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The pioneering women behind the invisible art of film editing

Thelma Schoonmaker accepts the Oscar for achievement in film editing in 2007 for her work on <em>The Departed</em>.
Mark J. Terrill
Thelma Schoonmaker accepts the Oscar for achievement in film editing in 2007 for her work on The Departed.

When it comes to some of cinema's most iconic films, Steven Spielberg's Jaws is about as different from, say, The Wizard of Oz as that technicolor fantasy is from Quentin Tarantino's genre pastiche Pulp Fiction. But one crucial component links them: they were all edited by women.

If you think about it, you can trace other craft elements of filmmaking to previous mediums – cinematography derived from photography, production design coming out of the theater. But film editing could not have been invented without the invention of film itself. There would be no film without film editing. And yet, its practitioners don't often grace the cover of magazines.

"The fact that editing is supposed to be invisible, which has contributed to editors not being visible, is what makes it such a great craft," said Su Friedrich, a filmmaker and former professor at Princeton University. While there, she created a database cataloging films edited by women called "Edited By."

But just what is film editing?

"Basically, you take thousands of feet of film — you know, hundreds of shots of different scenes, whatever — figure out what the best take is, what's the best performance, what's the best moment in that performance, and make it all flow in a way so that when we're watching something, we stay completely in the story," Friedrich said. "When you do it really well, nobody's noticing what you've done."

Friedrich created the database after noticing just how many of the invisible editors for so many iconic moves had been women, going all the way back to the very beginning of Hollywood.

"Women were hired for that, I think, in many ways because it seemed like a job that women did the way women did sewing," she said. "You know, they're good with their hands, this sort of ridiculous idea."

Friedrich said this notion pushed women out of other jobs in the industry, like directing and cinematography. But because many people saw film editing – or cutting, as it was called then – as unglamorous, secretarial work, it proved to be an easier entry point for women in the industry. And it gave them a lot of creative control.

One of the famed editors of Old Hollywood was Margaret Booth, who began her career with D.W. Griffith pioneering revolutionary film editing techniques.

"She's one of the people that really helps to create this kind of invisible style of classical Hollywood, believing that editing or cuts should be invisible so they aren't obstructing the action," said Erin Hill, an assistant professor of media and popular culture at UC San Diego.

Booth became supervising editor for MGM studios for more than 30 years. Legendary studio head Irving Thalberg actually coined the term "film editor" because of Booth. Another major figure was Anne Bauchens, who worked for more than 40 years with Cecil B. DeMille. She was the first woman to win Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards, six years after the creation of the category.

To compare, when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win best director, it came 81 years after the first directing award was given.

Kathryn Bigelow accepts Best Director Oscar for <em>The Hurt Locker</em> in 2010.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Getty Images
Kathryn Bigelow accepts Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2010.

"I mean, there are so many amazing examples of women who worked hand in hand with the director. And most of these women, I mean, their credits — they edited 50 films, 75 films, 100 films," Friedrich said.

Friedrich says a lot of that work went uncredited, and as the craft became more popular, more men entered its ranks. But female film editors have remained a prominent force in movies.

Anne V. Coates won an Oscar for her work on the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps most famous for the scene when Peter O'Toole blows out a match, and the scene suddenly shifts to the sun rising over the desert horizon. That "match cut" is considered one of the most iconic in movie history.

At this year's Oscars, Thelma Schoonmaker received a record ninth nomination for Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, marking her 22nd collaboration with the celebrated filmmaker. While the frontrunner for the Oscar looks to be Jennifer Lame, who edited Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer. Speaking to NPR, Lame said she was drawn to the challenge of making all those dialogue heavy scenes move like action scenes.

"I really wanted to make sure that those scenes that are with [Lewis] Strauss and the Senate aide — and it gets into the weeds of stuff — that certain lines popped," she said.

Another part of her job — of any editor's job — was to help shape the performances, to know which take best serves a scene. She singled out the scene when Cillian Murphy's Oppenheimer reveals the tragic fate of his lover to his wife Kitty, played by Emily Blunt.

"Ten versions of that performance are amazing, and for the longest time we had one version where he's, like, staring at her and he's looking at her. And then we realized, 'You know what? I think it'd be better if he wasn't looking at her, and, you know, he had more shame.' And it was. So it's just this just constant tweaking," Lame said.

Hilda Rasula, who edited best picture nominee American Fiction, says her job is about realizing the director's vision.

"You're kind of a midwife to the film, you know? You're helping them realize that vision in the best way you can and seeing it through to the very end until it gets born," Rasula said.

Considering the gender connotations of "midwife," Rasula doesn't see anything inherently gendered about being a film editor, but she isn't surprised that so many of the trailblazing editors in movie history have been women.

"I think it's not a coincidence that it is a role that requires an enormous amount of empathy, feeling the chemistry of what happens between two people, three people on screen and understanding human nature," she said. "Women are raised to be fairly social creatures. So I think this is a skill that maybe is inherent not to all women, but to the way women are raised in our culture."

Men still make up the majority of the Editors Guild. According to a 2023 USC Annenberg study, 14% of best editing nominees across Oscar history have been women. Though that's compared to less than 2% of the best director nominees being women. Erin Hill puts the onus on the industry to provide more opportunities for female editors.

"They would be greatly helped if we did more to recognize the structural and the kind of cultural barriers to advancement, and that takes a lot of inward looking," she said.

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Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]