Cutting can make or break actor's Oscar chances

Editors love to tell stories about how they pieced together what looked like disastrous takes to save an actor’s performance — or win that thesp an Oscar.

On the other hand, indifferent editing can leave an actor embarrassed by what’s on the screen, Cary Grant’s broad perf in “Arsenic and Old Lace” being one notable example.

Editing often determines an actor’s success or failure in a role, and the editor’s work comes under closer scrutiny if an Oscar nomination is at stake — for the actor, as well as for the editor.

But editors on some of this year’s Oscar contenders say they simply focussed on finding the little gems in a performance, which are often as subtle as a glance or a shy smile.

“I’m looking in their performance for that real substantive feeling and emotion,” says Oscar winner Joel Cox (“Unforgiven”), who cut “Invictus” with Gary Roach. “Every sequence in a film has its own moments — something in it that is telling the story. You as an editor have to feel what the real people did at that time.”

Such is the case with a sequence when Nelsen Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) share a joyous moment following a pivotal rugby match. “They thank each other — Pienaar thanks Mandela for what he has done for the country, and Mandela thanks Pienaar for what he has done for his country — and they hold the trophy and look at each other and then they show it to the crowd.”

“A lot of times, there are unintentional moments,” adds John Axelrad, editor of “Crazy Heart.” “Those are the gems that editors are lucky enough to find. Jeff Bridges would do that a lot. Nonverbal stuff exponentially furthered the performance.”

One of those gems came in a scene when Bridges’ washed-up country musician Bad Blake seeks his love interest for forgiveness.

“She says, ‘If you really loved us, you’d leave us alone.’ He just nonverbally transferred so much pain and disappointment. There is a move of the mouth and quiver of the eyebrow. I didn’t have to have him say any words. The expression on his face said it all.”

Another example of how nonverbal moments shape a story comes in “Up in the Air,” with the first meeting between Ryan (George Clooney) and Alex (Vera Farmiga), who become lovers.

“In a scene like that, there is a sort of playfulness that goes on,” editor Dana E. Glauberman says. “There were little looks that they gave each other. Sometimes I stayed a beat longer on a take to get that little sparkle in their eyes.

“You can see a lot of playfulness in the quick cuts back and forth when they are teasing each other, but then there are also certain moments that Vera would give a little raise of a eyebrow, or George would give the same thing. Those tiny nuances are really helpful to show their character and show what they are after.”

In the case of “Nine,” character development continued during musical numbers.

“There is a number, ‘Take It All,’ created specifically for the film,” says editor Wyatt Smith, who cut the pic with Claire Simpson (Oscar winner for “Platoon”). “It is the moment at which Luisa (Marion Cotillard) has put everything on the table and let her husband, Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis), know where he stands in their relationship. The scene is so emotional and so well played, and the song is so physical.

“One of our greatest challenges was to figure out how not to diminish the scene and keep the song’s strengths. At the most emotional moment in the music, we return from the song to the scene and let it finish in dramatic fashion.”

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