The art of film editing is arguably the most unheralded, most crucial part of filmmaking—a craft that can rescue a difficult production process, reshape a tortured performance, or hone an already great work into something perfect. It’s a quiet and hermetic activity, largely performed in tiny studios for weeks and months on end, lacking in Hollywood glitz and glamor but pivotal to packaging someone’s star image. Anne V. Coates, who died Tuesday at the age of 92, was a peerless master in her field. Her varied career saw her work alongside David Lean, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, and Sidney Lumet and become only the second editor ever given an honorary Academy Award.
A woman who stood out in a field that employed mostly men, Coates often spoke of her long career with the kind of biting wit and attention to intimate detail that also shone through in her films. Her most famous movie moment is the literal “match cut” in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, which cuts from a shot of Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) blowing out a match to a hazy desert sunset. It was a moment born out of necessity—she and the director, Lean, didn’t have the technology on location to insert a planned dissolve, and ended up loving the simpler version that resulted.
Coates, like any of the best editors, could take that kind of serendipity and turn it into something that felt deliberate and powerful. She was someone who evolved with her art, moving from the UK’s post-war Pinewood Studios to the height of Hollywood, from manually pasting together pieces of celluloid to cutting on a computer. One of her first jobs was as an assistant editor on the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes (1948); her last was on Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), which she thought “could have been a little more raunchy.” She worked in every genre and eventually sought out directors who could “stretch” her in the way that Soderbergh, with whom she collaborated on Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, did.
Out of Sight was the first movie Coates edited on an Avid, a digital system that was becoming the film-industry standard in the 1990s. She was already one of the most legendary editors in Hollywood history, having won an Oscar in 1963 for her work on Lawrence of Arabia, but she was worried about adapting to the new technology.