This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue.
None of them are household names, but they literally helped shape many of the most significant movies ever made, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Wizard of Oz (1939), All About Eve (1950), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), plus this year's Blue Jasmine, Labor Day, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Wolf of Wall Street. They are female film editors, and if you flip the switch in dark cutting rooms, you'll find them helping take films to places the directors themselves didn't imagine.
Margaret Booth, who started under director D.W. Griffith, was later so valued by Irving Thalberg, MGM's head of production, he coined the term "film editor" to replace the more menial-sounding "cutter." Dede Allen was fired for piecing together the bloody shootout at the end of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) by studio head Jack Warner but then was put back on the job by producer-star Warren Beatty out of his own pocket. She became the first film editor to receive a solo mention in the opening credits of a film. Thelma Schoonmaker salvaged one of Martin Scorsese's student films during an NYU summer course in 1963 and has edited every major film he has made since, through the years winning a record-tying three Oscars. "Very early on, a certain kind of trust developed between us, which really is the basis of our relationship," says Schoonmaker. "I think he knows that I will do everything I can to carry out his vision on every film I work on with him, and I will work till I drop to do it."
How important is the film editor to the director? Dana Glauberman, a former assistant to Ivan Reitman's film editor, has edited all five features directed by Reitman's son, Jason Reitman, two of which -- Juno and Up in the Air -- received best picture Oscar nominations. Jason describes Glauberman as "one of the key reasons why I have a career today." He explains: "As a director, you spend many months with hundreds of people, balancing everyone's ideas and dealing with constant input, and then literally overnight you're in a small box -- a jail cell -- with one person, and the two of you have to carry the film across the finish line. And it often does feel like a marriage. 'Who do I want to spend all that time with?' " He adds: "You spend more months editing than you do shooting, and you do it sitting a few feet from each other. There are very few people on earth that you want to share that sort of proximity and time with, so you better have good chemistry. I'll probably end up spending more time with Dana, all added up, than any other human being I'll ever meet. So she's my work partner, and the movies we make are our children."
Glauberman agrees: "All of the aspects of a marriage -- trust, respect and everything that comes along with it -- are in our relationship. We call each other 'work husband' and 'work wife.' Occasionally we don't agree with each other's viewpoints, but we make it work, and it's a true collaboration."
Today female film editors account for about 20 percent of all members of the Motion Picture Editors Guild and can look to Glauberman and Schoonmaker as inspiration for what is possible in the profession. But for much of Hollywood history, film "cutter" was the only position available to women beyond acting and for a few, screenwriting. Cutters were used only to maintain continuity by running film reels with hand cranks and manually cutting and gluing together film strips. They almost never received screen credit.
A job that was considered merely manual or technical was shown to be an art form by four early standouts: Booth, Anne Bauchens, Dorothy Spencer and Barbara McLean. Their careers spanned decades, from the end of the silent era through the fall of the studio system. Bauchens began as a stenographer for Cecil B. DeMille's brother and ended up editing every one of the director's films, from 1918 including his last, The Ten Commandments (1956), becoming the first female film editor to win an Oscar in 1941. Spencer cut for the likes of Elia Kazan, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock from 1926 through 1979. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, following Lawrence of Arabia -- which was edited by Anne V. Coates, who came up with its iconic "match cut" from flame to desert sun and continued to work into the 21st century -- a generation influenced by European cinema began to experiment beyond the classic Hollywood film editing style.
They included Allen, Schoonmaker and Verna Fields. Portrayed violence proved to be a powerful inspiration for innovation, from Allen's rapid cutting in Bonnie and Clyde to Fields' making a fake shark seem petrifying in Steven Spielberg's Jaws and Schoonmaker bringing to life the balletic brutality of Scorsese's early films. Fields cut the breakout films of George Lucas (American Graffiti), Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon) and Spielberg -- who nicknamed her "Mother Cutter" because of her maternal personality in the editing room. After Jaws' blockbuster success, for which Fields received her own Oscar, she became one of the first high-ranking female studio executives, vp feature production at Universal.
That generation, in turn, mentored and inspired Hollywood's current class of film editors, including Alisa Lepselter, who once worked as Schoonmaker's assistant and has edited all of Woody Allen's films since 1999, and Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, who, separately or together, have edited all of J.J. Abrams' feature films since 2006 and will reteam for the next Star Wars film.
And as for why so many male directors have chosen to work with female film editors throughout history and today, veteran Schoonmaker explains: "Filmmaking is a collaboration. People have to learn how to deal with their own egos and work as partners. And I think women are probably better at that than men."