Patton Oswalt once made a joke about the creators of some of his favourite films:
I love movies. And any movie that you love, chances are it was directed by a man, edited by a woman, which means a woman directed it.
He then goes on to name several such films – Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Jaws, Goodfellas, Lawrence of Arabia – and make some bawdy analogies about this common gender divide. While no one can deny that directors often bring extraordinary creative visions to their projects, Oswalt’s comic exaggeration highlights a disparity in the accolades and recognition given to editors of cinema’s greatest achievements where their directors and editors are concerned.
This past Tuesday saw the passing of Anne V. Coates, whose career as one of the finest editors of the twentieth century saw her nominated for five Oscars (winning for Lawrence of Arabia, with its iconic match cut) and collaborating with directors from David Lean to David Lynch. Her career spanned sixty-five years and over fifty films of almost all genres – from historical epic to action to romance, and then from arthouse to blockbuster. Often described as an intuitive editor, she worked her way to the top in a film industry not yet wholly open to women’s contributions.
Coates saw the industry through massive changes, from the propagation of colour film to the digital revolution. She was initially reluctant about the transition to digital film but grew to master that art as well. She once said that, though she would not go back to celluloid because the industry had moved on, handling a physical reel of film with such precision and looking the pictures “is wonderful’”. Aside from her five Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning editing jobs (see below), she worked on Murder on the Orient Express, Ragtime, Chaplin, Erin Brokovich, and The Golden Compass. While she was paired with male directors for all of these, one of her last editing gigs was working with Sam Taylor-Johnson on Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) – a film she felt could have been “a little more raunchy”.
Coates had a self-deprecating and “devilish” wit about her, as when she said she and her fellow film editors “are a little underrated” on the awards circuit and that a common misconception at the beginning of her career, when the Hayes code was active, was that editors were doing the censors’ jobs. She enjoyed leaving an extra tidbits in her first cuts – interesting “grace notes” that almost certainly would not make it to the final edit but would add flavour to a scene. Her immense skill earned her a BAFTA Fellowship in 2007 and a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2017.
Essential films edited by Anne V. Coates:
Lawrence of Arabia
Why start elsewhere – this is not only a towering achievement for director David Lean and star Peter O’Toole but a flawless editing masterclass. Coates said that the famous match cut in Lawrence of Arabia came about “by accident”, when the celluloid footage was strung together to create a hard cut between the two scenes shot (had digital cameras been around at the time of filming, this illusion may not have even presented itself). Lean was so impressed with the way it looked that he asked Coates to clean it up to make it perfect: she removed two frames. Editing Lawrence of Arabia was an around-the-clock job on the limited technology and equipment she and Lean had on location, as they were working towards a premiere date for the Queen. Her work on the epic earned Coates her first Oscar nomination and only win. In 1989, Coates supervised the film’s restoration.
Coates was offered the job on Becket before shooting had wrapped on Lawrence of Arabia thanks to her skill in cutting some of Peter O’Toole’s casting scenes together. This film not only earned Coates her second Oscar nomination and shows her adeptness at bringing out the best in actors’ less-than-satisfactory performances. The reunion scene between Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) and Henry II (Peter O’Toole) was rescued by her skillful touch when the two revered actors were too hungover to function during filming.
The Elephant Man
Coates’s third Oscar nomination came from her work on David Lynch’s drama. Mel Brooks (an uncredited producer) did not want Joseph Merrick’s facial disfigurement shown until the scene when the nurse brought him his food; this added a particular challenge on this editing job as Lynch had already shot several scenes showing John Hurt’s prosthetics-enhanced face, so she had to creatively cut around the footage to create the story. She felt that taking on this picture was one of the best decisions she had made for her career, as she was worried about being stuck with big budget pictures.
In the Line of Fire (1993)
This thriller with “a mind” earned Coates her fourth Oscar nomination. She found the film “fun to cut’”because Clint Eastwood never did the same thing twice in takes – she enjoyed the complicated challenge and hoped the audience did not notice if a few slips got through. If her status as a film industry MVP was ever debated, this undertaking should put the whole issue to bed.
Out of Sight (1998)
This Soderbergh crime caper starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez earned Coates her fifth and final Oscar nomination. It was also the first film she edited on an Avid, which became standard film editing equipment in the 1990s. The above clip shows another one of Coates’ iconic touches, as she intercuts a hotel bar conversation between Clooney’s bank robber and Lopez’s US Marshal with later scenes of flirtation and sex. Throughout these jarring cuts, she never loses the sense of time and place or the initial intensity of the conversation. In other editors’ hands, the effect could be gimmicky: in Coates’, it is masterful. Additionally, Coates enjoyed working with Clooney, who helped her get over her fear of using the Avid and found her jokes about rescuing actors’ performances hysterical.
In a post-#MeToo world, it is becoming publicly evident how limiting – if not hostile – the film industry can be towards the women who work in it. That’s not to say this fact was unknown before the Weinstein allegations broke – just check out the fantastic, if depressing, blog Shit People Say to Women Directors (& Other Women in Film. Anne V. Coates took the discrimination she experienced in stride – citing the fact that she would sometimes explicitly be hired because of her gender – but also noted that film editor was one of the only industry career paths open for her in the mid-twentieth century (other than hairdressing, which she was not interested in). As her career progressed, she saw other women editors ‘elbowed out of the way’ as men began to realise that editing was a creative, prestigious career choice – not the background role they had previously relegated to women such as Alma Reville. One hopes that the future years bring more open opportunities for women’s talents and passions to be celebrated and championed across all areas of the film industry.