The splice of life

Anne V. Coates’ uncle, famed British movie producer J. Arthur Rank (“The Red Shoes”), wasn’t thrilled when he learned she wanted to join the family business as an editor. But she had discovered the magical power of cinema when she saw William Wyler’s 1939 classic version of “Wuthering Heights.”

“I fell madly in love with Laurence Olivier like everybody else did,” Coates recalls.

Her uncle, though, “thought I was interested in the glamour and sleeping around with the stars,” says the 83-year-old Oscar-winning film editor of “Lawrence of Arabia” and many other memorable films. “Being a rather religious man, he was trying to clean up all that behavior. I had to persuade him I was really interested in making movies.”

While waiting for her uncle to heed her request, she became a nurse. Finally, he got her a job. “He did quite a clever thing,” she says. “He brought me into religious films. He thought ‘that will dampen her ardor.’ ”


Not a chance.

Six decades and dozens of films later, Coates is a legend and role model among film editors. Besides winning the Oscar for David Lean’s 1962 epic about adventurer T.E. Lawrence, she also received nominations for 1964’s “Becket,” directed by Peter Glenville, 1980’s “The Elephant Man,” directed by David Lynch, 1993’s “In the Line of Fire,” directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and 1998’s “Out of Sight,” directed by Steven Soderbergh. She also edited Soderbergh’s 2000 hit “Erin Brockovich.”

For the last several months, she’s been cutting the drama “Extraordinary Measures,” starring Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser and directed by Tom Vaughan (“Starter for 10"). The film is set to open next year.

Her office at CBS Studio Center in Studio City is adorned with posters from her films. And pictured in freeze frame on several of her editing monitors as she discusses her career is the smiling face of Ford in a scene from “Extraordinary Measures.”


Though her uncle tried to dissuade her from the film industry, Coates often had her three children, Anthony, James and Emma Hickox, in the editing room. Anthony and James followed the career path of their father, the late director Douglas Hickox, and Emma turned to editing.

She waited until her children were educated in England before she moved to Los Angeles. “I came over on the movie ‘Raw Deal,’ in 1986,” she says. “I always wanted to live here for various reasons, including the weather. I always joke that valet parking was one of my main reasons for living here. I just fitted in.”

Coates is venturing out of her editing room for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Perspective on Editing seminar tonight at the Linwood Dunn Theater. Her program, Profile of an Editing Master, is sold out, but there will be a standby line outside the theater at 5:30 p.m.

Don’t expect her to get too technical in her discussion. “I am going to show excerpts from films and tell anecdotes. I am much better talking about people and situations,” she explains.

She’ll be talking about her earlier years when she worked on religious films in England learning projection and sound, “which was quite useful. I enjoyed it.” She realized she couldn’t get a job in the major film industry unless she was in the union. And she couldn’t be in the union unless she had a job in the major film industry. But as luck would have it, the union arrived one day at the religious film company to sign up the employees. Most were content with the status quo. But Coates wasn’t. “I said, ‘give me that form.’ ”

Union membership in hand, Coates went for a job interview at Pinewood Studios to be a second assistant in the cutting room. “I always tell this story to students that I lied my way through the interview by exaggerating what I could do because I hadn’t worked in a cutting room. I said ‘yes’ to everything they asked.”

By 1947, Coates had learned the ins and outs of cutting and was named first assistant to editor Reggie Mills on the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger production “The End of the River.”

Mills was also cutting the Powell-Pressburger classic “The Red Shoes” at the same time. “And I would help him with the splicing on that,” Coates says.


She gained even more experience when she worked as first assistant with another veteran editor who would leave at 4 p.m. to tend to his garden. “He would say, ‘You finish it.’ So on my second or third movie as first assistant, I was finishing off his work. No one really taught me anything about editing. You learn by watching.”

Though she was one of the few women working in the boys club of the British film industry, Coates never felt like an outsider. “I mixed in very easily,” Coates says of her early days in film. “I had three brothers. My best friends were boys. I never felt like a woman. I felt like an assistant like the others.”

She credits director Ken Annakin for promoting her out of the ranks of first assistant to assembly editor on the 1952 Walt Disney production “The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men,” which was shot in England.

That same year, she got her first job as a full-fledged editor on “The Pickwick Papers,” based on the Charles Dickens novel and directed by Noel Langley. There was a proviso. “If I didn’t make out in the first two or three weeks, they would bring an editor over me,” she says.

“That was really nerve-racking. He was a first-time director and what he was doing wasn’t that great. Even an experienced editor would have problems. I was thinking, maybe, I would get replaced. When they did a courtroom sequence and somehow I just got it right, from then on I was golden. And thankfully, I never really looked back.”

For more information on this evening’s seminar, go to