The Art, Craft, Politics & Passion Of Dede Allen
by Betsy A. McLane
Dede Allen: Editing the Cinema of Compassion
by Nancy LeMay
E-book edition, 2015
Available as free download from Apple iBooks
In the 1970s, she changed the way that American movies looked and felt. Today, she is regarded as one of the greatest of all film editors, but during her life, Dede Allen, ACE, was often the outsider — even sometimes seen as a threat. In her charming e-book biography Dede Allen: Editing the Cinema of Compassion, Nancy LeMay details the artistic, political and psychological conditions that made Allen a major force in the second half of 20th century filmmaking.
Allen chose film early on, knowing by the age of 19 that she wanted to direct, a challenging ambition for a girl born in 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio. While her father worked for Union Carbide, her mother was actress, and Allen credited her mother with modeling an early understanding of acting and character construction.
Dede survived an eclectic, often lonely Depression-era childhood after her father died, shuttling among various family members and schools. To be closer to the film business, she enrolled at Scripps College in Claremont, California, and after spending a summer in Los Angeles pounding the pavement for a job at the studios, she left school to become a messenger for Colombia Pictures. She and another young woman, Faith Elliot, were the first female messengers on the lot, quite probably because the men were away serving in World War II.
Dede Allen in 1947.
Faith and Dede’s friendship was lifelong, as were many of her professional, political and artistic relationships. (Faith later married John Hubley with whom she created one of America’s great independent animation studios.) Dede also joined the Actor’s Lab (the West Coast version of New York’s Actor’s Studio) participating in every facet of stagecraft, and quietly took editing classes at the University of Southern California — where there were 20 students to one Griswold Splicer. “In those days, you never told anyone that you were studying film or going to school,” Dede stated much later. “It was not looked upon with much respect, and you were branded as ‘pushy,’ an unladylike quality.”
LeMay’s book is best when recounting personal details like these. In her introduction, she explains, “I had the great joy and privilege of spending many hours with this woman over more than a decade. With our spouses, we had drinks, went to dinner and screenings, or just sat and yakked, sharing cake and tea.” Editing the Cinema of Compassion is very much an appreciation of Dede Allen the woman as well as the consummate craftsperson, but LeMay goes beyond personal reminiscence. She employs archives and resources, mostly first person accounts, especially those in Allen’s own voice: lectures, interviews, Q&A sessions and profiles.
Dede Allen in 1973.
Most importantly, LeMay arranged a series of formal interviews with Allen beginning in 2007, and took on the role as de facto archivist of her personal papers immediately following Allen’s death in 2010. Key among these papers was stack of legal-size documents that Allen called “The Time Log” — a comprehensive record of everything she could learn or remember about her life from birth until the time of her mother’s death in 1980. LeMay also conducted interviews with Allen’s husband of over 60 years, Stephen Fleischman, and relied upon his book A Red in the House: The Unauthorized Memoir of S.E. Fleischman, particularly for information about the couples’ left-wing political convictions and struggles during the Blacklist years.
Allen became a “script girl” at Colombia after 10 months as a messenger and was involved in union organizing for Continuity (the script supervisors) in 1945-46, when she stayed out for eight months. During the strike, IATSE sound editors charged these Continuity organizers with being Communists, a label that continued to follow Allen. That association did not stop her from returning to work at Columbia as a sound effects apprentice, a job consisting of hauling reels up and down three flights of stairs.
She soon became a sound editor, working mostly on cheap three-reelers. During this time, she met her soon-to-be husband Stephen Fleischman, ultimately moving with him to New York City, where in 1953 he joined the famed documentary unit at CBS News. Dede worked as a picture editor on commercials and industrials, and cut the very low-budget feature Terror from the Year 5000 for American International Pictures in 1958.
Dede Allen editing Dog Day Afternoon in 1975.
This eventually contributed to her being hired by former-editor-now-director Robert Wise to cut his last black-and-white picture, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Wise selected Allen from around 40 candidates in part because of her background in sound editing — the same place he began. This film set the pattern for her career: serious, social issue content combined with a distinctly original style. A year later, Dede was hired by Robert Rossen to edit The Hustler (1961) and there was no looking back.
The Hustler, one of many studio pictures made in New York during this period not only employed jump cuts, it shockingly introduced the leading lady, Piper Laurie, in the credits (which Allen and Rossen did themselves) from the back. Despite protests from 20th Century-Fox, the edit stood and the film has become a classic. Allen became a big part of the edgy, new film style identified with New York in the 1960s and ’70s.
Major films followed regularly: America, America (1963, Elia Kazan), Bonnie & Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn), Rachel, Rachel (1968, Paul Newman), Alice's Restaurant (1969, Penn), Little Big Man (1970, Penn), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972, George Roy Hill), Serpico (1973, Sidney Lumet), Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Lumet), Night Moves (1975, Penn), The Missouri Breaks (1976, Penn) and Reds (1981, Warren Beatty). Each of these is considered by LeMay, principally through quotations from the productions’ participants.
Bonnie and Clyde.
Especially noteworthy is Bonnie and Clyde
, renowned for its radical use of fade out followed by cut in, and Jack Warner’s response to the technique: “I never saw such stuff in my life!” The final slow-motion shooting sequence of Bonnie and Clyde
(which can be seen at (www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrmUpso_xT8
) was actually not cut by Allen; she was always quick to give that credit to her assistant, Jerry Greenberg (now ACE). However, the color of that film was hers. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey (who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for the film) was on location and could not do the final color correction. The preview screened in deep, rich Technicolor, but Allen and the lab created the memorable faded look, going only on Penn’s direction to make it look “Japanese.” Allen supervised the entire process, spending a week at Technicolor de-saturating the picture.
Allen herself never won an Oscar, although she was nominated for Wonder Boys (2000), Reds (1982) and Dog Day Afternoon (1976). LeMay hints that the lack of statuettes stemmed from Academy members’ anti-New York bias or anti-woman bias — or possibly a hangover from the “Red Scare.”
Dede Allen in the early 1980s.
It is in her generalizations about the film industry, the arts, politics and the zeitgeist of American life that LeMay’s work falters. Her need to correlate Allen’s art and craft to society is understandable. Her subject was deeply involved in social justice, both personally and professionally, but to make such connections without the documentation to back them up undermines the book.
There is also a lack of rigor in the chronology and instances of wrong names that make it difficult to keep personalities and places straight. LeMay attempts to contextualize Allen’s struggles as a woman in a man’s world (she learned to use choice swear words to be accepted in the sound department of Colombia, and became close friends with future National Organization of Women — aka NOW — founder Betty Friedan in the early 1950s), but LeMay never addresses the reasons why Allen did not become a director.
These failings aside, Editing the Cinema of Compassion is a fascinating read. The stories surrounding Reds (making it led to a breakdown) or Alice’s Restaurant (actors were truly stoned) among others make the book compelling, and it is a joy to have Allen’s own insights into editing.
Dede Allen with Warren Beatty, who presented her with the Editors Guild's Fellowship and Service Award in 2008.
The reader will thank LeMay for gifts such as Allen’s summation of The Breakfast Club: “The head of the studio at the time did not like the picture. He kept calling it a group therapy session! It’s basically talking heads…and the job of the editor is to keep the talking heads moving. For me, it is a matter of feeling. I know what the characters are and what they are doing in a particular scene. In The Breakfast Club, what each character was doing was so important. The irony is that a very good editor who has won three or four Academy Awards said to me, ‘Oh, I couldn’t figure out why you took that picture. I thought it was so cute but it was so simple.’ It wasn’t simple at all. It was a very difficult picture to cut. I figured, if this guy doesn’t understand, nobody understands.”
Betsy A. McLane is the author of A New History of Documentary Film: Second Edition. She served as the project director of the American Documentary Showcase, and was the executive director of the International Documentary Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org