It’s late morning on the set of Turner Classic Movies’ annual “Trailblazing Women” film festival and host Illeana Douglas and Star Wars: The Force Awakens editor Maryann Brandon are deep in a discussion about the blood-spattered violent climax of the game-changing 1967 Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway classic Bonnie and Clyde. Edited by Dede Allen, the explicit scene captured the late 1960s counter-culture zeitgeist while ushering in a new era for graphic violence.
“She just milks that tension,” explains Brandon, who got to know Allen early in her career. “Here’s this happy couple. He’s got these cool sunglasses on and they’re riding off into the sunset. Then she slowly unravels it. The trees rustle. She slows everything down. As an editor, you want the audience going, ‘No, no, no!’ It’s the same reason 50 years later, we slowed down time with Rey’s light saber fight scene in Force Awakens. We wanted to slow it down so the audience can enjoy it.”
Welcome to the fascinating third annual “Trailblazing Women,” a month-long examination of female filmmakers, airing each Monday in October on TCM beginning at 8 p.m. This year Douglas, a producer, writer, actress, director, and granddaughter of Hollywood legend Melvyn Douglas, and her industry co-hosts, including Brandon, Mrs. Doubtfire screenwriter Leslie Dixon, Hustle and Flow producer Stephanie Allain, and legendary One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest editor Lynzee Klingman, are focusing on women who worked behind the scenes on some of Hollywood’s most iconic films, including 1925’s Ben Hur, 1939’s The Women, and 1937’s A Star is Born.
For film fans, “Trailblazing Women” allows viewers to take a fresh look at some of their favorite films through the perspectives of the women who worked as screenwriters, producers, and editors like Dede Allen, who, with their skills and foresight, helped elevate American film to an art form.
“Dede looked at the heart of a scene,” explains Brandon. “She never held back. That voice was going to come out regardless. That’s why I tell young actors, love your editor!”
Between segments in Turner Broadcasting’s green room in Midtown, Douglas says she’s thrilled to be back for the program’s third year because it gives TCM an opportunity to educate viewers about women like Dede Allen and their immense contributions to the industry.
“The hardest part each year is deciding who to focus on because there are so many great examples of women working behind the scenes,” says Douglas. “This year we opted to focus on female producers, writers, and editors, because they are literally never seen and nobody ever talks about them. But they’ve guided so many of our most iconic films.”
“What I personally love about doing this,” Douglas says, “is that even if you select a film like Singin’ in the Rain, a movie I’ve seen probably 100 times, you get to focus on the genius of the two screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. They were literally handed a title and 20 songs and told, ‘Come up with an original story that makes sense, serves all the dancers and manages to have witty dialogue.’ By shifting the focus to the work of Comden and Green, it gives us all a chance to think about the film from an entirely new perspective.”
And editors like Maryann Brandon are taking the life lessons from mentors like Dede Allen and applying them to our modern classics as well. Just as Allen seductively built the tension leading into Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody finale, Brandon used the same technique leading up to the first onscreen reunion of Han Solo and General Leia after nearly 35 years in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Says Brandon, who co-edited the film alongside Mary Jo Markey: “It took us a while for us to realize the power of that reunion. But [Director] J.J. Abrams absolutely knew what the audience expectation was going to be. We knew we had to have those scenes of Leia before she sees Han again. Through the power of editing, we held off bringing them together. And then, when she does finally walk off that ship and sees him, it has real impact. I remember us realizing, ‘Wow, this is going to be powerful.’”
TCM’s “Trailblazing Women” also sheds fresh light on the contributions women had on the dawn of Hollywood—there were more women working as producers, screenwriters, editors, and directors in 1917 than there are working in those same roles in 2017.
Between segments, Dear White People producer Stephanie Allain explains, “Women were the first film editors in Hollywood because it was a job the men didn’t want to do. It was, ‘Go work in the dark and come back with something we can use.’ They weren’t even called film editors. They were called cutters. It’s a tough business. I tell young people, ‘If you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a black woman, prepare to do more.’ It’s about attention to the work ethic. That helps eliminate some of the bias. They see you’ve done the homework.”
“For women who work in Hollywood together, there’s a sisterhood,” Allain says. “We’re already up against the system, the old boys’ network. At this point in my career, I’m calling other women to help me produce. It’s our job to mentor and give the next generation fresh opportunities so we can all move forward.”
For Limitless producer and screenwriter Leslie Dixon, getting to discuss Dorothy Parker’s screenplay for 1937’s A Star is Born gives her an opportunity to honor an early writing influence. “So many young women wanted to be Dorothy Parker,” she says. “Well, okay, minus the alcoholism. But the reason Parker succeeded at getting more screen credits than William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald, who were also big name writers being lured out to Hollywood at the time, is that they excelled at longform narratives and she was such a burst of short nasty wit. It dovetailed better into feature films. She became the go-to person for punching up film scripts.”
Douglas is already mentally planning the 2018 edition of the festival. “I’m really hoping to do female comedians,” she says. “There are so many women, especially in the silent era, who helped to create film comedy, such as [actress, producer, writer, and director] Mabel Normand, who worked with [silent director] Mack Sennett. There’s a through-line there from those silent comedies to today. But I also want to examine the work of Lucille Ball, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, and the various styles of film comedy they represented. And I want to spotlight the work of the more modern comedy screenwriters like Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher.”
“From costumers to musicians, we’ll never run out of ideas,” Douglas says. “It’s an opportunity to take a fresh look at these classic films while giving these women some long overdue credit for the impact they’ve had on our industry.”