Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Cutting Corners With Film Editor Sam O’Steen

Anyone who loves The Graduate admires the work of Sam O’Steen. He was the film editor who gave us such remarkable images as Benjamin Braddock sliding onto a swimming pool raft that suddenly becomes the body of Mrs. Robinson in bed at the Taft Hotel. In the course of a forty-five year career, O’Steen edited twelve films for the late, great Mike Nichols. Nichols encouraged him to be on the set during filming, so he could make suggestions that aided his work in the editing room. Here’s one more of his unique contributions: instead of simply intercutting between the nude Mrs. Robinson and the reactions of a very startled Benjamin, Sam juxtaposed quick flashes of her undraped body with an elaborate triple-take (Dustin Hoffman repeatedly whipping his head around). In his enlightening 2001 book, Cut to the Chase, O’Steen explains this as a sample of subliminal editing. He credits Sidney Lumet with pioneering this approach in The Pawnbroker; he himself considered it for Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf before trying it out in The Graduate. It’s not a logical moment: Ben’s eyes don’t match up with the body parts he’s glimpsing with such astonishment. Instead, O’Steen is following the principle of “cutting for performance, for the build-up of Benjamin’s panic.” 

His work with Mike Nichols is only one facet of  O’Steen’s career, which spanned the years 1961 to 1999. He also edited such classics as Cool Hand Luke, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown. As a director, he was Emmy-nominated for Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1976), starring Maureen Stapleton as a widow who finds a new lease on life through ballroom dancing. But though he was still directing as late as 1985, the editing room continued to be his real home. Fortunitiously, it led him to a long, happy marriage to a fellow editor with whom he had four daughters. Cut to the Chase is as much Bobbie O’Steen’s book as it is that of Sam himself. It’s basically a Q & A in which she quizzes him about every facet of his career. The fact that she knows the field and is intimately familiar with Sam’s best stories means that the answers she elicits are well worth hearing. The book is not short on good old-fashioned gossip about Hollywood personalities, but it also provides real insight into the tricky business of reshaping movies in the cutting room.

 Some of my favorite stories involve a 1979 debacle called Hurricane, produced by the outrageous Dino De Laurentiis. Here’s IMDB’s capsule description: “The desperate love affair between a young Samoan chief and an American painter, against the will of her father. Amid this man-made tension comes a hurricane so devastating, the lives of the lovers and the entire island are imperiled.” De Laurentiis insisted that this pulpy saga be shot in beautiful but remote Bora Bora, which at the time had no telephone service and no natural resources beyond fish and tropical fruit. Everything had to be shipped in from L.A.: sets, thousands of yards of fabric for costumes, and so on. De Laurentiis built a hotel to house cast and crew, then flew in two of Italy’s best chefs, along with enough food and drink to feed an army. Naturally, everyone went stir-crazy. O’Steen, not one to mince words, bluntly describes star Mia Farrow “eye-fucking” (and more) both director Jan Troell and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. And co-star Timothy Hutton, who turned paranoid during the shoot, is still infamous for the day he peed on De Laurentiis’s spiffy Italian loafers.

More Sam O’Steen to come!


  1. Looking forward to it! I always enjoy tales from the Hollywood trenches - and what a great span of time he worked in! Thanks for pointing out this book - it's on my Wish List now!

  2. You'll enjoy it, Mr. C. More on Sam O'Steen to come -- I just can't resist!