“Lights, Camera, Edit!” Oscar Nominee (and Legendary Editor) Thelma Schoonmaker

February 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies, Music

Hollywood lore has it that someone once asked Thelma Schoonmaker how such a nice lady could edit Martin Scorsese’s violent scenes. Her rather wry reply—“Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.”

Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s professional marriage has outlasted most Hollywood partnerships of any kind. Over 40 years together they have created some of the industry’s most lauded titles across multiple genres, from their collaboration on Raging Bull to the gangster classics Goodfellas and Casino; from the thrillers Shutter Island and Cape Fear to the period pieces Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York (which is arguably also about gangsters). And most recently, the couple partnered on a 3D family fantasy, Hugo.

While it focuses on the story of a young Parisian orphan, Hugo is a thinly veiled valentine to the birth of movies. And, as such, it received a love letter of sorts from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. When the Oscar nominations were announced, Hugo led with a total of 11. Along with nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and various cinematic effects, Thelma Schoonmaker has been nominated for Best Film Editing. Again.

This marks Schoonmaker’s seventh nomination, and if she wins, it will be her fourth statuette. Her earlier Oscars included Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed.

Although she’s a respected industry insider today, Schoonmaker’s road to Hollywood was circuitous if not downright accidental. She was born in Algeria and spent her childhood in Aruba, among other places, finally settling in the U.S. while she was in her teens. She attended Cornell University and studied political science and Russian to prepare for a career in diplomacy. After graduation in the early 60s, however, she changed course when she realized that her personal political views and the policies of the State Department would never mesh.

Needing work, she answered an ad in The New York Times for an assistant film editor; it promised “on the job training.”  From there, having discovered an aptitude for editing, Schoonmaker enrolled in a six-week course at NYU, where she met a young filmmaker named Martin Scorsese. A professor suggested they work together.

At this point, I’m tempted to write something like “And Hollywood history was made.” Or “From then on, filmmaking would never be the same.” But, it wasn’t that simple. After their first collaboration (Schoonmaker reportedly “saved” the director’s early movie What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?), they weren’t able to work together again for 12 years. It took Schoonmaker that long to get into the predominantly male Motion Picture Editors Guild.

Once he was able to work with Schoonmaker again on Raging Bull in 1980, Scorsese never used another editor. And the loyalty goes both ways; Schoonmaker has edited only two non-Scorsese-directed films: the documentary Woodstock, prior to their collaboration, and Grace of My Heart (which Scorsese produced). The two were close friends as well as coworkers; Scorsese introduced Schoonmaker to her husband, the late director Michael Powell.

Schoonmaker is credited with innovating many editing techniques, and younger editors study her films carefully. She has also borrowed from more contemporary cinematic arts like MTV music videos and television commercials. Hugo marks her first foray into 3D editing: After more than four decades in the business, she again found herself in an “on the job training” situation. The results, though, are stunning.

As a pioneer in a professional boys’ club, Schoonmaker is often asked whether being a woman helps or hinders film editing. She can be quite modest, insisting that her role is to “get the best of what Marty has laid down.” However, she does admit that there are inherently female traits that contribute to her success. “I think the women have a particular ability to work with strong directors. They can collaborate. Maybe there’s less of an ego battle.”

“I’m not a person who believes in the great difference between women and men as editors,” she has said. “But I do think that quality is key. We’re very good at organizing and discipline, and patience is 50 percent of editing. You have to keep banging away at something until you get it to work. I think women are maybe better at that.”

Follow-up: Oscar Nominee Surprises

January 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

In a previous post, our movie maven Alexandra MacAaron predicted who might get the Academy’s nod. Today, we present her thoughts on some startling (but sterling) choices among the nominees.

Yesterday morning I tuned in to the announcement of the nominees for the Academy Awards. Many of the best guesses I had made were confirmed, but there were several surprises. My biggest mistake was failing to choose Hugo in any category. Yet Martin Scorsese’s sweeping family adventure, a love letter to the cinema, earned a record number of nominations (11), including Best Picture and Best Director nods.

Melissa McCarthy's work in 'Bridesmaids' reminds you why she won that Emmy.

For Best Supporting Actress I made one wrong guess: Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) beat my choice, young Shailene Woodley (The Descendants).  Other nominees in this category were Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, Bérénice Bojo, and Melissa McCarthy (right). Some speculated about the plus-sized McCarthy’s nomination, but her movie, Bridesmaids, was a huge hit, making much money for many people. And McCarthy, with a recent Emmy for her TV show Mike & Molly, is very much the lady of the hour.

Rooney Mara in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

My predictions for Best Actress came close.  Although Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) wasn’t nominated and Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) was, the rest of the field is exactly what most critics expected: Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, and Michelle Williams. It was heartening that Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig were nominated for the screenplay of their gross-me-out chick-flick Bridemaids. And Bridget O’Connor (with Peter Straughan) was honored for her adapted screenplay for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.


Demian Bichir in "A Better Life."

I was most excited about the nomination of Demian Bichir, nominated as Best Actor (for A Better Life).  For Best Supporting Actor, the biggest surprise was The Warrior’s Nick Nolte for his portrayal of a recovering alcoholic, born-again Christian, mixed martial arts trainer. 

The closest our gender came to a directing nomination was Jennifer Yuh Nelson, whose Kung Fu Panda 2 is up for Best Animated Feature Film.  On February 26, expect the Hollywood boys’ club business as usual as Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Terrence Malick (Tree of Life), Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), and Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist) compete for Best Director

Kathleen Kennedy at the London premiere of "War Horse." (Wikimedia)

A number of the nine Best Picture nominations this year have female producers:  Letty Aronson (with Steve Tenenbaum) for Midnight in Paris, Rachael Horovits (with Michael De Luca and Brad Pitt) for Moneyball, and Kathleen Kennedy (with Steven Spielberg) for War Horse.  It is unclear whether any of the women among the fifteen listed producers for The Tree of Life would be among the nominated producers; yesterday’s announcement indicated, “nominees to be determined.” 

It was disappointing, but not unexpected, that so few women appeared in the top categories. There are fewer women than men in power positions in the movie industry, and those who do achieve success have to fight for high-profile titles (and big budgets).

I’d like to see the numbers for women in all categories increase, as they should. I’d like my teenage daughter to grow up and see more women on the screen and behind the camera. But it won’t happen this year. Next month’s Oscars will be about a mere handful of talented women amid a whole industry of men. Show Business as usual.