There is a long held belief among Oscar prognosticators that the biggest tell of what is going to win Best Picture isn't Best Director, but it's actually Best Editing. I caught on to this some fourteen years into watching the Oscars (the first Oscar ceremony I watched was in 1992 when Silence of the Lambs took Best Picture). At the 2006 ceremony when Crash "upset" Brokeback Mountain for the big prize, I had been saying for weeks that it was going to do so because it seemed like the kind of safe choice the Academy loves to give their top prize to. As proof of this, I would offer up the following statement: "Wait for the Best Editing category. If Crash wins Best Editing, it's a lock for Best Picture."
And so it went, and so I seemed like a genius, but this is not a hard and fast rule unfortunately. Just the year before The Aviator won Best Editing before losing the big prize to Million Dollar Baby. In this week's column I'll be looking at a brief history of film editing and how crucial it is to a film's success, particularly when it comes to the Oscars.
Known as the invisible art, editing is by far the most subtle component of any film. Unless it's really bad. Then you can't help but notice it. It's like a great film score in that regard, you notice it most when it's bad, and sometimes when it's really great, but most editors would argue that the best editing is that which you don't notice. When talking about great editing in great films, it's always best to start at the top, and one of the absolute pinnacles of filmmaking is Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Though it won only one Oscar (for it's screenplay) on eight nominations, today it's considered groundbreaking for the number of techniques it pioneered. The film's editing is absolutely top notch, and you can feel it right away in the opening montage of shots that get closer and closer to Charles Foster Kane's home Xanadu. Though the shot changes angles and gets closer with each cut, the window where Kane is inside dying is alight, and it never changes position on the screen. It's an absolute masterstroke of great editing that perfectly sets the tone for the film.
Though Welles would never top his first film, as his films got more avant garde, so too did their editing. Take F for Fake, one of his last films, for example. The film is all about the art of misdirection and profiles two world class forgers, Elmyr de Hory & Clifford Irving, and Welles deliberately uses editing to constantly keep you one step behind the overall story he's trying to tell. This is an under seen film, but perhaps one of the best examples of how editing can be used as more than just an assemblage tool, but as a way to deceive and mislead the audience. It's available on dvd from The Criterion Collection, and I cannot recommend it any higher for those interested in learning more about using editing in this way.
The 1962 Oscar race brought two pioneers of great editing, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. Lawrence of Arabia has what is widely regarded as the first "J-Cut" in which the audio from a scene that the film is about to cut to begins during the previous scene (you can find a more visual representation of this here). The train sequence in Lawrence of Arabia is the center-piece action sequence of the film, and Lean and his editor Anne V. Coates bring the screech of the train whistle into the previous frame to sound an alarm of impending doom. This is done so often in this day and age, particularly by Steven Spielberg, that it's almost not even noticed by audiences anymore. All of this is not to even mention the fantastic cut between a match in Lawrence's hand at the beginning of the film that cuts immediately to the desert where he will spend the rest of the film. A much more famous example of this can be found in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey when the bone thrown aloft by the ape Moonwatcher becomes a space craft thousands of years in the future.
Where Lawrence of Arabia pioneered the use of the hard cut, The Manchurian Candidate used dissolves, which had been an editing technique for as long as there was film, in new and interesting ways. Dissolves were used to move between flashbacks and in and out of reality, to create a disorienting state in the viewer that mimics the unnerving journey the characters go on. Also pay attention to its more "tongue in cheek" editing with a cut between a bottle of Heinz ketchup and the mention of "57 varieties of Communists" in the state department, or the way it places Abraham Lincoln prominently in the frame, once even dissolving between a portrait of Lincoln and the character that is thought to be the "new hope" for politics. Frankenheimer and his Oscar nominated editor Ferris Webster showed that ancient techniques could be used in differently.
Flashing forward fifteen years to the 1977 Best Picture race and we get two great examples of content editing, rather than editing techniques with Best Picture winner Annie Hall and Best Editing winner Star Wars. Both of these films had notoriously troubled post-production issues. Annie Hall was, in its original form, a sprawling, three-hour epic called Anhedonia (the scientific term for no longer finding pleasure in activities that once brought you pleasure) that featured a murder mystery as its central plot. If you've seen Annie Hall, you're probably baffled by this information, and Woody Allen struggled to balance this plot with the film's now central plot of his doomed relationship with the title character. Editor Ralph Rosenblum encouraged Allen to jettison the murder mystery story and focus instead on the relationship story, and the rest is history. Interestingly enough Allen would later turn this murder subplot into the core plot of his 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery. While the actual editing in the film isn't necessarily groundbreaking, this is a perfect example of a film "saved" via the editing process.
Star Wars was another film "saved" in the editing. Anyone familiar with the disastrous Star Wars prequels can, at the very least, recognize that George Lucas is not a director known for his dynamic shot compositions. Every conversation in his films is shot with the very simplistic "shot-reverse shot" technique that works fine for comedies and chamber dramas, but dies a horrible death in science fiction. His first assemblage of Star Wars was a disaster of incoherent, rambling set pieces that bored viewers to tears. Thankfully his wife Marcia Lucas was an accomplished editor and she, along with Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew rescued the film and turned it into the masterpiece we all know and love today. It's use of wipes to cut between scenes is now omni-present in sci-fi filmmaking, and their adherence to basic structural rules of dramatic storytelling, as far as when to have the inciting incident happen, when to establish the conflict, etc. saved what could have been a nightmare of a film.
Looking more directly at the last thirty years, and the effect of the Best Editing Oscar on the Best Picture Oscar draws a somewhat more straight line between the two awards. Since 1983, 16 of the 30 Best Picture winners have also won for Best Editing. Nine of the times they diverged, the award went to a fellow Best Picture nominee (three of which, interestingly enough, were directed by Oliver Stone, another pioneer of nouveau editing techniques). The five non-Best Picture nominees to win Best Editing in that time were Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (likely recognized for its integration of live action and animation), The Matrix, Black Hawk Down, The Bourne Ultimatum, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This award will often go to films with obviously good editing, even when that means that it splits from the Best Picture winner. Some examples of this are the aforementioned Stone films like JFK which has some undeniably incredible editing or Traffic which balanced multiple story lines and locations, selected over the no less technically proficient but less flashy Silence of the Lambs and Gladiator respectively.
It paints a murky picture of what editing means to a great film. Less informed viewers may wonder how films like Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, and Titanic can win editing when their running time indicates a lack of "editing." A film's length has nothing to do with the way the film is edited, so those of you up in arms over long films winning this award should understand that editing does not equal cutting. I myself am baffled at Dances with Wolves beating Goodfellas and The English Patient beating Fargo, which are both superior films in many regards, not the least of which is how much better the editing in the latter compliments their respective films overall. David Fincher is one of the best filmmakers to watch currently to see examples of fantastic editing, evidenced by his editors' back to back Best Editing wins for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so it's nice to see the editing branch not always going lockstep with Best Picture.
Looking at this year's race, things get a little dicey. Gravity may win this one on the sheer strength of its technical achievement, and voters may likely look at this as just another one of its many dazzling achievements. While I've tended throughout this article to point to the Editing Oscar as an indicator of what will win Best Picture, if it goes to Gravity, that does not guarantee it a Best Picture win. If the award is announced for American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave on the other hand, look for that to be an indication of where the Best Picture Oscar will end up. Though they're stylistically miles apart, both films have an editing style that compliments their film perfectly. Captain Phillips could likewise pull off an upset in this category, due to its technical perfection, though I see this as much less likely an outcome, and don't even get me started on how Dallas Buyers Club ended up in this race in the first place.
This was by no means a comprehensive look at the subtle but crucial art of editing, and hopefully it gave you some perspective on what editing truly is and why three hour films sometimes win the Oscar even though it seems like there was a noticeable lack of editing going on. With a track record of only 53% over the last thirty years, it's by no means foolproof, but it's certainly the best indicator we have for where the Best Picture Oscar might end up. Be sure to let me know your thoughts, comments, questions, complaints and predictions in the comments section below, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this invisible art.