Carol Littleton, one of four people who will receive awards from the Motion Picture Academy at Tuesday night’s Governors Awards, is part of an unusual statistic. She’s a film editor, a job that over the course of movie history has been done largely by men, who have been nominated for and won about 86% of all the editing Oscars.
And yet only three people have been named recipients of Honorary Academy Awards for film editing, and all three have been women. Margaret Booth, who began her career with D.W. Griffith and edited well into her 80s, received the first-ever Honorary Oscar for editing in 1977, while Anne V. Coates, who won an Oscar for “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962, was given an honorary award in 2016.
Littleton will be the third, in recognition of a career that has included “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” “The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Benny & Joon” and “Margot at the Wedding.” (Her only Oscar nomination was for “E.T.,” which she lost to “Gandhi.”)
“I’m just amazed that anyone would have thought of giving it to me,” Littleton, 81, said. “You work your whole career and it sort of washes by you, and you don’t ever think about anything beyond finishing the next film. But of all the wonderful things that have happened to me over the course of 40, 45 years in the business, this is the pinnacle.”
And while Littleton thinks it’s odd that women have won just 14% of all competitive editing Oscars but 100% of the honorary ones, she has an explanation. “I think a lot of it has to do with the kind of films we choose to do,” she said. “They’re not usually the showboat, tentpole-type movies, although that’s changing. If we are able to choose the films that we would like to work on, I can’t speak for Margaret Booth, but Anne was a friend of mine, and I know that she always wanted to take films that had wonderful performances and had something to say.”
Littleton grew up in rural Oklahoma and got her bachelors and masters degrees in literature, only turning to film when she was dating an aspiring cinematographer named John Bailey. “Meeting him and his friends and seeing what they were doing, it was far more interesting than what I was studying in graduate school,” she said. Littleton and Bailey were married in 1972, around the time she worked her way up from gofer to editor.
“It appealed to me because it was a job that could be done in quiet contemplation,” she said of the job of editing. “I knew I didn’t have the kind of personality to direct or be on the set, but I liked the atmosphere of being in a sanctuary where you could try things, do whatever works.” She laughed. “And I could work with my cats in my lap.”
She worked in advertising and corporate films, eventually forming her own editing house even though movies eluded her because she couldn’t get into the Motion Picture Editors Guild. “I talked to a number of editors, women editors especially, and they all discouraged me from getting into film,” she said. “They said, ‘Don’t do it, it’s too hard.’ They all said, ‘Look, you have a wonderful business. You’ll make more money this way.’ And I said, ‘It’s not about making money, it’s about doing something that nourishes me. And I know what I want to do.’”
She paused. “If you tell me I can’t do something, that’s when I really want to do it.”
Guild rules at the time separated editors into groups and made it very hard for ones in the lower groups – which is to say, younger editors, female editors, editors who hadn’t spent years entrenched in their jobs – get assignments in film. In 1978, though, she was hired on “French Postcards” because she spoke French. That got her into the union and led to a golden age for her: “Body Heat” in 1979, “E.T.” in ’82, “The Big Chill” in ’83, “Places in the Heart” in ’84.
“I knew I liked those scripts and wanted to work on those movies, but you never know what’s going to hit,” she said. “It’s just part of the zeitgeist or the luck of the draw.” She thought that “E.T.” had “an extraordinary script that Steven (Spielberg) and Melissa Matheson had worked on for three or four years before they even thought of making it,” but Robert Benton’s “Places in the Heart” stands out even more when she looks back.
“I knew those people,” she said of the characters played by Sally Field, Ed Harris and Lindsay Crouse. “I grew up in Oklahoma, and I think the Oklahoma and Texas mindsets are very similar. These were modest people in the Depression who were just trying to stay alive and lead a decent, purposeful life.”
But as Littleton was enjoying her biggest success as an editor, the struggle to get there also made her determined to change union rules in a way that would allow women and younger editors greater access to the craft. “I was so angry about what had happened to me that I was bound and determined it wasn’t going to happen to anybody else,” she said. “I was not happy being sidelined by the union because of nepotism and strict rules.”
In 1988, she enlisted a group of her “film buddies,” and they successfully ran for union office as a slate. She served as MPEG president from 1988 to 1991, when the guild became more open and less restrictive. “We needed to change and we did,” she said. “A lot of the older editors were not happy about it, but I’m very happy that we were able to be rebels and just do it.”
Littleton’s last editing job was on the 2018 HBO movie “My Dinner With Hervé.” She spent the last few years as caretaker to Bailey, the former Academy president who died in November after battling an autoimmune disease. She served as an Academy governor for years alongside Bailey and alongside colleagues who voted her an Honorary Oscar not just for her work in the editing room but for her work at making the job more open to more people – and, of course, more women.
“Let’s face it: It’s very solitary work,” she said. “You’re not in the limelight, you’re never seeking fame, you’re pretty much in the shadows. And I think women are naturally drawn to nurturing work. And women, at least the women editors I’ve talked to, see the value in having a close relationship with their directors that is nurturing.
“You create an atmosphere in the editing room that is non-competitive, that is almost a sanctuary where you can try things without judgment as many times as you want. You make the time to make the movie work. I might be projecting my own values, but I am an editor and I’m a woman and that’s how I feel about it.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.