Throughout March it is Women’s History Month honoring their achievements in politics, science, sports, business, and the arts to name just a few. This year marks the 30th anniversary with the theme “Writing Women Back into History.” It’s designated to honor past themes and honorees from previous years. For my contribution to Women’s History Month I have selected an outstanding filmmaker who’s broken the glass ceiling in a deeply entrenched male-dominated part of the film industry that’s behind the scenes, more specifically in post-production. She has worked faithfully on every film, as a film editor, that this Oscar winning director has ever worked on. He is revered and respected all over the world for the brilliant films he’s directed. Not only that, this woman has been honored too in the film industry for her outstanding contributions. She’s won three Academy Awards in Best Editing. That is why Thelma Schoonmaker is honored for this year’s Women’s History Month.
The Early Years
Thelma has lived and traveled all over the world, thanks to her father who worked abroad for Standard Oil Company. She was born in Algiers, Algeria on January 3, 1940 and spent her entire childhood as an American expatriate. When Thelma was in her teens the family moved back to the United States where she felt at odds and confused amongst her own classmates and other people since she’d never lived in the U.S. before. After high school Schoonmaker enrolled at Cornell University where she majored in political science and the Russian language, since she was very interested in a career in international diplomacy. When she graduated from Cornell Schoonmaker took the highly competitive State Department tests, which she passed, but was considered too politically liberal and opinionated for this particular career field. After a disappointing experience she saw an ad in The New York Times classifieds for an assistant film editor and got the job.
Intro to Film Editing
Schoonmaker’s first job into the world of film editing left little to be desired as the editor she worked for would haphazardly cut frames to pare down European film classics from such legendary directors as Jean Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, and Francois Truffaut to be shown on television. Nevertheless, Thelma learned a great deal about film editing and negative cutting. Basically, the art and technique of film editing is taking an assembly of shots and trying to make some sense out of them. The film editor then decides on the selection and combination of shots by putting them in sequence, which eventually becomes the final product you see in the movie theater. After her time as an assistant film editor Schoonmaker decided to enroll at New York University (NYU) for a course in filmmaking. Another filmmaking classmate at NYU, Martin Scorcese, was struggling with his student film What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? Scorcese needed some help with the editing. The film professor introduced Martin Scorcese to Thelma Schoonmaker that was the beginning to a lasting, enduring, and successful working relationship for nearly four decades.
The Woodstock Documentary
Michael Wadleigh, a fellow NYU filmmaker alum, whom Schoonmaker had known was directing a documentary of a music festival called Woodstock. The three-day concert event and its subsequent film would later become iconic for decades to come. Wadleigh enlisted Schoonmaker and Scorcese as the film’s editors. As a result the documentary was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Film Editing for which Schoonmaker received the nomination, Best Sound, and Best Documentary Feature. It received the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This music documentary has been considered the benchmark for other concert films to follow. Thelma’s use of superimpositions and freeze frames throughout brought it further to life by engaging the filmgoer to become a part of the concert experience. Wadleigh and Schoonmaker were featured prominently in the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival television documentary Woodstock: Now & Then, that aired on VH1 and the History Channel, by sharing their filmmaking experiences.
Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, & The Departed
The first time Thelma Schoonmaker won an Academy Award for editing was for her first collaboration with Scorcese in the feature film Raging Bull. It has a documentary-like feel to it. Her editing techniques were based on the classic Hollywood editing that utilizes the long takes. On Goodfellas she also employed the long takes in her editing process. For this film she received an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Film Editing. In 2003 she was nominated once again for Gangs of New York. Schoonmaker received her second Oscar for best editing on The Aviator, a film about the life of billionaire Howard Hughes. More recently in 2007 she won her third Oscar for The Departed which also won Best Picture. Martin Scorcese, at long last, won his Oscar for Best Director. All in all Schoonmaker has received a total of six Academy Award nominations and three Academy Awards.
In closing, Thelma Schoonmaker has literally worked with one of the best directors in modern times on film projects that have been nominated for Academy Awards numerous times as well as be critical and box office successes. Some of the most respected and highly popular actors have worked on Scorcese’s films for which she has edited. It’s nice to know Thelma received an Oscar not once, but twice before Marty, or Martin, Scorcese received his. Schoonmkaer has come a long way since those early years when Hollywood was notoriously known as a “good old boys” club. She had great difficulty getting into the Motion Picture Editors Guild back then. Those days are thankfully over for her. Be sure to catch Scorcese’s latest film Shutter Island where you can see Thelma Schoonmaker’s sublime and effortless editing while watching this psychological horror-thriller.