‘Lawrence of Arabia’ Editor Anne Coates on Why So Many Great Editors Are Female

Bob Verini

At venerable Pinewood Studios west of London, a fledgling Anne Coates hoped editing experience would serve as a stepping stone to directing. No surprise, the industry proved even more resistant back in the 1950s to female occupants of the canvas chair than today.

But the cutting room has always welcomed a woman’s firm hand, whether old school “cutting neg” or manipulating top-of-the-line digital equipment. The would-be helmer soon became a celebrated doyenne of the world editing community, subject of academic analysis of the “Anne Coates style,” a concept about which she claims to have no clue.

Now she’s become only the second editor to receive an honorary Oscar, to be awarded at the Academy of Motion Pictures Governors Awards on Saturday, after MGM stalwart Margaret Booth in 1978.

Coates has worked with the best directors. Tasked with presenting her assemblage of “Lawrence of Arabia” test footage, she trembled until David Lean — no mean editor himself — stood up and announced, “I don’t think I’ve ever before seen anything cut exactly the way I would have cut it myself.” The team went on to collect individual Oscars for the 1962 epic, and collaborate on the triumphant 1989 restoration.

“I’ve worked with many good editors, but you’re the one with the most heart,” the great Carol Reed told her.

Coates remains down-to-earth and even cheeky, notwithstanding her accolades. Asked why women get editing opportunities denied them in other crafts, she deadpans, “We’re mothers, and we’re used to dealing with fractious kids.”

She adds, “I do think women are more painstakingly patient, generally speaking.”

An editor’s first responsibility, she says, 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.” Still, the cutter should remain alert to unclear or confusing plot elements: “The directors are sometimes so close, they don’t see.”

Unofficially semi-retired, the Oscar nominee reveals the one genre she’s never before tackled that could entice her back to the Avid. Hollywood, take note.

“A cowboy picture,” she says. “Like the old days, but not one where they’re killing people on every page. Lovely vistas. John Wayne and Alan Ladd and those people riding about. And I can still ride if it’s an English saddle! I could ride out with the crew!”

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