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The pioneering women behind the invisible art of film editing

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is a week until Oscar night, and Hollywood is buzzing about who will take home best actor, best director, best movie. What about film editing, though? It's a category we tend to think about less. You're probably not going to recognize any editors walking the red carpet next week, but it is a vital role - no editing, no movie. And from the earliest days of filmmaking, women have often been the ones behind the scenes shaping award-winning films. NPR's Marc Rivers fills in the picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAWS")

ROY SCHEIDER: (As Chief Brody) You're going to need a bigger boat.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: "Jaws"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

JUDY GARLAND: (As Dorothy Gale) Toto? I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

RIVERS: ..."The Wizard Of Oz"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PULP FICTION")

JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) They call it a Royale with cheese.

RIVERS: ..."Pulp Fiction" - all Oscar-nominated films, all iconic and all edited by women. Film editing is one of the most important jobs in putting together a movie, but it's not the job that gets you on the cover of magazines.

SU FRIEDRICH: The fact that editing is supposed to be invisible, which has contributed to editors not being visible, is what makes it such a great craft.

RIVERS: Su Friedrich is a filmmaker and former professor at Princeton University, where she created a database cataloging films edited by women.

FRIEDRICH: Basically, you take thousands of feet of film, you know, hundreds of shots of different scenes, whatever, figure out what the best take is, what's the best performance, what's the best moment in that performance, and make it all flow in a way so that when we're watching something, we stay completely in the story. When you do it really well, nobody's noticing what you've done.

RIVERS: One thing Friedrich noticed in her research is that a lot of those invisible editors, going all the way back to the very beginnings of Hollywood, were women.

FRIEDRICH: Women were hired for that, I think, in many ways because it seemed like a job that women did the way women did sewing. You know, they're good with their hands, this sort of ridiculous idea.

RIVERS: Friedrich says while this notion pushed women out of other jobs in the industry, like directing and cinematography, editing - or cutting, as it was called then - was seen as unglamorous, almost secretarial work. It proved to be an easier entry point for women in the industry. It also gave them a lot of creative control.

FRIEDRICH: They were pretty much on their own, making all of the really crucial decisions.

RIVERS: One of those powerful editors was Margaret Booth, who began her career helping D. W. Griffith pioneer revolutionary editing techniques.

ERIN HILL: Margaret Booth is sort of the titan of female and all editors, I would say.

RIVERS: Erin Hill is an assistant professor of media and popular culture at UC San Diego. She said legendary MGM studio head Irving Thalberg actually coined the term editor because of Booth.

HILL: She's one of the people that really helps to create this kind of invisible style of classical Hollywood, believing that editing or cuts should be invisible so they aren't obstructing the action.

RIVERS: There was also Anne Bauchens who worked with director Cecil B. DeMille. Su Friedrich again.

FRIEDRICH: She edited 41 films for him, and the Academy created a new category in 1934 for best editing. And six years later, she won the Oscar, and she was the first woman to win it.

RIVERS: To compare, when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win best director, it came 81 years after the first directing award was given.

FRIEDRICH: I mean, there are so many amazing examples of women who worked hand in hand with the director. And most of these women, I mean, their credits - they edited 50 films, 75 films, 100 films.

RIVERS: Friedrich says a lot of that work went uncredited, and as the craft became more popular, more men entered its ranks. But female film editors have remained a prominent force in movies, working with some of the world's most celebrated filmmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As William Hale) The Osage - their time's over. We got to take back control of our home.

RIVERS: "Killers Of The Flower Moon" marks Martin Scorsese's 22nd collaboration with Thelma Schoonmaker, who's won a record three Oscars for film editing and is nominated again for "Killers," making her the most nominated editor in history. But the frontrunner for the award may be Jennifer Lame, the editor for "Oppenheimer."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

CILLIAN MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) We're in a race against the Nazis. And I know what it means if the Nazis have a bomb.

RIVERS: Lame thrilled at the challenge of making all those dialogue-heavy scenes in a three-hour movie move like action scenes.

JENNIFER LAME: When I was editing the movie, I really wanted to make sure that those scenes that are with Strauss and the Senate aide - and it gets into the weeds of stuff - that certain lines popped.

RIVERS: Another part of her job, of any editor's job, is to help shape the performances, to know which take best serves a scene. Consider the moment Cillian Murphy's Oppenheimer reveals the tragic fate of his former lover to his wife, Kitty.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) I found her yesterday in the bath.

EMILY BLUNT: (As Kitty Oppenheimer) Who?

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) She'd taken pills.

LAME: Ten versions of that performance are amazing, and for the longest time we had one version where he's, like, staring at her and he's looking at her. And then we realized, you know what? I think it'd be better if he wasn't looking at her, and, you know, he had more shame, and it was - so it's just this just constant tweaking.

RIVERS: Hilda Rasula, who edited best picture nominee "American Fiction," says her job is about realizing the director's vision.

HILDA RASULA: You're kind of a midwife to the film, you know? You're helping them realize that vision in the best way you can and seeing it through to the very end until it gets born.

RIVERS: I noted the gender connotations of midwife to Rasula, and while she doesn't see anything inherently gendered about being a film editor, she also isn't surprised that so many of the trailblazing editors in movie history have been women.

RASULA: I think it's not a coincidence that it is a role that requires an enormous amount of empathy, feeling the chemistry of what happens between two people, three people on screen and understanding human nature. You know, women are raised to be fairly social creatures, I think. So, I mean, I think this is a skill that maybe is inherent not to all women, but to the way women are raised in our culture.

RIVERS: But Rasula said men still make up most of the Editors Guild.

RASULA: We're still very much a minority, unfortunately.

RIVERS: A 2023 USC Annenberg study found that throughout Oscar history, 14% of best editing nominees have been women. That's compared to the less than 2% of the best director nominees being women. Erin Hill puts the onus on the industry to provide more opportunities for female editors.

HILL: They would be greatly helped if we did more to recognize the structural and the kind of cultural barriers to advancement, and that takes a lot of inward looking.

RIVERS: It'll also take Hollywood making the invisible craft of film editing and the artists responsible for it more visible. Mark Rivers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marc Rivers