An appreciation of film editor Sally Menke.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 13 2010 10:24 AM

Tarantino's Gal

An appreciation of film editor Sally Menke.

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When editors, female or male, talk about what they do, they inevitably say that they need to be good listeners, to be sensitive to other people's needs, to bring out the best in others, and to find workable compromises. In her recent article "The End of Men," Double X editor Hanna Rosin points to "social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus" as qualities traditionally associated with women. And maybe this answers the puzzle of why there are so many more female editors in Hollywood than there are directors, cinematographers, or screenwriters.

The under-sung history of editing is filled with women's names, unlike that of directing and cinematography. "Women were thought to be good editors because they had small hands, and it was also thought that editing was a little bit like sewing," says Martha Lauzen, who runs the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University, where the Celluloid Ceiling study is done. "It was considered something women could do because you were stitching pieces together," adds Anita Brandt Burgoyne, who edited Legally Blondeand Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, among many other films. "It was a little like housework."

The idea of editing as a menial task changed over the years, but women remained in its top ranks. Dede Allen, who died last year at the age of 86, revolutionized editing in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde. She and director Arthur Penn introduced the fast cuts that freed editing from the literal expression of time and space, and that have come to dominate movies, commercials, and music videos. Thelma Schoonmaker, meanwhile, has edited most of Martin Scorsese's films *; and George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Bogdanovich all worked with the late Verna Fields, their "mother cutter," who in 1975 received both an Oscar and an ACE Eddie award for her work on Jaws. McCormick says that the membership of ACE, an honorary society, tends to be about one-third female.

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According to Debra Neil-Fisher, who won the Eddie Award for best edited comedy or musical feature film for The Hangoverlast year, there's no mystery as to why lots of women are editors: "I'd say that the role of the editor is good for females because we have the ability to give creatively without too much ego attached." Dede Allen said pretty much the same thing in an interview back in the early '90s: "Women of my generation are more used to serving someone else creatively, and not feeling maligned by it as much. It must be very hard for certain men in terms of an ego or a macho thing, when they are constantly having to redo something they feel very strongly about."

It's dicey to criticize a relationship that both parties agree works for them—however unbalanced it may look from the outside—but, really, shouldn't editors be getting a lot more credit here? Maybe they choose their careers, in part, because they'd rather labor alone in a cutting room than act as the public face of a film, and maybe the role of silent hero simply suits many of them, but Tarantino has been right to point out and celebrate Menke's work over the years. After all, without her sharp eye in the editing room, Tarantino's movies, and even his career, would have looked very different than they do today.

Correction, Oct. 14, 2010: This article mistakenly claimed that Thelma Schoonmaker has edited all of Martin Scorsese's films. In fact, she has not edited all of his films. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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