Ve Neill: An Enduring Inspiration for Creative Women

By Joan Amenn

Christine is drawn to the mask covering the face of the strange man playing the organ in front of her. What is behind it? She must know. She reaches and pulls it away…….

 One of the most famous scenes in film history is the reveal of Lon Chaney’s face in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) It single-handedly created film make up as an art form and recognized Chaney as its master. Since then, a handful of others have shown the inventiveness of Chaney, but they have been mostly men. That is until Ve Neill arrived in Hollywood and proceeded to make her own creations by her own rules. Here is an overview of her amazing career.

 It is a delight to find out that Ve Neill got her “big break” in film on the set of “Star Trek:  The Motion Picture “(1979). How very fitting it is that the value placed on diversity that was fundamental to the show’s premise carried over into reality in breaking the barrier for women in make up design. While she had done minor work in film previously, the aliens of the Federation gave her the recognition she needed to forge ahead in developing her own style in creative make up.

The sheer volume of films she has been involved with over the years since is breathtaking. It is particularly notable that Neill is as talented with the typical theatrical makeup required of any dramatic film as well as pulling out all the stops and taking creative special effects makeup to a level few are capable of. As a matter of fact, only Rick Baker can top Neill in Oscar wins and nominations.

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Men disguising themselves as women is a tired theatrical chestnut but combine Robin Williams with Harvey Feinstein as brothers who are an actor and make up artist respectively and suddenly the concept is hilariously fresh and appealing. In “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), Feinstein is the onscreen presence whose genius in transforming Williams into a Scottish nanny is the masterwork of Ve Neill and Greg Cannon, both deservedly Oscar winners for this film.

“The sheer volume of films she has been involved with over the years since is breathtaking… Ve Neill is comfortable working in straight dramas as well as big budget blockbusters that stretch her considerable imaginative skills.”

Like “Tootsie” (1982) before it, a big part of the pleasure of “Mrs. Doubtfire” is that the audience knows who is under all the pancake and prosthetics. This is not often the case in the film makeup, but Neill and Cannon found a perfect balance in their transformation of Williams and the script cleverly incorporates how the process works with the audience with some of the best gags in the movie.

 The imagination of Tim Burton has been described as macabre and dark as well as whimsical, but it certainly cannot be easy to transform into reality for the big screen. Ve Neill has successfully translated his vision in several of his films, each a remarkable and unique achievement.  “Beetlejuice” (1988) is just a lonely guy even if he is overbearing, crass and undead.

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Neill won an Oscar for her work in creating the afterlife Beetlejuice wants to break free from with the collaborative help of Steve LaPorte and Robert Short. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) teamed Ve Neill with the late and much-lamented Stan Winston to construct the title character as an innocent with regrettably sharp appendages instead of human hands. In “Batman Returns” (1992) Neill was nominated again for an Oscar for her work in turning Danny DeVito into a penguin with homicidal tendencies and a touch of pathos from having a personal history of being abandoned as a child.

The early 2000s saw the rise of CGI and wringing of hands for the so-called end of practical special effects. Ve Neill defied popular thinking in proving CGI and traditional makeup can coexist in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003). As the sequels to “Pirates” got more manic, Neill rose gloriously to each challenge for two Oscar nominations and a crew of memorably fishy dead men sailing the seven seas.

“It is important to remember Neill is a source for support and encouragement for new talent in the film community in addition to her exhaustive catalog of film credits. She has not forgotten how she had to struggle to build her credentials in the field and has a scholarship set up in her name for aspiring students at the Cinema Makeup School of Los Angeles.”

When not designing aquatic humanoids, Neill created the most fashionable post-apocalyptic make up for the elite of “The Hunger Games” (2012) and its subsequent sequels, as well as making Jennifer Lawrence look glamorous and deadly at the same time. Ve Neill is comfortable working in straight dramas as well as big-budget blockbusters that stretch her considerable imaginative skills.

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Just last year, she was part of the makeup department for “A Star is Born” (2018) and the year previously worked on the political drama, “Shock and Awe” (2017). She also transformed Woody Harrelson into Lyndon Johnson in “LBJ” (2016) and Martin Landau into Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood” (1994). The latter is a particularly special collaboration between Burton and Neill. She actually teamed with Rick Baker to transform Landau into Lugosi and they both won Oscars for their efforts. Landau also won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the fading horror icon.

But it is important to remember Neill is a source for support and encouragement for new talent in the film community in addition to her exhaustive catalog of film credits. She has not forgotten how she had to struggle to build her credentials in the field and has a scholarship set up in her name for aspiring students at the Cinema Makeup School of Los Angeles. She has been a judge on the television series “Face Off” since its inception in 2011 where she has been sharing her knowledge and experience with students honing their talents. While Lon Chaney famously kept most of his make up secrets to himself, we should be grateful for the generosity and endurance of Ve Neill in setting guideposts to follow for any woman wanting to enter her world.

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