When George Miller asked Margaret Sixel, his frequent collaborator as well as his wife, to edit Mad Max: Fury Road, she initially turned down his request, asking, “Why do you want me to edit an action film?” According to this Huffington Post piece, he responded: “Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie.”
He turned out to be right. Sixel spent nearly three years winnowing down a reported 480 hours of footage into a 120-minute feminist adrenaline rush in which every moment feels purposeful and dynamic. The result is a film that definitely does not look like every other action movie. Because of that, there’s a good chance that Sixel — who recently won the American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Award for best editing of a dramatic feature film — will walk away with the Academy Award for editing come Feb. 28. If she does, it will be Sixel’s first Oscar and a welcome win for a woman this year in a key filmmaking category. But it won’t be the first time a woman has won an Oscar for cutting a motion picture. It will be the 13th.
Unlike directing, a category in which only four women have been nominated in the 88 years of the Academy Awards’ existence, female editors have been recognized fairly regularly since the category was first incorporated into the seventh Academy Awards, held back in 1935 to honor the films of 1934. In that very first year, in fact, a woman — Anne Bauchens, who cut consistently for Cecil B. DeMille — was nominated for her work on DeMille’s epic Cleopatra. She would become the first woman to win in the category six years later, for another, lesser known DeMille picture, North West Mounted Police. Think about that: it only took Oscar 13 years to allow a female editor to get her hands on a statuette. For a female director, Kathryn Bigelow, to do the same, it took Oscar 82 years.
Over the decades, 73 women have been nominated in the best editing category, including this year’s three female nominees: Sixel, and Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, who are co-nominated for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and have worked alongside director J.J. Abrams since his days on TV’s Alias. The number of female editors working in the business may still be lower than one would hope — according to this year’s annual Celluloid Ceiling report, they comprised 22 percent of the editors on 2015’s top 250 films at the box office. And certainly, those 73 nods do not achieve nomination-parity with the far greater number of men who have been honored for their editing contributions. But, within the context of the gender-challenged Academy Awards, it’s a more heartening figure than those measly four female nominees for directing and the embarrassingly zero number of women who have been nominated in the cinematography category.
Why has women’s editing work been more consistently embraced by Oscar? As that 1934 nomination for Anne Bauchens attests, that’s partly because women have worked as editors since Hollywood’s earliest days. The reasons for that have nothing to do with feminism. As Scott Feinberg pointed out in a 2013 Hollywood Reporter piece on female editors, “In the early days, the job was regarded as menial labor, and it largely was. Cutters worked by hand, running film on reels with hand cranks and manually cutting and gluing together strips of it.” Even after the Moviola editing machine was introduced and made the job less laborious, Feinberg writes that editing was “still tedious and low paying, which is why most cutters remained young, working-class women.” Even in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, set in world of big studio picture circa the late ’40s, the editor huddled up in a dark room with a dangerous, as it turns out, Moviola, is a woman, played by Frances McDormand.
While cutting a film may still be tedious, we certainly know now that it is not unskilled labor, but a craft that requires creativity, narrative vision and patience. (And also, yeah, probably still a tolerance for moments of tedium.) Many prominent filmmakers have clearly understood that, too. It’s notable that so many of those Academy Award-nominated women editors sustained long-lasting professional relationships with prominent directors: Bauchens with DeMille; Barbara McLean with director Henry King; Adrienne Fazan with Vincente Minnelli; Susan Morse with Woody Allen; Sandra Adair with Richard Linklater; and, perhaps most famously, Thelma Schoonmaker with Martin Scorsese. Once directors find an editor that understands their sensibility and makes their movies better, they tend to stick with that editor. Often, that professional soul mate has been female. As Schoonmaker says in that Hollywood Reporter story, “Filmmaking is a collaboration. People have to learn how to deal with their own egos and work as partners. And I think women are probably better at that [than men].”
In other words, Hollywood historically has been more comfortable with women in editing positions because it’s a role that’s considered, as Schoonmaker says, collaborative and, perhaps, also less threatening to the true captain of the movie ship, the director. But there’s no question that the editing of a picture can make or break its impact. That’s certainly true of Fury Road.
Two of that film’s strongest assets are its pacing and the narrative coherence of its often frenetic action sequences. How many times in the past decade have each of us sat through an action movie and felt deadened by all the carnage and mayhem, unable to figure out what’s actually going on and why we’re supposed to care about it? By my personal estimation, a lot, and that’s only if I include the times that’s happened to me while watching a Transformers movie.
There is a tremendous amount of visual stimulation in Fury Road but the viewer never feels lost or uninvested. That’s because Sixel, in concert with Miller and cinematographer John Seale, focuses on so many shots, as Gizmodo pointed out, where the action is concentrated at the center of the frame. That compositional approach keeps the audience grounded even as chaos unspools everywhere. Sixel is also deliberate in her use of cuts; when she want us to take in the spectacle of a tank with drumming drummers and a guitarist whose instrument shoots fire anchored to it, she lingers. But when the action ramps up, the cuts come quick-quick-quick, in a way that gives the movie a roller-coaster feeling but never induces dizziness. This is hard to do, and it’s especially hard to do with such a mountain of footage through which to sift.
For doing all that successfully — and for making an action movie that, indeed, doesn’t look like any other action movie — Sixel is certainly deserving of that editing Oscar. If she wins it later this month, she’ll join a long-standing club of other winning women editors, all of whom proved that cutting a movie smartly is anything but menial. It’s the sort of thing that only a real master can do.