special Achievement Award for Makeup), thus robbing Freeborn of a deserved Oscar.  His work didn’t go unrecognized, however, as he was the recipient of two Saturn Awards for Best Makeup (for 1977’s Star Wars, which he shared with Rick Baker, and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which he shared with Phil Tippet).  He was also nominated for a BAFTA Award for 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

Stuart’s wife of many years, Kay (who had assisted him on several occasions, including the Star Wars and Superman films), passed away just last year.  They had a son, Graham, who was also a make-up artist who had worked on (besides that Star Wars and Superman films) Matthew Robbins’ 1981 film Dragonslayer and Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 film Highlander (Grahame died of cancer in July 1986).  Stuart is survived by his granddaughter Michelle (Grahame’s daughter).  BBC Radio 4 produced and aired an audio documentary on Stuart Freeborn last June called Stuart: A Face Backwards (you can listen to it here).  Below is a two-part video in which Bob Keen interviews Stuart Freeborn (it was made by the Movieum, the London Film Museum, which is a great place to visit if you love movies):

Thank you, Stuart Freeborn, for your important contributions to the history of cinema, and may you rest in peace.


2 responses to “Those Oscar Missed: Stuart Freeborn

  1. Wonderful tribute post! He was a master of his craft! Great job! A shame he never received an Oscar. I’ll be sure to watch the vids!

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