thelma schoonmaker

Episode 1: The Femmes of Film


Women have played an important but often unacknowledged role in the film industry starting at it's inception in the late 19th century.  While female stardom was important to the popularity of film and eventually television, women have for the most part been praised for their appearances rather than ability.

In the 1920s, Hollywood played a major role in legitimizing the "new woman"- this was a woman that could now vote, earn an income, and was apart of the changing social norms, like non- chaperoned dates.  These displays of women in the movies helped change America's ideas of what was considered acceptable female behavior.


  • Hollywood sex symbol, Mae West was the first actress to earn $1 million.  Something she was not known for was writing all of her own lines and occasionally the entire script.  By the 1930s, while Mae was in her 40s, she was the highest paid actor of both genders and was making a movie per year.
  • In the early 1900s, Alice Guy Blache is credited as the first female director.  She started as a secretary and made her way to studio head.  She is also known for mentoring another early American female director, Lois Weberwho stands out for her experiments in sound, and the often controversial subject matter of her films such as "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (1917) a film about birth control.
  • Grace Cunard rose to fame by starring in a number of serials, but also turned toward directing during the WWI era.  She was a major influence in Hollywood for her portrayals of women as heroic characters and helping to define the "new woman" of the 1920s.
  • Frances Marion was the highest paid screenwriter of either gender throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  She was also the first woman to win an Academy Award for a category outside of acting, which she won for "The Big House" and in 1932 she won for "The Champ".
  • Many women during the years of early cinema were given jobs as film editors because the editing machines were closely related to sewing machines (Singer even made editing machines back then as well!)

As you can see, prior to the 1930s and the Great Depression, many film houses had female directors and screenwriters.  In fact, it is thought that women's involvement helped legitimize the industry by turning it into an art form and making it more acceptable for middle class audiences.  

As the popularity of film grew, organizations like the Screen Writers Guild and others, emerged to keep up with the evolving industry.  These clubs were modeled after fraternal trade clubs, and were very male oriented.  This was the beginning of women being pushed out of roles such as directing, but allowed to stay in screenwriting due to the anonymity of the task. 


"In a way, I've never looked at myself as a woman in the business. I've just looked at myself as an editor. I mean, I'm sure I've been turned down because I'm a woman, but then other times I've been used because they wanted a woman editor." 

Born December 12, 1925


A British film editor with a career lasting over 40 years.  Before she became involved in the film world, she served as a nurse in a pioneering plastic surgery hospital, where she began to hone her fine hand work.

Her introduction to the film industry was through her involvement with a production company making religious films.  The splicing work that she did led her to being hired at Pinewood Studios which then put out Lawrence of Arabia, her most notable work.

She has since teamed up with director Steven Soderbergh on great films like Erin Brokovich and Out of Sight.

Academy Awards- Achievements in Editing:

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Won
  • Beckett (1963) Nominated
  • The Elephant Man (1980) Nominated
  • In the Line of Fire (1993) Nominated
  • Out of Sight (1998) Nominated

*What I find most exciting about Anne V. Coates is that her career has spanned through the entire course of technological changes in film editing, and she didn't miss a beat.

"Really, if I start a work I forget food. I forget that I am a woman. I forget my dress, I only see my work. I forget because I am fascinated by my work."

August 22, 1902- September 8, 2003


A woman who was born artistically, starting with painting and dancing.  She became fairly recognized as a dancer until she had to quit with a knee injury.  This led to her involvement in the film industry through acting, directing, producing, and reporting.

Although her talent in direction and cinematography is undeniable, she is considered controversial because her most notable works were Nazi propaganda documentaries.  Most known is Triumph of the Will (1935) which received the highest honors of filmdom in Europe.  But by the end of WWII, this film which had put Leni on the map, then destroyed her career.  It could no longer be seen as a piece of art, but as propaganda.  Her documentary on the 1936 Olympic Games titled Olympia (1938) met a similar fate.  

Triumph of the Will and Olympia are considered two of the most effective and innovative propaganda films ever created.  Once WWII had ended, Leni was arrested, but not charged with war crimes.  She had always denied knowledge about the Holocaust and claimed disgust over how Triumph of the Will had been used by her employers.  She was considered a "fellow traveler" and won fifty libel cases.

Moving past her early career, she became a world traveler and documentarian gaining little notice for her amazing work.  At the age of 71, she fulfilled a life dream of photographing under water, producing two books: The Coral Gardens and The Wonders Under Water.

At the age of 97, while documenting in the Sudan, she survived a helicopter crash as her team tried to escape the violence of that region.  In the end, cancer took her at the age of 101 in Munich, Germany.

* If you are able to look past her early career associations, her filmmaking is breathtaking.  She should be applauded for her eye for light and shadow and her depiction of grandeur with her wide sweeping angles.


"I'm not a person who believes in the great difference between women and men as editors. But I do think that quality is key. We're very good at organizing and discipline and patience, and patience is 50 per cent of editing. You have to keep banging away at something until you get it to work. I think women are maybe better at that."

Born January 3, 1940


Born in French Algeria to New Yorker parents, she did not move to the U.S. until 1955 as a teenager.  She started pursuing a career in international diplomacy at Cornell University in 1957.  However, she failed her State Department test to qualify for government work on account of her strong feelings against apartheid in South Africa. This became the impetus for her to change gears and focus on primitive art- the start of her artistic career.

Amidst her graduate studies in primitive art at Columbia University, she answered an ad for on the job training as a film editor.  The job consisted of her cutting European film classics to be an appropriate length to be shown on US TV.  Even though she found the project calloused, it prompted her to sing up for more editing classes at NYU, where she met Martin Scorcese.

She is probably best known as the faithful editor to Martin Scorcese films for the last 40 years.  When they met, Martin was struggling to finish a film project for a class because of an editing machine malfunction.  A professor assigned Thelma to help him and a close working relationship unfolded.

At her time at NYU, she also met filmmaker Michael Wadleigh, who brought her on board to edit his epic documentary Woodstock.  This brought her first Academy Award Nomination for Editing.  Although it was extremely clear that she holds talent, she struggled entering the Motion Picture Editors Guild, a notorious boys club.  She is recognized for shattering some of the film industry's glass ceilings.

Recognized for her creative uses of:

  • Freeze Frames- Goodfellas
  • Text- Goodfellas
  • Split Screens- Woodstock
  • Voice Overs- Goodfellas/ Casino

She never visits the set during production or reads a script in advance in order to maintain an objective mind frame while editing.

Academy Awards- Achievements in Editing:

  • Woodstock (1971) Nominated
  • Raging Bull (1981) Won
  • Goodfellas (1991) Nominated
  • Gangs of New York (2003) Nominated
  • The Aviator (2005) Won
  • The Departed (2007) Won
  • Hugo (2012) Nominated

* It is very special to see a collaboration like Martin and Thelma.  Her creativity and talent paired with his frenetic story telling has made for an unbeatable duo.

"If there's specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It's irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don't. There should be more women directing; I think there's just not the awareness that it's really possible. It is."

Born November 27, 1951

California, USA

Kathryn is considered one of today's most influential filmmakers.  She is the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award for Hurt Locker in 2009.

Her visual style can be attributed to her start as a painter, studying at the San Francisco Art Institute and winning an independent study spot at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC.  She then moved to a graduate film program at Columbia University studying criticism and theory.  She caught the eye of famed director Milos Forman with a short film she made in 1978 titled The Set Up.  Her first feature film, The Loveless, in 1982 was also Willem Dafoe's first starring role.

She gained much recognition for her trilogy of action films: Blue Steel/ Point Break/ Strange Daysbecause of how she is able to appease Hollywood's demands, but also inject her own critical philosophies, therefore she stood out as both a Hollywood brand and an auteur.  These three films consider the role of violence in gender and racial politics.

In 2009, she beat her ex- husband, James Cameron, for Best Director (he was nominated for Avatar)

* Consider this: The Lumiere Brothers debuted the first ever film " Workers Leaving the the Lumiere Factory" in 1895.  The first woman to win a Best Director award was 114 years later in 2009.







Add to the lesson by writing what you know about women in film in the comments section below!