Thelma Colbert Schoonmaker
January 3, 1940
|Alma mater||Cornell University|
Thelma Schoonmaker (//; born January 3, 1940) is an American film editor, known for her over fifty years of work with director Martin Scorsese. She started working with Scorsese on his debut feature film Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), and has edited all of Scorsese's films since Raging Bull (1980). Schoonmaker has received eight Academy Award nominations for Best Film Editing, and has won three times—for Raging Bull, The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006), which were all Scorsese-directed films.
Schoonmaker was born on January 3, 1940 in Algiers (then part of French Algeria), the daughter of American parents, Thelma and Bertram Schoonmaker. Bertram, descended from the New York Dutch Schoonmaker political family, was employed as an agent of the Standard Oil Company and worked extensively abroad. The Schoonmakers were evacuated to the United States shortly after the Fall of France during the Second World War. In 1941, the family moved to the Dutch-Caribbean island of Aruba, where Schoonmaker's father continued to work for Standard Oil and her mother ran nursery schools. Schoonmaker was primarily raised in Aruba, in a community she described as "a colony of expatriates from over the world"; she also spent part of her childhood in Portugal.
Schoonmaker did not live in the United States until she was an adolescent in 1955, and was initially alienated and dumbfounded by American culture. Schoonmaker was interested in a career in international diplomacy and began attending Cornell University in 1957, where she studied political science and the Russian language. When she graduated from Cornell in 1961, she began taking State Department tests in order to apply for positions in the U.S. government.
Politically inclined and opinionated, Schoonmaker was opposed to the Vietnam War and supported the Civil Rights Movement. She passed the State Department exams but failed the final "stress test" when she expressed distaste for the South African policy of apartheid, a stance which did not sit well with those administering the tests.
You get to contribute so significantly in the editing room because you shape the movie and the performances," she says. "You help the director bring all the hard work of those who made the film to fruition. You give their work rhythm and pace and sometimes adjust the structure to make the film work – to make it start to flow up there on the screen. And then it's very rewarding after a year's work to see people react to what you've done in the theater.
—Thelma Schoonmaker, on editing
While taking a graduate course in primitive art at Columbia University, Schoonmaker saw an advertisement in The New York Times that offered training as an assistant film editor. She responded to the advertisement and got the job. The job entailed assisting an "editor" who was randomly cutting frames from classic European films (such as those by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini), so that their length would conform to the running times of U.S. television broadcasts.
She signed up for a brief six-week course in filmmaking at New York University, where she came into contact with young Martin Scorsese, who was struggling to complete his film What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? A negative cutter had butchered his film, not leaving enough negative frames to allow for hot splicing, so a film professor asked her to help Scorsese. Schoonmaker edited Scorsese's first feature film, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967).
At NYU, Schoonmaker also met filmmaker Michael Wadleigh and later edited his influential music festival documentary, Woodstock, on which Scorsese also worked. Her first major film editing work on Woodstock gained Schoonmaker an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing. Her use of superimpositions and freeze frames brought the performances in the film to life, and added to the movie's wide appeal, thus helping to raise the artistry and visibility of documentary film-making to a new level.
The early period of Schoonmaker's career was difficult. Despite being an Oscar nominee, Schoonmaker could not work on feature films unless she became a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. The union's entry requirements included spending five years as an apprentice and three as an assistant, which Schoonmaker was unwilling to meet. Schoonmaker remarked, "And I just couldn't see why I, who had been a full editor and had been nominated for an Academy Award, should suddenly have to become an apprentice. ...And of course, they couldn't see the sense of why I, who had never been in the union all those years and had never paid dues all those years and had never served my time in their sense, should be allowed as a full editor. So it was quite understandable on both sides. It was just insane."
Consequently, Schoonmaker did not work with Scorsese in a formal capacity in the 1970s; however, she did make an uncredited contribution to Taxi Driver. Scorsese had decided not to edit the picture during principal photography, but to save all the editing until shooting had wrapped. Unfortunately, this left him very little time to cut the picture, as Columbia's contract stipulated that a finished cut had to be supplied by the middle of February. Scorsese brought in Schoonmaker to help. At one point, Steven Spielberg visited Scorsese and chipped in with some contributions toward the final edit.
In the 1980s, with Scorsese's help, Schoonmaker was finally admitted to the union. The two collaborated on Raging Bull, which garnered Schoonmaker an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.
She was introduced to Michael Powell by Scorsese and London-based film producer Frixos Constantine. The couple were married from May 19, 1984 until his death in 1990. The couple had no children.
Since Powell's death, Schoonmaker has dedicated herself to preserving the films and honoring the legacy of her husband, who directed many classic films, including The Red Shoes.
With eight Academy Award nominations, Schoonmaker tied with Michael Kahn for being the most-nominated editor in Academy Awards history. Tied with Kahn, Daniel Mandell, and Ralph Dawson, she also holds the record for the most wins in the category of Best Editing, with three.
In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild published a list of the 75 best-edited films of all time based on a survey of its membership. Three films edited by Schoonmaker with Scorsese are on this list: Raging Bull (1980), listed first, Goodfellas (1990), listed fifteenth, and Hugo (2011), listed sixty-ninth. Only George Tomasini, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock's films in the 1950s, has more appearances on this list.
|1971||Best Film Editing||Woodstock||Nominated|
|2003||Gangs of New York||Nominated|
Other awards and nominations