Quick movie quiz. How many of these people do you recognize?
So far, so good, I’m guessing. Now, how many of these people do you recognize?
How are you doing now? One last list: how many of these movies do you know?
Maybe you’ve figured out the point by now. All of these people played crucial creative roles in each of these four landmark movies of the last fifty years. The men are the easiest to place for most people. They are four of the most iconic movie directors of the last half century (and in this case, “iconic” means movie directors that can legitimately be described as famous beyond movie nerds and scholars). In the case of Spielberg and Scorsese, they are part of the legendary generation of American auteurs associated with the “Golden Age” of 1970s cinema, immortalized in books like Peter Biskind’s comprehensive and dishy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998). As Biskind’s title evokes, these moviemakers carry a kind of rock star image, bold visionaries who bucked the system and revolutionized American cinema.
And the four women listed? These are the editors of these celebrated movies, the people responsible for making a movie out of the thousands of feet and minutes of footage shot, whether on film or digitally. Editing is typically labelled a part of “post-production,” suggesting a smooth linear process whereby directors supervise the shooting of the footage and then work with the editors to cut and splice what was shot into what we see on the movie screen. In reality, the process has always been more complicated than that, with initial editing often occurring while the movie is being shot, even more so in the age of digital movie making. So crucial is editing that even casual movie fans are aware of the importance (and difficulty) of directors securing “final cut” approval of a movie (so much so that “Final Cut Pro” became the name of Apple’s popular digital editing software). And during the heyday of VHS and DVD/Blu-ray sales, the “Director’s Cut” emerged as a marketing tool for movie fans who wanted to see a film edited exactly the way a director wanted, free from “outside” interference. Because after all, it’s really the director who is responsible for the movie, right?
Well, kinda sorta. And maybe kinda sorta not. We can understand why we like to associate moviemaking with the production process. After all, it’s much more dramatic and visually interesting to watch (a reason that movies about moviemaking focus on this part of the process more than any other): dozens of crew members working in coordination with one another; the frantic race against time to keep the movie on schedule; a potential “cast of thousands” needing wardrobe and make-up; and at the center of it all, the director, the captain, visionary, and emperor of the film set, issuing orders and cajoling performances. Editing? Isn’t that a person alone in a room seated in front of a moviola (or a computer screen), endlessly winding and rewinding reels of movie, with all of the drama going on inside the editor’s head? It’s as visually uninteresting as watching a writer at work.
And as my title and choice of filmmakers implies, there has often been a gendered component at work in all this, a point that the comedian Patton Oswalt makes in his recent Netflix special, “Talking for Clapping” (thanks to fellow film scholar Linda Price for bringing this my attention, BTW). Note: you might want to use earbuds, as this audio clip is NSFW:
Now, Oswalt is exaggerating the numbers here. It’s not really true that “chances are,” the movie you love was directed by a woman. Would that it were so. Instead, as the Celluloid Ceiling report makes clear, the world of movie editing is still dominated by men: in 2015, women edited just 22% of the top grossing 250 American movies that year. However, by Hollywood’s crappy standards, that represents a high point for gender diversity in production. By comparison, women directed only 9% and wrote only 11% of these movies.
But he does have a point in making the tendentious argument that a woman editor means that a “woman directed it.” As Biskind and others have pointed out, for example, the legendary Verna Fields is credited with solving the problem of the recalcitrant mechanical shark that bedeviled the shooting of Jaws by keeping it offscreen until the final third of the movie and building on the idea that witnessing the terror and aftermath of the shark attacks was more effective than seeing the shark itself. So who was more crucial to the success of the movie: the director who managed to persevere through a difficult and stressful shoot or the editor who skillfully helped craft a classic of movie horror out of the results? One thing is certain; Steven Spielberg may not have won an Oscar for Jaws as Fields did, but he retains far more credit for the results.
Even in claiming deserved credit for the importance of editors, Oswalt still reflects some gendered assumptions about how this all works: men are reckless egomaniacs; women are sensible people who clean up the mess. Or as one old cliché has it, “Women are good; men are interesting.” But this is nitpicking as far as his main satiric purpose is concerned, and we can all relish his puncturing of the image of the bad boy director. Of course, in the first, artisanal screen ages, there was no real hard and fast distinction between “directors” and “editors.” Women were commonly (although not equally) found in both roles, and a movie like Suspense (1913) shows the shooting and cutting artistry of Lois Webber (who also wrote and starred in the movie).
With the coming of sound and the intense hierarchical corporate reorganization of the Hollywood movie industry in the 1920s, women were excluded from many of the production and post-production positions they had formerly flourished in. Editing, in fact, became one job (only) relatively more open to women, and as David Meuel points out in his new book, Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of American Cinema, women persisted against formidable odds in making careers as influential and innovative filmmakers in the editing room. Or as Oswalt puts it, as the real directors of the movies.