In the Cut: A Brief History of Female Editors in Hollywood

Inside the editing suite, computer screens turn into canvasses. Celluloid and online technology stand in place of paintbrushes and palettes. Hidden auteurs sit hunched in tranquilizing darkness as they tear through hours of repetitive footage. For editor Julia Gralczyk, these films are a form of comprehensive expression. The creativity required by directors, cinematographers, and actors comes together only at the hands of the unseen artist.

In 1940, the Los Angeles Times informed readers that one of the most essential positions in the motion-picture industry was held almost exclusively by women. Throughout Hollywood’s history, the Times’ claim has held up: According to the Motion Picture Editors Guild, women account for 20 percent of all members, a greater proportion than in the rest of the film industry.

However, discussion about sexism experienced by female filmmakers is often fixated on prominent actresses and directors recognizable to the public. At the 88th Academy Awards in February, editor Margaret Sixel took home the Oscar for her work cutting together “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Despite her enormous achievement, Sixel has not become the kind of household name common of Oscar-winning actresses — female editors, even award-winning ones, are still underserved in an industry dominated by men.

“When you hear the public discuss filmmakers, they are almost always men and almost always directors,” said Gralczyk. “Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, try and name a famous editor? Let alone a female editor!”

Snagging opportunities to work on action-packed films like “Mad Max” can be brutal for female editors like Sixel and Gralczyk. Hundreds of pristine resumes complete with detailed lists of qualifications are submitted by females each year only to be denied in favor of male competitors. In 2014, the New York Film Academy found that of the top 250 films of 2012, 80 percent had been edited by men.

Among the 250 films were “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Skyfall,” two of the highest grossing films of the year. “Pitch Perfect” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” also among the top films of the same year, were both regarded as being of female interest and edited by women.

“While working for a film company editing reels for reality television pitches my professional equal, a male, was assigned to a show based on a business repairing and flying specialty aircrafts,” said Gralczyk. “I was assigned to a home renovation show with an overly feminine host.”

Gralczyk shared the old cliché that there is a woman standing behind every successful man — a stale truth in contemporary Hollywood. In an editing suite, you will often find two chairs crammed into a closet-sized room, full of digital monitors and scattered external hard-drives. One chair, filled by the editor themselves, remains constantly occupied. The other, aiding the director, filters in and out, borrowed for phone calls and vending machine snack breaks.

In her chair, the editor sits, poised and determined, her computer mouse her knife. In his, the director admires her cuts, literal and metaphorical, made by a fleeting cursor. Dominated, still, by her male counterparts, she fights for recognition by an army of comfortably sexist clones.

Since as early as 1915, women have been shaping the success of some of Hollywood’s most significant films. Initially called “cutters,” female editors provided menial services to studios, manually cutting celluloid strips with miniature scissors in cramped darkrooms. These women rarely received accreditation for their contributions to American cinema. Today, editing is a much more creative aspect of filmmaking though credit in the public eye remains attributed to directors.

“As the editor you can decide where and when the audience looks at something, you mold the story and its premise. It’s one the most important responsibilities in the industry,” said Gralczyk. “Ignorance of the talent of editors exists in part because casual consumers pay so little attention to below the line crew.”