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Oscar Expert Mark Harris: Ban Actors, Writers From Voting on Sound and Editing

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in 'The Social Network
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Oscarologist and Pictures at a Revolution author Mark Harris has a revolutionary idea: common sense in Oscar voting for sound and editing awards.

"I'd like to see the sound category winners voted on by sound people only, not the whole membership," says Harris, "and same with best film editing -- editors, who know it when they see it, should pick the winner. I think these are categories it requires real expertise to judge. Most actors and writers I know don't even know the difference between 'sound editing' and 'sound mixing,' let alone how to judge what's best. So they tend to vote for the movies they like or the LOUDEST movies, which is ridiculous."

That sounds intriguing to Emmy-winning Temple Grandin editor Leo Trombetta, who did my favorite edit ever on Mad Men: the jolting cut from a close-up of Don Draper's seduced, besotted secretary's face when she expects a romantic note in his Christmas card to a startling wide shot when she realizes he's buried all memory of their tryst and she'll never get another caress, just her $100 annual bonus. In the context of the show's tightly controlled style, the subtle edit feels like a punch in the stomach.

"There's a huge difference between cutting and editing," says Trombetta. "One is merely craft, which is certainly important, but it isn't enough. The other requires a sensitivity to both story construction and performance. Maintaining a consistent tone throughout a scene that may have been shot over a period of days or even weeks. Seamlessly constructing a performance from dozens of takes that may be wildly different from each other and finding the right spot to make each cut so that it doesn't pull the viewer out of the moment. These are the things that, if done well, are all but invisible to an audience, which is why it's often a challenge to judge someone else's work. For me, the moments I'm most proud of are those where I don't notice the editing and I'm wrapped up in the emotion of the story."

Actors can judge acting. Still, it's fair to say that "Best Performance by an Actor" could also be called "Best Wildly Different Performances by an Actor Meticulously, Rhythmically Assembled from Hundreds of Takes to Appear to Be One Unbroken Performance." But the orchestra would have to play the presenters off before they got to the list of nominees.

"I think it's interesting and maybe meaningful that, with one exception, the editors all shared a nomination with the film's directors," says Trombetta, "indicating to me that the two categories are regarded as similar." True Grit is the exception. When I told Joel Coen an editor who votes to give a director an Oscar for editing is like a turkey who votes for Thanksgiving, he said, "I like your analogy." But it's still wrong not to consider them, because they do everything an editor does, not only in the editing room but as they're shooting their films, so precisely storyboarded in their heads that unusually few shots are not used in the film.

On the Gold Derby pundits poll I contribute to, the favorite prediction for best editing is The Social Network, with 11 votes. Black Swan, The Fighter, The King's Speech, and 127 Hours each have two votes.

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