Film editor and director

Born: December 12th 1925

Died: May 8th 2018

Anne V. Coates, who has died aged 92, was a British film editor who rose to the top of her industry at a time when behind-the-scenes roles were overwhelmingly male-dominated, and stayed there for more than six decades.

Nominated five times for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing – winning once for what remains possibly her most famous work, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – and the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2017, the list of films for which she received the Academy’s recognition is testament to the longevity and variety of her career.

Following Lean’s masterpiece, Coates’ other nominations were for the O’Toole and Richard Burton-starring stage adaptation Becket (nominated in 1965); David Lynch’s sparse, black and white horror-biography The Elephant Man (1981); and Steven Soderbergh’s pulp action thriller Out of Sight (1999).

Her achievements are thrown into even starker contrast when it’s remembered that the first film she edited was director Noel Langley’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers in 1952, and the last was Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2015 adaptation of EL James’ softcore erotic drama Fifty Shades of Grey, as she approached her 90th birthday.

In 1986, at 60 – an age when many may have been thinking seriously about retirement– Coates moved from England to Hollywood, where she began a three-decade career resurgence. While previously she had worked in Britain on a range of films including the aviation comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Sidney Lumet’s all-star Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express (1974), her slate of work in Hollywood was eclectic, and generally high-profile where it may not always have been critically acclaimed.

Her first all-American production was Milos Forman’s turn-of-the-20th-century American epic Ragtime (1981), adapted from the EL Doctorow novel. After her move to the States Coates worked on Frank Oz’ psychoanalysis comedy What About Bob?, Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin (1992), Frank Marshall’s sci-fi action thriller Congo (1995), the Oscar-winning Erin Brockovich (2000), and Chris Weitz’ big-budget Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass (2007).

To less critical acclaim, she also edited live-action toy tie-in Masters of the Universe (1987); the panned Demi Moore erotic comedy Striptease (1996); Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s penultimate film together Out to Sea (1997); and the largely unremembered, Harrison Ford-starring medical drama Extraordinary Measures (2010). Yet the content of the films she worked on, successful or otherwise, was secondary to the hugely impressive fact that not only was she at the top of her game many years after others may have retired, but that she did so even as digital editing technology was changing the face of her industry.

It’s Lawrence of Arabia for which Coates will be most remembered - in particular one scene which is often discussed by aficionados of filmmaking technique, in which O’Toole’s Lawrence blows out a smouldering match held between his fingers. At the moment of the flame’s expiry the scene cuts outdoors to a blazing red sun on the desert horizon. In total 31 miles of footage was shot and had to be sifted through for the Lawrence edit, yet Coates also pointed to the trickiness of both The Elephant Man – where producer Mel Brooks insisted that Merrick’s face not be visible until late in his first scene, although it hadn’t been filmed that way – and In the Line of Fire, in which she physically edited footage of a younger Eastwood from 1971’s Dirty Harry into a flashback scene.

Anne Voase Coates was born in 1925 in Reigate, Surrey, the daughter of Kathleen and Major Laurence Coates. She initially wanted to be a racehorse trainer and worked as a nurse, yet her interest in film was fired by William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Despite the fact that her uncle on her mother’s side was British movie magnate J. Arthur Rank, she worked her way up, earning her union accreditation by editing religious films for a small UK production company.

By the time she was offered the chance to move into direction she was married to Douglas Hickox (himself a director; the couple split in 1988) and had three children, so decided against the family upheaval a career change would bring. Her sons Anthony and James became film directors, while her daughter Emma is also an editor and her brother John Coates was a producer.

“I usually choose a film I would like to work on because of the director... and of course very much for the script,” Coates once said. “I never cut ultra-violent films, and I choose them for the location. I love exotic places!”

Among her many other awards were a BAFTA Fellowship, four BAFTA nominations and a Career Achievement Award from American Cinema Editors.

David Pollock