By Mary Ann Skweres
According to renowned editor Dede Allen, ACE, in the early days, editing was thought of as woman’s work, working with your hands putting little things together. “But of course that was not what it was,” says Allen. “It was working with your brain and taste.”
That misconception changed when men realized the role editing plays in the filmmaking process, but Allen’s illustrious, 60-year-plus professional life certainly shows that women have the talent to compete with men in this area of the industry.
Allen’s lifetime of accomplishments will be recognized at the Motion Picture Editors Guild annual Board of Directors Installation Dinner on Jan. 5 in Santa Monica. The Guild has selected Allen to receive its 2008 Fellowship and Service Award – an honor created to acknowledge a member who exhibits not only exemplary skill in the craft of editing, but also a set of values which include professionalism, collaboration, mentorship, generosity of spirit and commitment to the labor movement.
Allen began her film career in 1943 at the age of twenty. She was in her second year at Scripps College in Claremont, California, and wanted to be an architect, but did not have the math, so when the opportunity to work as a messenger at Columbia Pictures came up, she took the job.
Editing was very much like architecture for Allen. It was all about putting the pieces together and visualizing. “I can visualize very well,” she says. “Some people can’t.” Allen relates that during the Depression it was hard for a woman to find jobs done mostly by men, but during the war years, women were able to seek employment in more areas.
“I always felt very privileged that I was able to get in, because it came after a period of tremendous hardship,” says Allen. “Some of the great women editors came out of that period.”
Allen advanced through the ranks to apprentice, assistant editor, and sound editor. After a move to New York with husband Stephen Fleischman, who worked in network news documentaries, she became a feature film editor. Allen’s first big break came in 1959 when she edited Odds Against Tomorrow for Robert Wise. “Robert Wise was important in my life,” says Allen. “He was a wonderful man. I miss him dearly.”
Allen was recommended for the project by editor Carl Lerner (12 Angry Men), who was supposed to edit the film, but was busy editing Middle of the Night. This early success was the beginning of a career working with a virtual who’s who of prominent directors – Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill, Elia Kazan, John Cassavetes, Robert Rossen, Philip Kaufman, Barry Sonnenfeld, John Hughes and Curtis Hanson – and she etablished herself as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after editors. Allen claims her success was due to “sheer luck” and “a few pictures that were notable.” But she admits: “You obviously have to have the stuff to make it work. I was very persevering. And I picked my projects as much as one could.”
One of the traits of her perseverance was that if an edit did not work one way, she would try it another way and keep pushing at it until it worked. “You have to figure out why and where it’s wrong. The dialectics of form are very interesting,” says Allen. “Above all else, you have to make it play.”
Allen developed her love of film and knowledge of drama while growing up in Cincinnati with her grandparents. Her mother was an actress and her grandfather, Robert Carothers, was an orthopedic surgeon who wanted to be an actor and had traveled with the circus.
Allen advises young editors to study drama, go to the theater, find out where the drama in the scene is and learn how characters relate. As to her approach to projects as different as Lumet’s musical The Wiz (1978) and his ACE-and Oscar-nominated drama, Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Allen explains, “I’m a gut editor. I usually go for the character. Working with actors and characters is something I love doing and I guess I was well known for it.”
Allen edited the ACE-award-nominated film, The Hustler (1962), starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, and then edited Rachel Rachel (1968) and Harry and Son (1984) for the actor-turned-director.
She also edited The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) for Robert Redford, but her favorite collaboration with an actor was with Warren Beatty. In 1966, she edited Bonnie And Clyde. In 1981, she was executive producer and editor on Beatty’s historical epic, Reds, which received both Oscar and ACE nominations.
According to Allen, Beatty came up with the idea of weaving interviews of real people who lived through the Russian revolution throughout the picture. When cinematographer Vittorio Storaro came on, they devised the concept of shooting against black.
“It was a great storytelling device,” Allen said. “All those people where alive then. It was a matter of catching them before they died.”
Allen acknowledges that each director she has worked with was different. Some were open to collaboration. Some felt threatened because she came with a certain reputation, although that quickly changed as she developed a rapport with them. Most of all, she was always there for the project, even if she had to play devil’s advocate. “I don’t bullshit people. I tell them the truth as I see it,” says Allen.
Her most enduring collaboration was with Penn. “We instinctively had a language that didn’t have to be expressed,” says Allen. “I knew what he wanted, and I guess I gave it to him.” She edited five features for the director, including Bonnie and Clyde.
In 1992, Allen returned to Los Angeles to become a creative executive in theatrical production for Warner Bros., where she consulted on films from dailies through postproduction. “I was a kind-of liaison between directors and the studio. They wanted someone who could speak the language of editors and directors. A suit who wasn’t a suit,” Allen laughs.
Allen left her position at Warners in 1999 to edit Wonder Boys for director Curtis Hanson. The film got her an Academy nomination for Best Editing.
Allen continues to edit. She loves working with younger people. She misses “the tactile quality of film” and the days when “a cut was a cut,” but she has found a way to work with computers – she edits with a friend, Robert Brakey. “I don’t type. I was always afraid I would end up in the stenographic pool. When I was young, that was what women ended up doing,” reveals Allen. “Film is exciting. It’s fun. Very demanding. Takes tremendous concentration. But I think it’s most important that people do the things they love to do, because then you do them better.”
Honors (partial list): New York Women in Film and Television – Muse Award – 2001; Los Angeles Film Critics Award – 2000; Hollywood Film Festival – Career Achievement Award – 1999; ACE Lifetime Achievement Award – 1994; American Film Institute Doctor of Fine Arts – Honorary Degree – 1990; Crystal Award – Women In Film.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres