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Cutter's Way 

Editor Dede Allen

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
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Photo by Kathleen Clark"JESUS, I'M SORRY," SAYS FILM EDITOR DEDE ALLEN, striding into an office at Todd A-O studios, an hour late for her interview. It's a telling, if slightly startling, apology -- as the robust 76-year-old great-grandmother demonstrates over the course of a conversation, she has an ease with an oath that betrays years spent cooped up in the company of men. Men such as Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks), Robert Rossen (The Hustler), Sydney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon), Warren Beatty (Reds) and Elia Kazan (America, America), to name just a few (and not to mention the many other editors she's trained over the years). Lately she's been shut up with the guys once again -- this time it's director Curtis Hanson, as they labor over the filmmaker's latest picture, Wonder Boys.

"I'll tell you the interesting thing about being a woman in a man's field," she says about her life in the industry. "I always found the hardest thing was to remain a woman and not be considered -- what's the expression? -- a ballbuster." Allen once told author Vincent Lobrutto, "Women of my generation are more used to serving someone else creatively." And though, for better or worse, that idea is a truism, persistence, "brutal honesty" and the confidence to back up her ideas (Allen calls herself a "gut" editor) have been at the heart of the woman's work since the beginning.

It was in the early 1940s, after Allen had completed her sophomore year at Scripps, when, dying to direct, the teenager seized a chance to get her foot in the door as one of Columbia's first messenger "girls." Through sheer determination, a good amount of pestering and an ability to "carry more film than anyone," Allen doggedly worked her way up to assistant film editor, detouring first through the sound-effects and trailer departments. She had gone freelance, married and relocated to New York, when her mentor, Carl Lerner, recommended her to Robert Wise (who had edited Citizen Kane) as a possible cutter for his 1959 film Odds Against Tomorrow. The film was her big break -- The Hustler and America, America followed -- but it was Penn's Bonnie and Clyde that established Allen as one of cinema's most innovative editors.

She knew that the film would be special. "I had a feeling from the day I read the script," says Allen. "I knew it was gonna be different." Her work on the movie broke several steadfast rules of editing (the decision to follow a fade-out with a cut-in -- as opposed to a fade-in -- drove Jack Warner nuts, Allen remembers with a laugh), and the result was a film of unprecedented dynamics, with a speed and energy that both boosted and echoed the Depression antiheroes' shooting-star trajectory. Warner Bros. hated Allen's work, however, and proved it by firing her just before the film was completed. Outraged, producer Beatty was determined that the editor finish the film and put her on his personal payroll. The struggles between studio and filmmakers didn't end there, yet the more Warner Bros. tried to push Allen down, she recalls, the higher Beatty elevated her status. With Bonnie and Clyde, Allen was the first editor in the industry to receive solo credit for editing, and the influence of her watershed cutting can be seen in film and television to this day. But Allen is loath to take too much credit for herself. (Others are more willing to praise -- Allen just received a Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.)

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"It's such a collaborative effort," she says, diplomatically declining to name films she's shaped most directly, adding that an editor friend (who had "saved a couple of pictures that were in deep shit") nearly ruined his career by asserting his artistry. "You can't do the work," Allen says, "unless you're allowed to."

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