Film editing is a job that might not be noticed by the unassuming viewer, if done well. But make no mistake: the editor creates the rhythm and pace of the film.
Editing also happens to be a female-dominated field — one of few in Hollywood. Editors like Dede Allen (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Breakfast Club”), Verna Field (“Jaws,” “American Graffiti”), Carol Littleton (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) and Maryann Brandon (“Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker”) are only some of the women who’ve created lasting work in the field.
Women were able to make their mark in editing way back in the silent era in film, as male directors often saw the role of patching films as tedious and menial. Margaret Booth, for instance, worked on over 44 films and received an Oscar nomination for her work on “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Booth started working in 1915 for D.W. Griffith as a negative cutter. When Griffith closed his L.A. office, Booth remained in Los Angeles. She wound up working for Louis B. Mayer of MGM and Irving Thalberg, head of MGM, who would coin the term “film editor” when it came to describing Booth’s work.
Over the years, women continued to dominate the space. Anne Bauchens collaborated with Cecil B. DeMille for more than 40 years. Over at 20th Century Fox, Barbara McLean earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for her work on “All About Eve.” She would win for “Wilson.”
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Jump forward to 2019, and Thelma Schoonmaker ensured Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” maintained his quiet approach and has received eight Oscar nominations for her work. She stands alongside Michael Kahn, Daniel Mandell and Ralph Dawson in winning the most Academy Awards in best editing with three.
Schoonmaker has collaborated with Scorsese for more than 50 years, holding those long Steadicam shots in “Goodfellas,” “The Irishman” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Her work builds urgency, creates a sense of reality and adds tension to some of the most iconic shots in Scorsese’s films.
Before her untimely death in 2010, Sally Menke edited Quentin Tarantino’s films. Menke was influenced by Schoonmaker, and Tarantino called her “his truest collaborator.” But unlike Scorsese, who involves Schoonmaker in the process from the beginning, Menke and Tarantino wouldn’t speak until filming had wrapped.
“It’s all about tension, so you follow the emotional arc of a character through a scene, even if, as in the opening of ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ they’re just pouring a glass of milk or stuffing their pipe,” Menke once said. “We’re very proud of that scene — it might be the best thing we’ve ever done.” She said editing was “all emotional, impulsive, instinctual. Just follow the character’s emotions.”
Anne V. Coates is also considered a film editing legend. Coates edited over 55 films, starting as a second editor in 1947’s “The End of the River” and editing her first feature in 1952’s “The Pickwick Papers.” Coates received five Oscar nominations and won for editing David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia.”
It was the latter that gave us one of the greatest edits in film history — the match scene, in which T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’ Toole) holds a burning match close to his face and just as it burns down, he blows it out, with the camera cutting to the searing, striking sunrise.
To her, “An editor’s first responsibility is certainly to the story, followed closely by the director, but not at all by the audience. You must have the courage of your convictions. The directors are sometimes so close, they don’t see.”