Anna Behlmer, one of the most Oscar-nominated women of all time, made her career in a craft that has long been dominated by men. Over the years, she’s been sexually harassed and discriminated against, but honored as well. In the history of the Academy Awards, which unveil nominations for their 91st edition Tuesday, women have received only 16 nominations for best sound mixing – and she has 10 of them, including the very first by a women in 1996 for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
She’s never won the Oscar, but last year received the Career Achievement Award from the Cinema Audio Society, whose membership is 95% male.
Behlmer is the first to agree things have gotten better for female mixers – that there are more opportunities now than ever before, especially in television and new media. But over the years, she’s not only battled sexism but nepotism as well, in a craft and in a union that long encouraged fathers to bring their sons and brothers into the business.
And because there were always so few women mixers – and for decades, none at all – it never went the other way: It was almost unheard of for mothers to bring their daughters and sisters in. And so it was for generations, which is one reason there are still so few female sound mixers to this day. And it was that way in many other below-the-line crafts, as well.
“There was in the past a lot of nepotism,” Behlmer told Deadline in a recent telephone interview. “It was never mother and daughter. It was always father and son or brother. Or it might be the son’s buddy that gets a break from the guy’s dad. There’s some of that too. That’s the way people came up through the ranks. Is it still around? It is, but not as prevalent.”
“It’s a little different these days,” she said. “I think now so many in the workforce have gone to film school. There were a few who did back then, but it was not the norm when I started. And now everyone coming up in the business has gone to film school. So it’s a much more formally educated group of people.”
“But it is getting easier to break in,” she said, “because there is so much work because of Netflix and all, and I am seeing more and more women mixing in television. But film stills seems to be the last holdout where it’s still not very easy to break in – not for anybody, even a young male. It’s a tough, tough thing, and it’s a hard job,” she said, emphasizing ‘hard.’ “There’s a lot of sacrifice.”
The job, she explained, is a “collaboration with the director, and the picture editor and the rest of the sound team to put together the sound track, which consists of the dialogue, the music and the sound effects, and we blend them together to make a product where you can clearly hear all the dialogue; get the emotion you need out of the music and the effects that are creating the visceral experience of the film. If you can accomplish those things, that’s what a mixer does.”
Behlmer hopes that more young women will follow her into the business, which has rewarded her with Oscar nominations for Braveheart, Evita, L.A. Confidential, Seabiscuit, War of the Worlds, The Last Samurai, The Thin Red Line, Moulin Rouge, Blood Diamond and most recently 2009’s Star Trek.
But at a recent conference at Chapman University, she was startled to hear that many female students are reticent about entering Hollywood’s workforce because of all the headlines about sexual harassment and assault.
“We were answering a lot of questions from the students, and what struck me as the most alarming was that there were several questions from some of the young women about how to handle sexual harassment,” she recalled. “They said they were very frightened to come work in the film industry because of all these things that have been exposed in the last year. It was really disheartening for me because I didn’t realize how frightening the whole thing seems to be to these young people.
“When I was asked how I would deal with such a situation, my advice to them was, ‘You say no and get out of the situation as quickly as you can. You explain that you’re not there for that, that you’re there to work. You try to handle it in a mature fashion. And if for some reason it persists and you can’t handle it yourself, then you go to a supervisor and ask for some help.’ I think it’s important for people to stand up for themselves.”
Over the years, Behlmer has experienced sexism and harassment first-hand. “I was on a film once and the picture editor was a generation older than me. It was a long time ago, so I was a very young new mixer, and he walked in and said, ‘What the f*ck is she doing here?’ And I turned around and said to him, ‘I am going to be mixing effects on your movie,’ and he said, ‘Like hell you are!’
“And for the next six weeks, it was tough. There was a lot of harassment. I felt as though he was trying to drive me to quit the project, and I wasn’t gonna let that happen. But I never went to anybody about it. He was a client. It was really horrible. I lost about six pounds on that show. For some reason, in those days, it almost felt like it was something I had to do – to prove myself. Which is a terrible thing, and a terrible message, too. Like, if you’re going to be in the boys’ club, you have to tough it out. I think back on it and I think that’s really stupid, because why should we have to do that?”
She recalled that “Another guy made lewd comments often and regularly. He’d say, ‘I really like having a woman on the mixing stage because it was so good to have a little tits and ass around.’”
Things are better for women mixers today, she said, but not much better for African Americans – at least not in film. “There are not many African American mixers, nor are there many African American sound designers, or in the sound field period,” she said. “I can only think of seven in film. I don’t know about television. Hopefully there are more.”
Behlmer got into the business while studying at Cal State Northridge. “In 1982, I was in college and I was changing majors every semester,” she laughed. “I had no idea what I was gonna do. And I was dating a guy who worked at a small sound studio in Hollywood, called Ryder Sound. He was the low man on the totem pole; he was young and he had to work all the weekends and nights. So the only way I could see him was at the studio. So I would go by and visit him, and when I was there, I would help in the machine room – that was when you threaded dubbers and it was more physical, not all just on computer screens. It was literally just physically hanging reels. So I would help out. I was there fairly often, and one of the mixers came out and said, ‘Anne, you’re here all the time. You should get yourself a union card.’ And I thought, ‘That’s a really good idea.’
“So I started pokin’ around and literally they said to me, ‘Go over to Glen Glenn Sound. There’s two women who work over there. They hire women over there,’ ” she laughed. “So I walked into the office of this woman named Jan Olson, she was in charge of scheduling and hiring at the time – crewing the rooms up. And I knocked on her door and told her I was interested in sound and asked her if she could help me. And she said ‘Yes.’ So she sent me out to some of the stages to go and observe, so I just kind of hung out on my own time – while I had another part-time job and was going to school. And then one day she called me and said, ‘Are you ready for your first call?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So I got a call on the Paramount lot to work on Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days as a loader – cleaning stock and that kind of thing.”
Then she needed 30 days of work to get into the union – IATSE Sound Local 695. “Back then, the unions had these systems where if you were a Group One they all had to work, and then the Group Twos could be called, and I was just, you know, a Group 3 – not in the union. So she was nice enough to put me in the vault where I cleaned stock so I could get my days in to get my union card. And I started from there.”
Her advice to women in film school is to consider sound as a career. “There are women represented in these film schools, and I just don’t know if they’re choosing sound. That was one of the reasons we went to that conference, to kind of encourage them to see that this is an avenue where there is potential for work and creativity, and that it could be open for anybody.
“Awareness could help foster more interest in it. It’s like all these kids go to film school because they want to be directors. But along the way, once they realize that they can’t all be directors, they find something that interests them, and then they kind of go after that. But people need to realize that sound is a viable alternative. It’s a creative, great field.”
Behlmer recently finished sound mixing on Bumblebee and her upcoming projects this year include the live-action version of Mulan at Disney.