Anne V. Coates, 1925–2018
The film editor who became a Hollywood icon
Anne V. Coates’ mastery as a film editor is epitomized by one of cinema’s most celebrated cuts. In an early scene in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, British army officer T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) learns that he is being sent to the Arabian Peninsula and then blows out a burning match. Instantly, the action cuts to an orange sun rising over scorched desert sands. The cut—conceived by Coates—has been hailed as a master class in how film editors can splice together a director’s raw footage to transport viewers through space and time. Coates won an Academy Award for Lawrence of Arabia and would receive four more Oscar nominations over her six-decade career. “Can you imagine a job,” she said while accepting a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2016, “where you get paid to look into the eyes of George Clooney and Peter O’Toole?”
Born to “an impeccably bourgeois family” in southern England, “Coates was not allowed to go to the cinema as a child,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Nevertheless, she fell in love with the silver screen as a teenager and vowed to break into the movie business. She first had to overcome the objections of her uncle, English film producer J. Arthur Rank, said The New York Times. Devoutly religious, Rank was determined to protect his niece “from the fleshpots of cinema.” Coates trained as a nurse and for a while worked in a plastic surgery center, treating disfigured World War II veterans. Rank ultimately relented, finding her a job working on religious films for churches.
“At the time, film editing was considered an unglamorous technical job that was often filled by women,” said The Washington Post. Coates had her first film credit in 1952 with The Pickwick Papers; for Lawrence of Arabia, she “had to make visual sense of 33 miles of raw footage.” Coates ultimately worked on more than 50 films, with Oscar nominations for Becket (1964), The Elephant Man (1980), In the Line of Fire (1993), and Out of Sight (1998). Her final film credit was 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which she claimed she tried to sex up. “I would have had her trussed up like a suitcase and hoisted to the ceiling,” she said, “but [the producers] worried they wouldn’t get the R rating.”