A Cut Above: Ten Women Who Epitomise the Art of Editing

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

How fortuitous, that Margaret Sixel, (chief) editor of Mad Max: Fury Road, should be handed a bald, golden statuette merely three days after I decide to craft a brief video tribute honouring great film editors who happen to be women. For the feat of seeding rhythm into the mayhem of George Miller’s giddy footage, Sixel has become only the 14th woman (of 27 nominees, total) to boast the ‘Best Film Editing’ of any respective year since the prize’s premiere in 1934, a year in which legendary Cecil B. DeMille collaborator Anne Bauchens was one of only three nominated editors for her work on DeMille’s Cleopatra.

However one feels about the Oscars, they certainly provide a relatively smooth – and predictable – rock upon which to sit and ponder the workings of the film industry. And from the perspective of film editing, it is clear that the Academy – however sexist and rife with inequity it may have been in its infancy – could not deny the impact that women had on an altogether male-dominated field. Retrace the art form of editing back to the revolutionary parallel, intercutting storylines of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and you’ll see the name Rose Smith among the credited razor-wielders. Smith would go on to edit early works by Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh.

So, by the time the aforementioned Anne Bauchens becomes the first woman to hold aloft a Best Film Editing Oscar in 1940 for North West Mounted Police, the work of pioneers like Smith, Margaret Booth (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935), Barbara McLean (All About Eve, 1950) and Dorothy Spencer (Stagecoach, 1939) has been duly acknowledged if not awarded. Over the decades, an additional 13 women editors would eventually be recognised for their visual (and sonic) articulacy, some of them out-and-out luminaries like Verna Fields (Jaws, 1975) and Scorsese’s creative twin Thelma Schoonmaker. But the recognition has largely been doled out in fits and starts, and with lengthy lulls; to think that, in the last quarter century, only two women have been celebrated for their efforts: Schoonmaker with her near-adjacent victories for The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006), and Sixel’s recent scoop. Which is where the Academy’s sensibilities become only partially relevant.

Deserved as the win may have been for Hal Ashby and his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), the glaring absence of Dede Allen on the 1967 nominee shortlist is difficult to read as anything but a short-sighted lack of appreciation for the seminal fusion of European fragmentation and American clarity that was (and is) Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in particular, the closing massacre. As responsible for Sam Peckinpah’s bullet ballets as it is for Denzel’s rain of judgement in Training Day (2001), Allen’s bold cutting introduced mainstream American cinema to the editorial insolence of key French Nouvelle Vague pictures, many of which were edited by women. But if Bonnie and Clyde is not – for some – quite worthy of ‘canon’, Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), sliced with hiccuping swagger by Cécile Decugis, needs no lobbying whatsoever. Decugis’s temporal gymnastics sent a shock through the gestating hearts of US movie brats à la Spielberg and Scorsese, all the way to newer waves of Taiwanese and Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1980s and 90s and their millennial spawn. Together with French contemporaries like Jasmine Chasney (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), Decugis helped to loosen some of the shackles on narrative filmmaking, and to challenge the championed standard of ‘invisibility’ in editing. Anne V. Coates’ celebrated match-cut in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) gentle as it is, flows within the same bold vein.

As many stellar female editors as there are, I have selected 2 clips each from 10 practitioners whose cutting room prowess has not only elevated the art of editing, but whose pairings with many a great director has yielded some of our finest films. Notable exceptions abound, of course, including contemporary pros like Molly Marlene Stensgaard, Nadine Muse and Marie-Hélène Dozo, regular collaborators of Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and Claire Denis, respectively. Clearly, there are many unsung co-auteurs deserving of song.


* This piece was originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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