In Memoriam: Eleanor Hamerow
By Adam Nadler on 8.7.2012
You could have been forgiven if the year slipped your mind on a recent Thursday evening and you lit up a cigarette on the 9th floor of 721 Broadway. A broad swath of die-hard, largely old-time New York filmmakers had gathered to commemorate the loss of one of their own. Taken altogether, the group has been making movies in one way or another since the 1940s. There was film editor Miriam Arsham (The Eleanor Roosevelt Story) sitting with noted documentarian Manny Kirchheimer (Stations of the Elevated). A few rows back was Sonya Friedman, pioneer of subtitles for broadcasts like The Metropolitan Opera Presents and films like Fellini’s 8½. Editor Peter Eliscu (60 Minutes, American Casino) was there, as were documentarian Judith Pearlman (Bauhaus in America, The Idea of North) and Robert Nickson, a producer and consultant on gritty New York fare like Do the Right Thing. The new guard was represented, too, by indie filmmaker Sara Driver (You Are Not I) and Alan Taylor, who has directed for every mega-hit series from The Sopranos and Mad Men to Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, and whose next film will be the Paramount tentpole Thor 2. The flowers were from Ang Lee.
Whose passing attracted such a distinguished coterie? Her name was Eleanor Hamerow, a film editor and teacher, who died last December at the age of 91. And while you would have likely walked past her on the street, chances are you and most everyone you know has been touched by her life.
“Ellie,” as she was known, was a short fireplug of a woman, with a thick shag of hair, an intimidating intellect, and a warm, comforting presence. She was also feisty, unabashedly liberal, loved smoked fish and smoking cigarettes, and seemed oddly unable to walk and talk at the same time, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk whenever she had a point to make—and for as long as it took. Her training was practical—chemistry—and in her twenties she married a history professor. But the marriage didn’t stick (“I was a handmaiden,” she would say), nor did the chemistry, and by her early thirties Ellie found herself alone and struggling for direction.
A lifelong friend—Miriam Arsham, in fact—suggested she try filmmaking and brought her to visit the downtown set of a low-budget movie being made by another local Bronx kid. In an old warehouse, Ellie watched the busy young director scurrying about, setting up lights, staging a scene. The night went long, till one in the morning, and the camera never even rolled. But she was intrigued enough to give her friend’s advice a shot. (That young director, by the way, was Stanley Kubrick.)
With the help of a few white lies, Ellie got her first job in an editing room. She was quickly found out and sacked, but she had learned enough in the meantime that, when she finagled her second job, she kept it. And with that, Ellie had found her niche. An uncanny gut for shots, rhythm, and story soon established her within the top tier of New York editors. She worked largely on news shows, such as NBC White Paper, but also cut films about such icons as Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ingmar Bergman, and dance legend Martha Graham—Ellie edited the TV version of Appalachian Spring on an upright Moviola in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment, on West 86th Street.
“Her first love was dance,” Arsham told the crowd. “And when she got the job for Martha Graham, she didn’t sleep for an entire week.”
In the early Seventies, Ellie edited the pilot for An American Family, a documentary series that followed the lives of a real-life Santa Barbara family in what was essentially the first reality-TV show. The series was a cultural phenomenon, and the making of it was recently dramatized by HBO, but when Ellie felt An American Family crossing the line into exploitation—broadcasting the parents’ ugly divorce, the son’s homosexuality—she gave such voice to her objections that she was told to pack up her splicer and go.
Such audacity was her trademark, for despite being a woman in a man’s world, Ellie was no handmaiden in the editing room. If she found fault with some shot or sequence, or, as with An American Family, she considered the content itself objectionable, this tiny lady didn’t keep her opinions to herself. “You could hear her voice up and down the cutting room hall,” says David Burke, who worked with her in the early Sixties. During one typically heated argument with a producer, she asked him why for God’s sake he kept hiring her. “You’re impossible,” he said, “but your taste is impeccable.”
But Ellie’s most notable accomplishment was not at ABC, NBC, NET, or even for Martha Graham. As it happens, Ellie hit her stride at a grungy little hole-in-the-wall on East 7th Street in Greenwich Village, between Second and Third Avenues, in what was then a broken-down, scrappy part of town. This unassuming building was the humble first home of New York University’s Graduate Film Department—virtually an afterthought in those early days, off and away from the main Washington Square campus. It comprised just two floors—street level and the dank, windowless basement—with a little “Bijou” theater where students could screen their work. Ellie began teaching there in the early Seventies, and in 1980 she was selected to head the department.
NYU’s film school already had something of a reputation, most notably for having Martin Scorsese among its alumni, but film departments were less ubiquitous in those days and the competition wasn’t exactly stiff. Yet as she had done so many times in the editing room, Ellie took disparate scraps and assembled them into a sum greater than its parts. She reworked the curriculum, hired new teachers, and above all led with an accessible, unpretentious style that encouraged high standards as much as risk-taking and experimentation. In fact, she designed one of the first-year film assignments never to be graded for this very reason. Certainly there were and still are other great teachers there, but as editor and former student Stan Salfas (Felicity, Let Me In) put it, Ellie “was a force of nature.”
The recipe worked. NYU’s graduate film school soon became among the most renowned in the world, and its alumni created some of the most groundbreaking films of the decade. In 1984, Jim Jarmusch released his first masterpiece, Stranger Than Paradise, which won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Picture. In 1985, Susan Seidelman directed Desperately Seeking Susan, a watershed for female filmmakers that made Vincent Canby’s top-10 list for the year. In 1986, Spike Lee, inspired by Jarmusch’s success, made She’s Gotta Have It, another breakout hit, which took Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. And by 1987, Barry Sonnenfeld had already done the cinematography for the Coen Brothers’ first two features, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, before later becoming a director in his own right (Men in Black, Get Shorty). All had been Ellie’s students, as were many on their crews, and countless others who have gone on to successful careers, including Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) and Juan José Campanella, whose The Secret in Their Eyes won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 2010. And it was Ellie herself who reviewed the admissions application of a young filmmaker from Taiwan and was moved enough by his Super-8 short film about a boy and his kite that she accepted him into the program. That young filmmaker was Ang Lee, who took home a Best Director Oscar in 2006 for his film Brokeback Mountain.
Addressing the crowd, Sara Driver recalled the time when, as Ellie’s teaching assistant, she phoned Orson Welles to ask whether he’d consider leading a master class at the school. As Ellie quietly listened in on the other line, Welles himself answered the phone. “Orson Welles doesn’t do that kind of thing,” bellowed the maestro and hung up, sending the women into peals of laughter.
Others remember Ellie’s profound power as a mentor. “I brought a 52-minute cut of my thesis film to Ellie’s office and threaded the picture and sound reels on her Steenbeck,” says producer and former student Jim DeRosa. “She lit a cigarette and started to watch. Moans, huffs, puffs, and even an ‘oy vey’ before the end. We rewound all the reels and she lit another cigarette, which she set precariously close to the outer reel of sound. She took over the controls and started to watch the movie again. At one point she stopped, jammed her yellow grease pencil into the picture gate, and put the machine into the fast-forward gear. She kept doing this every few minutes . . . I just started watching her cigarette burn down closer and closer to one of my sound rolls. She finally reached the end of my film and told me to cut out all the footage marked with a yellow line . . . which ended up being 20 minutes’ worth. The film was much better.”
Robert Nickson, also a teacher at the school, gave his summation to the crowd in just 13 words: “Five student Oscars in 10 years. Never been duplicated. That was Ellie Hamerow.”
But Ellie’s expertise was only part of the story. There was also a unique, moment-in-time synchronicity at play between this unique teacher and her students. In pursuit of their dreams, young would-be filmmakers uprooted their lives and moved to New York—at that time, a New York more of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver than of Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada. Some came from literally the other side of the world and unfamiliar cultures. And who was there to welcome them? Who showed respect for their outsize dreams and devoted herself so that they might come true? A sixty-something, single woman with no children of her own.
“I didn’t speak much English and was very lonely,” Ang Lee told me of his days at NYU. “She was the mother of the department. Sitting next to her felt like being blown by the spring breeze.” Lee also recalled how Ellie had fought to get him a scholarship at a time when they were rarely given to foreign students: “For the first time, there was a $10,000 scholarship. I was one of five finalists. I didn’t win, but the next day I was editing and it felt like someone was looking at me. She was in the doorway. She had tears in her eyes. ‘I’ll get you something,’ she said. ‘I’ll get you something.’ That’s when she got me a scholarship. Five thousand dollars. I was very touched.”
Susan Seidelman echoed the sentiment: “Ellie was very helpful and supportive in guiding my student thesis film, which, as a result, won some student film awards and gave me the confidence to actually pursue directing as a career. At that time there were so few female role models and her encouragement meant a lot.”
And Jim Jarmusch fondly recalls: “Ellie was a great teacher—she made one think for oneself, and taught us to learn from our mistakes instead of feeling brought down by them. I still deeply value her effect on the way I feel about filmmaking.”
Ellie retired in 1990, but she kept challenging herself as long as her mind allowed. She kept up with movies, studied classical piano, and even audited a course on the Bible. But perhaps Ellie’s everlasting horsepower was never more evident than when she became fascinated with Wagner’s four-opera, 15-hour Ring Cycle. She studied multiple recordings, read analyses of the Norse myths on which it had been based, and, incredibly, traveled across the country to attend a new production. But after careful consideration Ellie found she had a problem with The Ring, and for months she complained that she couldn’t put her finger on it. Then one day over lunch she excitedly told me she had figured it out.
“You have to cut the fourth opera,” she said. “After the third one, it’s done.”
She will be missed.