There are peers, moguls, power brokers who think that Sherry Lansing is a little crazy -- to leave behind the pursuit of riches, the glamour, the heady aroma of power all day and all night, who look at her a little blankly when she announces that she’s going to devote the rest of her life to philanthropy, to the amorphous but distinctly real notion of giving back.
As is the way of a natural politician, Lansing, the outgoing chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, declines to name names. Sitting in her cream-colored office on the Paramount lot, her sanctuary and power station for the last 12 years, she rolls her blue eyes with incredulity at the people -- and there are legions in this town -- who think that they will never have enough.
In November, Lansing, 60, announced she was retiring, effective when her contract came up some 12 months later, although as these things turn out, she’s now leaving at the end of the month, when new Paramount Chairman Brad Grey arrives. She can’t stop saying that this is her last interview in the motion picture business, an industry in which she’s starred ever since she became the first woman president of a studio in 1980.
“I feel like a chapter has closed,” she says. “I probably couldn’t close the chapter if I didn’t feel such an incredible sense of completion. Someone said to me, ‘If you’re not growing, you’re dying.’ ”
With a career that spanned 35 years, Lansing is a link to another Hollywood, the one that existed before “Jaws” defined the modern blockbuster, before conglomeration, before video or DVDs, before movies became just another form of branded entertainment. This is a woman who came out here to be an actress and was discovered by legendary director Howard Hawks (“His Girl Friday”), who tried to mold her into a star (opposite John Wayne, no less) only to discover that Lansing never wanted to be anyone other than herself. In an era when Hollywood personalities have grown more buttoned down and corporate, Lansing remained grand.
She has never been one to sentimentalize, but the impending life change makes her slightly tremulous, the heady emotion of it all beating just under her poised countenance, the immaculate makeup, the pearly gray power suit, feminine armor she’s worn for years.
The stress of the final days of her Hollywood career -- when the studio was going through a slump -- seems to have dissipated. The rigid tension in her jawbone is gone, as is the slightly distracted air that comes from perpetual vigilance, from always having to watch for fires on the horizon. Lansing feels that Paramount has begun a resurgence and points to the last three films -- “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Coach Carter,” all moderate hits -- and a promising summer that includes “The War of the Worlds,” an event picture from Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise.
She says she’s happy to go. Some 2 1/2 years ago, she vowed that this would be her last contract, that she’d leave the business when she turned 60. It was a plan she talked about endlessly with friends, with her husband, the director Billy Friedkin. She even discussed it with the psychoanalyst whom she hadn’t seen regularly in years but who 25 years earlier had helped her believe that she could one day run a studio.
“Ninety-nine percent of what you do is instinctual when you’re in the movie business, isn’t it?” she asks. “There is something inside of you that tells you who the real you is. I knew if I stayed an extra year I would be an inauthentic person, and I would never be true to my value system. I have an incredible sense of peace.”
By now, Lansing’s enthusiasm is legendary -- her next act is always the best one yet.
“Sherry’s a throwback to the old show business figure,” says producer John Goldwyn, former president of Paramount Pictures and Lansing’s onetime lieutenant. “She’s instinctive, ferocious, and uses whatever the job is that she has as a way to redefine herself. The job is a reflection of herself, her taste, her instinct, and she has not lost that.”
Yet she’s the first to say that the movie industry changed around her. “When I first started, all you cared about was making a good movie, and if you made a good movie you were convinced that it would find an audience somehow. Word of mouth was really everything. Seven years ago, I started to realize that the marketing was as important as the movie, meaning the date, the commercials, the surrounding tie-ins.”
By the end, 60% of her time was consumed with marketing. “You could actually make a really good movie, and if you didn’t have a campaign that worked, it wasn’t going to find its audience. And that was frustrating to me, because it shifted the paradigm of what was important.”
As the twilight streams onto her trio of Francis Bacon paintings, a sexually provocative note in an otherwise demure office, there’s a sense that she no longer needs to maintain the same competitive facade. Like anyone who’s survived in Hollywood, Lansing has her detractors whose volubility increased when the fortunes of the studio were low. Yet the foibles that people questioned she defends as a last stab at civility in an uncivil business.
So she kept almost her entire staff for almost a decade. That’s loyalty. So she hired veteran directors not always the hippest choices (and allowed her husband to work at the studio). She says, “I hate the idea that you’re as good as your last picture. I think you’re as good as your best picture.”
So what if she hated to reject people and soft-pedaled bad news to the agent-seller community. “When an agent pitches an actress, instead of saying, ‘Are you out of your mind? That’s a terrible idea, she or he can’t act,’ I always remember what it was like to be an actress,” she says. “One of the traits that I have is this empathy. I think that agent is going to tell them. It’s going to hurt them too unnecessarily, and why do you have to be so cruel?” Asked if she’s going to miss the trappings of power, appearing, as so many former moguls do late in life, like beached whales with nowhere to swim, she laughs.
“When you’re in this job there’s a mystique that people think that you feel powerful. You don’t,” she insists. “Because the only people that have power are the filmmakers. All you really want is to make good movies. All I really want is to get that director to work at this studio, so you feel powerless, like you’re always begging. I never felt a sense of power. Ever.”
It’s hard to imagine, given how thoroughly she dominated Paramount, and the mores of the town, where the powerful see the red carpet stretched out in front of them as far as they can see.
Lansing had a distinctive personal style, with her broad Chicago accent and penchant for saluting everyone “Hi, honey.” Her enthusiasms were famously big, occasionally over the top. Former Viacom boss Frank Biondi once described her internal Paramount presentations with a laugh as “Kabuki theater.”
Tall, physically imposing, she is probably the only studio executive ever to have been able to use the full body hug as a way of disarming steely opponents. Femininity was always part of her arsenal -- but her charisma went further than that. It was the power of a master psychological tactician. She’d allow her reservoirs of self-confidence to flow toward filmmakers or talent and strategically withheld approval when she needed a different result.
Willed denial was another tool. As her husband, Friedkin, once told this reporter, “Sherry has an ideal vision of the world, and that’s where everybody is agreeing with everyone, especially her.” Those who were familiar only with her social persona were often shocked to find that she could bear-wrestle with the roughest Hollywood characters, that yelling washed harmlessly over her. She also expected to be the queen of Paramount.
Over the years, she saw tons of success with such films as “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Verdict,” “Fatal Attraction,” “The Accused,” “The First Wives Club” and the biggest film of all time, the billion-dollar-grossing Fox-Paramount co-production “Titanic.”
Lansing also had the signature achievement: She was the one to break the glass ceiling.
“She was a woman in a man’s world, always so capable and poised, someone that you admired for those qualities, and obviously for whether she meant to or not, the trailblazing that she did,” says the chairman of Universal Pictures, Stacey Snider. Snider and Sony Pictures Vice Chairman Amy Pascal joined Lansing at the top of the Hollywood pinnacle some seven years after she began her successful run at Paramount.
Today, there are loads of women in the executive suites, but Lansing came from a generation “where the only careers that were [open to women] were to be a teacher or a nurse. And so if you told somebody that you wanted to be in the movie business it was like telling them you wanted to go to the moon.” The daughter of a Holocaust refugee and a real estate investor who died suddenly when she was 9, Lansing grew up in Chicago, attended Northwestern, married her first boyfriend at 19, and then moved with him to Los Angeles, where she tried to make it as an actress, landing small sexpot roles in films, and ultimately meeting up with Hawks who cast her as a blue-eyed Mexican in “Rio Lobo” (1970). By 26, both acting and her marriage were over, and she began anew, reading scripts for $5 an hour, eventually becoming a studio executive at MGM and Columbia. Leggy and beautiful, she was often the only woman in the mix and worked on the kinds of films -- “The China Syndrome” was one -- that would later become the hallmark of her career, socially relevant dramas with a zingy, slightly shameless, zeitgeist appeal.
Inside Hollywood, she was becoming known not just for her work, but for her persona -- the finishing school manners, an ability to soothe ruffled egos, the dutiful returning of every phone call. For some she epitomized a working woman who hadn’t forgotten how to be a woman. For others, particularly the few other women in the business, she seemed like a 1950s throwback; she was derided as a “geisha,” a woman who served men.
In the late ‘70s, Life magazine ran a spread on the new rising class of Hollywood executive; all the women wore business attire, except Lansing, who appeared bare from the shoulders up, with tousled wet hair, as alluring as any star. She infamously told the magazine that she didn’t think she’d live to see a female studio chief in her lifetime.
It’s hard today to imagine the hoopla that rained down on Lansing when it was announced on Jan. 1, 1980, that the 35-year-old was going to become president of production at 20th Century Fox. She landed on the front page of the New York Times under the slightly ignominious headline “Sherry Lansing, Former Model, to Run Studio.”
Life behind the press release was a distinctly less shiny. Privately, Lansing was savaged with gossip that she had slept her way to the top, the kind of innuendo she’d learned to ignore. Moreover, she ended up with much less autonomy and support than advertised. Eventually she left to become producing partners with Stanley Jaffe.
Their first movies, “Racing with the Moon” and “Firstborn,” fizzled. .
And then came “Fatal Attraction,” the morality play that scorched the box office of 1987. The tale of a happily married man who engages in a one-night stand with horrifying ramifications was seen as a post-AIDS cautionary tale, a screed against working women. Lansing herself professed not to understand why feminists were upset and jumped into the media fray. “Fatal Attraction,” c’est moi, could have been her credo, as she went on national TV and announced how she too had once called an old boyfriend, only to slam down the phone when he actually picked up.
The grosses on “Fatal Attraction” made Lansing rich enough that she’d never have to work again and taught her invaluable lessons such as relentlessness (the script had been turned down by every studio in town) and giving the audience what it wanted. After a bad preview, she, Jaffe and director Adrian Lyne had famously thrown out the original ending and added a crowd-pleasing slasher finale. Ironically, for all the women upset about “Fatal Attraction’s” apparent message, the audience for the film was primarily women, drawn to the bold displays of female power.
“She made movies about female heroes, which for me is the most important thing,” says Sony’s Pascal, a friend. “Sherry helped other people make movies where women were the main characters. Sometimes they were the hero and sometimes they were the villains, but they were the driving force in the narrative.”
When Lansing ascended to the chairmanship of Paramount in 1992, she became famous for a certain kind of Sherry movie, the female revenge flick, such as the drama “Double Jeopardy” or the gleeful comedy “The First Wives Club” and female-aspiration pics such as “Save the Last Dance” and “Clueless.”
Of course, Paramount made many other types of pictures, from the substantive such as “Saving Private Ryan” (with DreamWorks) and the provocative, including “The Truman Show,” to action-driven franchises such as “Mission: Impossible.”
“One thing that was hard for Sherry is that she loved her movies. She never wanted to give up on a film and was relentless in trying to make a film a success,” says Jonathan Dolgen, Lansing’s former boss at Viacom. “That can be a negative because it grinds you down. If a third of the movies are not successful, that means one out of three times you’re ground down by the process of trying to make them work and them not working. Nothing was just another movie to her.”
For almost a decade the money rolled in, abetted by a Dolgen-led business philosophy of sharing the risk, selling off parts of almost every picture to other financial entities. It allowed Paramount to stretch its production budget, which became, according to at least one insider, less than half the allowance of its competitors. The other studios eventually began to compete in a whole new arena, the mega-budget event picture, like “Spider-Man,” which Paramount seemed unwilling or unable to make.
In 2002 came a downturn, with a series of tired retreads of old Paramount formulas. Perhaps it was simply cyclical, though close associates wondered if Lansing herself had finally been run down by the relentless nature of the quest for profitability and risk aversion.
The town complained, particularly about Paramount’s business practices, which could be the roughest in Hollywood. The studio had a habit of demanding budget cuts at the last minute, as films hurtled toward principal photography, infuriating filmmakers and forcing agents to renegotiate talent deals.
“We’ve had successes and failures, and to her credit, even in the worst times at the studio, you never got blamed for failure,” says producer Scott Rudin. "[She always said,] ‘It was our decision, our movie. Let’s move on to the next one.’ ”
Today Lansing seems optimistic that the studio is back on track, with a new production chief, Donald De Line, humane business practices, and a mandate from owner Sumner Redstone to turn on the money spigot. “The Sherry slate is going to be cool, post-Sherry,” says director Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the upcoming summer comedy “Elizabethtown,” which the studio, contrary to prior practices, paid for completely.
If Lansing’s breaking of the glass ceiling presaged a spectacular Hollywood career, the sudden media glare also planted the seed for her ultimate departure from the business.
“I remember there was this incredible wave of attention,” she says. “And I couldn’t kind of understand why me. There are a lot of qualified people out there. And I always felt that it happened for a reason. I get kind of emotional when I talk about this.” Her eyes tear up. Despite being the head of a major studio, Lansing has always had a girlish, idealistic quality that pops out unexpectedly.
“I always felt it happened so I could have a voice. And the voice was yes to make movies, but you could actually have a voice [to] try and help them make the world a better place. That’s what I always thought my third chapter should be about. Maybe it’s Jewish guilt. I’ve been so lucky. If you get so much and you don’t give anything back, I don’t know what kind of person you are.”
“Sherry introduced me into the world of being an adult, even though I was 50,” says actress Diane Keaton, who starred in the Paramount hit “The First Wives Club.” Lansing asked Keaton to give a speech in front of a congressional committee to help raise money for cancer research. “Nobody had ever asked me to do anything like that before. I spoke before [Sen.] Arlen Specter, and it was one of the more exciting moments of my life.” Because of Lansing, Keaton says, she became involved with a host of charities.
Today, the energy she once lavished on such movies as “Forrest Gump” and “Braveheart” is reserved for her new roles, such as citizen advocate -- she’s an appointee to the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee, which is charged with figuring out how California is going spend the $3 billion the voters authorized for stem cell research.
And Lansing has been putting together her charitable portfolio for years, becoming involved in cancer fundraising after her mother died of the disease in 1984. She’s a regent for the University of California and recently joined the board of the Carter Center, the human rights organization founded by Jimmy Carter. She’s starting the Sherry Lansing Foundation, which will focus on health issues, in particular cancer research. She plans to give away her own money, and she’s been famously conservative with her own fortune. She still likes to balance her own checkbook, pay her own bills, and owns stock only in Viacom.
When she took the Paramount job, she joked that she was the first studio chief to have taken the job to be home for dinner. She had recently married Friedkin after a three-month courtship and no longer wanted to go on location as producers do. That wasn’t how it turned out, as work consumed her, from 6 in the morning to 11 at night, with weekends dominated by scripts and box office grosses, jubilation over hits and gloom over failures.
“I actually would like to have some fun too, do you know?” she says brightly. “I would like spontaneity. I would like to go with my husband when he directs an opera and live in Tel Aviv for six weeks. I’d like to go to Ethiopia with Jimmy Carter. I’d like to really experience life. And life is about a lot more to me than work. I want to be productive. I’m not going to be a flake.” She pauses, rethinks what she just said, and adds wryly, “But on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind being a flake a little bit too.”
Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz wrote “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket: The Truth About Female Power in Hollywood,” published by Random House in 2000.