WRITER’S NOTE: 2012 marks the 70th birthday of Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese. So during the year, the National Classic Cinema Examiner will present a series of articles marking this great milestone. This article looks at the long collaboration between Scorsese and Academy Award-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Martin Scorsese has worked with several actors more than once – the likes of De Niro, Pesci, Keitel and DiCaprio come to mind. He has also brought in the same composers (Howard Shore & Robbie Robertson) and cinematographers (Robert Richardson & Michael Ballhaus) for several films. Yet Scorsese’s most significant collaboration on film may be the one responsible who sculpts his ultimate vision together.
During a 45-year union through more than two dozen films and other projects, Thelma Schoonmaker has been Scorsese’s go-to editor – and has been rewarded in the form of three Academy Awards. From Raging Bull to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” from GoodFellas to The Departed, her hands were the ones that ultimately touched Scorsese’s work after the cast and crew were finished working with him. She would be the eyes for Scorsese’s vision to come to the way he wanted it, and helped make cinema history along the way. It also didn’t hurt to have Schoonmaker be married to British filmmaking legend Michael Powell, a man Scorsese would call one of his inspirations as a director.
Schoonmaker first met Scorsese while they were students at New York University, and she helped edit his first feature, the 1967 coming-of-age comedy Who’s That Knocking at My Door? She would re-join Scorsese and director Michael Wadleigh for the ultimate rock documentary, chronicling the 1969 Woodstock Arts and Music Festival in New York State. Her creative editing movements earned Schoonmaker her first Oscar nomination, yet she wouldn’t work with Scorsese again for a long time. She wouldn’t be involved in the making of some of Scorsese’s first classics, such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Yet as the ’70s ended, that would soon change.
It was until 1980 when the two former students re-connected, with Schoonmaker editing Scorsese’s boxing drama Raging Bull. The biopic about boxer Jake LaMotta earned Schoonmaker her first Academy Award, and its stunning visual drama made Raging Bull one of the decade’s landmarks. Soon after reuniting, Schoonmaker would remain a vital force in Scorsese’s line of collaborators – ultimately becoming one of his longest-tenured. Since Raging Bull, she has remained his sole editor.
Schoonmaker has taken part in many notable Scorsese projects, and not just for the big screen. She even edited Scorsese’s music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” and his short films “Life Lessons” (for the 1989 anthology New York Stories), “Made in Milan” (released in 1990) & the Hitchcock-inspired “The Key to Reserva” (released in 2007). She was also brought in by Scorsese for his TV documentary on American films “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese” and as a consultant for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (with Scorsese directing the pilot).
Yet Schoonmaker’s editing eyes have been responsible for Scorsese’s visions on film – from notable critically-acclaimed classics (GoodFellas, The Aviator) to the controversial and underrated works (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun). Schoonmaker is so connected with Scorsese, she rarely edits for any other filmmaker – save for her work on Allison Anders’ 1996 singer-songwriter drama set in the ’60s, Grace of My Heart (though Scorsese was named as one of that film’s producers).
Martin Scorsese has seen many actors and craftsmen come and go through various projects – yet for more than three decades, Thelma Schoonmaker has been a constant. Whether behind a box office hit, a critical disappointment, or an Oscar-winning success, Schoonmaker has edited over a dozen feature films for her long-time friend. She is the last hurdle that stands between a collection of film and a finished product for audiences to see. The trust has paid off over and over, as Schoonmaker has remained the only person given the responsibility of making a Scorsese picture a “Scorsese picture” worth seeing.