MICHELE BURKE: LAB TECHNICIAN
Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones
LOS ANGELES — While much is made of the synergistic impact of film and fashion, clothes have little to do with that glorious moment when a character is ready for her celluloid or public close-up.
Consider the glossy vinyl red veneer of Jennifer Lopez’s lips in “The Cell,” which fired up an army of women last season to reach for similarly high-wattage gloss on the promotional image alone.
Two-time Academy Award winner Michele Burke might resist taking credit, yet the makeup artist veteran — up for her possible third win this Sunday for the psychological thriller — will readily offer the equally influential role makeup has in cinema, as well as fashion.
“I did fashion first,” recalled the six-time Oscar nominee, whose earlier career includes Vogue covers and New York Fashion Week. Presently, she’s entrenched in long days on the set of the Penelope Cruz-Tom Cruise project, “Vanilla Sky,” and spending evenings in preproduction for Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.”
“But I realized, to be a true makeup artist, I need to do more, to do the prosthetics, the effects — to get into the film world.”
In Montreal, where she emigrated, from her native Ireland in 1973, a young Burke traded in her plan to become a United Nations interpreter to do makeup for the fledgling fashion industry there. “I always had this artistic bent,” she said, noting that she studied fine arts in Spain.
Upon deciding to shift to film, another nascent business to Canada at the time, her first internships involving special-effect makeup would eventually define her career.
In Hollywood, lab work on prosthetics and related effects usually went to men back then, Burke noted, recalling that such sexism didn’t pervade the Canadian industry.
A series of low-budget horror films — including the 1980 slasher “Terror Train” with Jamie Lee Curtis — provided Burke with a crash course in the art of transformation, real and fantasy.
She credits her first big break as the 1981 “Quest for Fire,” a film requiring the creation of protruding Neanderthal features. The gig landed Burke her first Oscar for Best Makeup. But what really surprised her was the reaction. “People were stunned that I was a woman.”
Several films — and nominations — later, Burke moved to Los Angeles in 1985. Despite the Oscar nods, she found she had to prove herself in the entertainment capital of the world, particularly when it came to special effects.
But the jobs came through, and in 1990, she received her third Oscar nomination and a British Academy award for “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Two years later, she scored a second Oscar for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” — and another job. She bumped into fellow Irish expat director Neil Jordan and they verbally agreed to work on “Interview With the Vampire.” The lab concept extends beyond the design and creation of fake noses and hairy horns. Burke also acts as chemist.
“I don’t just buy makeup and put it on. I buy all the pigments that make foundations and makeups. I make my own mixtures. I’m also bastardizing every [premade product],” she added, laughing.
While Burke noted that the industry has evolved and that more women are now in the effects labs than ever before, she finds another long-standing peeve only worsening: the segregation between fashion and film when it comes to makeup and hair artists.
“When I started, I worked between the two. Then I noticed the pigeonholing that goes on — you’re either a fashion [makeup artist] or film. I find it very disconcerting. Even now, the big stars hire one person for film and another for fashion. It wasn’t this way decades ago,” she observed, noting that creating contemporary looks are part of her job requirements.
They are also the reason why Max Factor hired on Burke along with five of her peers to the Max Factor Movie Makeup Artist Team. Created in 1998, the group tests and consults on product, as well as providing a link to the company’s legacy in Hollywood.
“Michele has been a tremendous asset to the brand,” noted Marc Pritchard, vice president and general manager of Procter & Gamble Cosmetics, the parent of Max Factor. “We are extremely proud of Michele’s many accomplishments, especially her most-recent Oscar nomination.”
The beauty brand and Burke collaborated on “Star Beauty,” a how-to booklet featuring Burke’s metamorphosis of models into iconic starlets. “I see makeup as an art when all’s said and done,” noted Burke. “I’m fascinated with the transformations you can do with light and dark, even in fashion. That’s why I love beauty makeup so much. I create a character look that has to last all day.”
So will Burke relinquish her craft to someone else on Super Sunday when it comes to her own face? “Some of my makeup friends have offered. But I said ‘please, I can do it myself.”‘