Thelma Schoonmaker has worked in film editing as the dependable and immensely capable sidekick of director Martin Scorcese for decades. Her work with Scorcese has earned her many awards, including Oscars for Best Achievement in Film Editing in 1981 for “Raging Bull” (1980), in 2005 for “The Aviator” (2004) and in 2006 for “The Departed” (2005). She’s received seven nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Through the years she’s also cut and spliced other directors’ footage, including that for Michael Wadleigh’s groundbreaking “Woodstock” (1970), which won an Oscar in the documentary category in 1970. For her work on that film she received her first Oscar nomination. Scorcese also had a hand in editing Wadleigh’s production.
Schoonmaker met Scorcese in 1967 when he was a film student and they were both enrolled in a summer course in filmmaking at New York University. He was having trouble with the post-production of his student film “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” The person who cut his negative had botched the job by not leaving enough room for hot splicing.
A professor asked Schoonmaker to help the filmmaker. She knew about editing because she had answered a newspaper ad for a position as a film-editing assistant with on-the-job training. Though she concluded that the person she worked under wasn’t doing a good job in cutting foreign films for U.S. screens, she learned the basics of film editing and grasped why it was so important to making a film.
Schoonmaker edited “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” (1967), Scorcese’s first feature. The union required that film editors do an apprenticeship and then work as an assistant editor. Schoonmaker didn’t want to do that. For 12 years she edited documentaries and took on small projects until Scorcese was able to get her in the union. Beginning with “Raging Bull,” she has edited every Scorcese film.
Film editing is a collaborative process between director and editor. Scorcese and Schoonmaker are noted for their use of freeze frames in such movies as “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Likewise, they artfully used flash to move the narrative forward in films such as “Raging Bull,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed.”
Scorcese and Schoonmaker’s lives have also intertwined in personal ways. While she was editing “Raging Bull,” Scorcese and a British producer introduced her to Michael Powell, the British director. They were married from 1984 until his passing in 1990.
Powell directed such well-received films as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943) and “The Red Shoes” (1948). The latter won an Oscar for best foreign film. She and Scorcese are working on restoring some of her late husband’s neglected films.
Schoonmaker was born abroad to American parents. in 2019 she was awarded the Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. the highest honor it bestows to an individual.