Gamblers and Academy Award handicappers have long known that Oscar has a “tell”: There’s a strong connection between editing and the best picture winner.
Since editing became an Oscar category in 1934, only nine films have won best picture without at least a nomination for editing; the last was 1980’s “Ordinary People.” Of the 61 films that have won best picture Oscars since 1952, 32 have won the editing statuette as well.
That’s an important tipoff to the Acad’s thinking. There can be as many as 10 best picture nominees, but there are still only five nominees for editing. A best picture nominee without an editing nomination is very unlikely to win.
Yet, editing is known as “the invisible art.” Even people who know the craft often agree with “Nebraska” editor Kevin Tent: “It’s hard to articulate what editors do, but when it’s bad, you’ll know it,” he says. “When it’s good, you’ll never know.”
While the specifics of editors’ techniques may be opaque, their role in creating a complete, satisfying piece isn’t a secret, says Mark Sanger, who co-edited “Gravity.” “The editor needs to provide a canvas that complements all of the other aspects to tie them together. If an audience has engaged deeply enough with a story to nominate it for best picture, then they understand the pages were bound together in the editing.”
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Mark Livolsi, who cut “Saving Mr. Banks,” describes editing’s mystique and significance as “the engine under the hood that you don’t necessarily see. But it keeps the car running.”
“When it comes to evaluating those five films for editing, a few things that I would look at would be the special challenges that go into it: Multiple story lines, and how well they go together,” he says. “Whether a film does anything visually that seems extraordinary; when something is long but doesn’t feel long. Ultimately, that’s what editing is: how well you can tell a story.”
Jay Cassidy, who co-edited David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” says the correlation between editing and best picture comes from a simple fact: “There’s no such thing as a good scene in a bad movie.”
“If filmgoers are moved by the story and emotion in the film then it’s probably well-edited,” Cassidy says. “It’s why editing awards tend to follow best picture awards, and for good reason.
“If the movie works as a piece, you think about it as one thing. If a movie doesn’t work, you’re often left thinking, that was an interesting scene, or that was an interesting moment, but you’re left a little wanting for a whole emotional feeling,” he says.
Editing’s role in how the story is told also points to the connection between crafts, says Thelma Schoonmaker, who cut Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
“I don’t think you can be a great director without knowing editing,” she says. “Most editors would say that you don’t want to see edits. Marty and I don’t feel that way, but that’s valid. In ‘Wolf,’ we’re doing shocking cutting deliberately, because their world is out of control, and wild.”
Yet this close collaboration isn’t recognized enough, says Joe Walker. “I always find it sad that a film that wins best picture doesn’t also win best editing, because they are completely, inextricably, linked.” Walker edited Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” his third picture with the director.
“It’s like dividing up the record collection before you’ve gotten divorced. It’s such a happy thing to work with Steve’s material because I can really make an impact. It’s a true collaboration. He sits next to me all day, there’s an emotional involvement in the subject. It’s always, ‘we.’ ”