The First Cut is the Deepest: A Tribute to Anne V. Coates

Back in the early days of cinema, editing was considered little more than a technical job—the artistic types were the ones one who wrote, produced, directed and acted in the films while all the editor did was look at the footage and simply snip out the bad stuff. In fact, when the Motion Pictures Editors Guild formed in 1937, they chose to be considered a technical guild instead of a creative one. Of course, we all realize that editing is one of the key artistic components that goes into the shaping of any film—strong editing can make a good film great and a terrible one passable. However, one good thing came out of editing being considered strictly a technical endeavor in that it was a film industry position in which women, who were generally shut out of most of the creative aspects, were allowed to work. As a result, there have been any number of great female editors over the years who have made invaluable and oftentimes groundbreaking  contributions to some of the greatest movies ever made—just a partial list would include the likes of Verna Fields (“Jaws”), Dede Allen (“Bonnie and Clyde”), Adrienne Fazan (“An American in Paris”) and Thelma Schoonmaker (too many Martin Scorsese films to list here). Arguably the greatest, however, was Anne V. Coates, who passed away on May 8th, 2018, at the age of 92. Throughout a career spanning over 60 years, she worked on over 60 films, receiving numerous accolades that included two Oscars and four additional nominations, and is credited with creating perhaps the most famous edit in film history.

Coates was born on December 12, 1925 in Surrey, England and after graduating from Bartrum Gables College, she went to work as a nurse at the innovative plastic surgery hospital established by Sir Archibald McIndoe in East Grinstead. Already part of a film industry family—she was the niece of J. Arthur Rank—she decided to try to pursue a career as a filmmaker. Her first film job was with a production company that specialized in making religious-themed film shorts that found her repairing damaged prints so that they could be sent out again. From there, she was able to get a coveted assistant editor job at Pinewood Studios that saw her working with editor Reginald Mills on a number of films, including the classic The Red Shoes (1948). She received her first solo editing credit on the 1952 film version of “The Pickwick Papers” and over the next 10 years worked on a number of films ranging from potboilers like “Forbidden Cargo” (1948) to such acclaimed efforts as the comedy classic “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958) and the acclaimed drama “Tunes of Glory” (1960).

It was at this point that she signed on for what would prove to be the film that she is most associated with—David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Coates’ editing is responsible for a good chunk of why that movie continues to excite and enthrall viewers to this day, whether they have never seen it before or if they have seen it a hundred times. This is a film that had a legendarily long production with Lean shooting tons of footage that Coates needed to comb through and put together into something interesting and entertaining. As anyone who has sat through a misfired epic can attest, this is not the easiest thing to pull off, but “Lawrence of Arabia” has been put together with such style and grace that even though it clocks in at more than 3 1/2 hours, you barely even notice the time passing. What is even more striking is the way that she was doing experimental things in the editing room that might not have been deemed suitable for a film of this type. A fan of the French New Wave films that were all the rage. she invoked some of the then-radical approaches to editing that they employed to striking effect. In fact, what is perhaps the most famous cut of all time (with the possible exception of the bone/spaceship bit in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), the moment where a shot of Lawrence blowing out a match jump cuts to the vast expanse of the desert under the blazing sun, was originally meant to be a more standard dissolve until she proposed doing it as a hard cut to Lean. For this film, she received her first Oscar nomination for Best Editing and then took home the prize itself. (Sadly, the film would fall into neglect over the years as it was cut down in order to squeeze in more showings. Happily, a major restoration in the 1980s that Coates helped supervise would bring it back to its full glory.)

One of the keys to Coates’ brilliance as an editor was her versatility. Different genres of films have different kinds of rhythms and to apply the wrong one to the wrong kind of film could be disastrous. Over the years, Coates worked i a wide variety of genres—epics (“Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” (1965), The Adventurers (1970)), serious dramas (“Becket” (1964), which earned her a second Oscar nomination), comedies (“I Love You To Death” (1990), “What About Bob?” (1991), Striptease (1996), action spectacles (“The Eagle has Landed” (1978, Raw Deal (1986) and “In the Line of Fire” (1993), for which she earned her fourth Oscar nomination), erotic dramas (“Unfaithful” (2002), Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)), horror (“The Legacy” (1979)) and yes, even some outright junk (“Masters of the Universe” (1987), Congo (1995)—and almost always managed to find the right way to piece the elements together. Granted, not all of the movies that she worked on were masterpieces, but her contributions were almost always solid, and one shudders to think how some of them might have fared without her deft touch.

Coates was also willing to experiment by working with newer directors and embracing the new technologies that radically changed the editing industry. She signed on to work with David Lynch, who at that point had only done the virtually homemade midnight movie freakout “Eraserhead,” on his first mainstream film,The Elephant Man(1980). This is a film that could have gone sideways in so many ways but she and Lynch proved to be in perfect sync, especially in the way that the handle the eventual reveal of the deformed John Merrick (John Hurt) and instead of the grotesque melodrama that some may have expected, they came up with a film that brilliantly balanced itself between the bizarre and the mainstream in ways that were embraced by critics and audiences alike and which earned Coates her third Oscar nomination. Years later, she initially turned down Steven Soderbergh’s offer to have her edit Out of Sight (1998) because it would have required her to utilize the computer-based Avid editing system for the first time. She was finally persuaded to give it a try and took to it with astonishing ease, perfectly mirroring Soderbergh’s offbeat approach to the material and giving us one scene—the sequence in which George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez reunite for the first time since their bizarre meet-cute locked together in the trunk of a car—in which the inspired use of overlapping dialogue and imagery creates one of the all-time great romantic moments to ever hit the screen.

That Coates’ last credit was one as awful as “Fifty Shades of Grey” might strike some as a depressing capper to a career that featured so many other genuine classics. Then again, that film does serve as a tribute to her skills both in the fact that she was still working as she was entering her nineties and how her efforts were arguably the only aspect on hand that wasn’t embarrassing. On the bright side, she received a number of far more fitting tributes in her later years. In 2003, she was named an Officer of the British Empire by the Queen in celebration of her career. In 2007, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, who had in the past nominated her work on “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), “The Elephant Man,” “In the Line of Fire” and “Erin Brockovich” (2000), presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. 2017 saw her receive her second Oscar, a Lifetime Achievement Award in celebration of her career. Finally, and perhaps most significantly in some ways, the Motion Picture Editing Guild, the very same group whose insistence that editing was not an art form indirectly led to her entire career, put out a list of the best-edited films of all time and two of hers were on the list, “Lawrence of Arabia” (#7) and “Out of Sight” (#52)—a fitting capper to a long and illustrious career.

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