When Sherry Lansing became the first woman ever to be named president of a major studio, the news ricocheted around the world. That was just the beginning of an extraordinary run that saw her head two studios, make hundreds of films, produce classic pictures such as Fatal Attraction and rule for twenty-five years as the most powerful woman Hollywood has ever known.
Award-winning writer Stephen Galloway takes us behind the scenes of Lansing's epic journey—inside the battles; up close with the stars; and into the heart of a creative world populated by the likes of Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Jane Fonda, Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise. He shows us the velvet touch that masked the iron hand, and the roller-coaster drama behind such movies as Titanic, Forrest Gump, Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.
Above all, he takes us into the mind of Lansing, creating a revealing portrait of a dynamic, driven woman who overcame unimaginable odds, pushed boundaries and left Hollywood at the peak of her power to achieve the life she wanted.
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About the Author
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On January 23, 2003, a black sedan pulled out of Paramount Pictures’ historic sixty-five-acre lot at the southern edge of Hollywood and eased into the clogged traffic, heading toward Los Angeles International Airport.
For the security guards who manned the studio’s Melrose Avenue gate, this was nothing new: taxis and limousines went back and forth dozens of times each hour, ferrying everyone who was anyone, from Tom Cruise to Mel Gibson to Angelina Jolie. The guards knew them well, and all their follies and foibles. Some were liked, some loathed; few were as revered as the woman sitting inside the car now, her blue eyes brilliant against her raven hair.
At fifty-eight years old, Sherry Lansing was Hollywood royalty. Tall and elegant in one of her trademark Armani suits, she had been chairman of Paramount’s movie division since 1992 and had ruled it with an iron fist hidden inside the most velvet of gloves. With her regal presence and commanding five-foot-ten frame, she would have intimidated the guards if not for her palpable warmth; she liked to be liked, needed it even, and unsheathed the steel within only when absolutely necessary.
For a quarter century she had reigned as the most powerful woman in film, overseeing two separate studios at different stages of her career and producing such high-profile pictures as Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal in between. She had weathered hits and misses, victories and defeats, enemies who masqueraded as friends, and friends who might as well have been enemies. She was as much a part of the entertainment landscape as the Hollywood sign, one of a rare breed of executives known by their first names alone. To almost everybody, she was simply Sherry.
In her present role, she oversaw a billion dollars in annual production and marketing expenses, and was responsible for green-lighting hundreds of movies, from Mission: Impossible to Saving Private Ryan to Forrest Gump. Some of these had become part of the cultural lexicon; others, less widely seen, had nonetheless filled Paramount’s coffers, thanks to shrewd deals Lansing had hammered out with her business partner, Jonathan Dolgen, the blunt executive who played bad cop to her good, yin to her yang. Both were careful not to repeat the errors of the past, most famously those of 20th Century Fox, whose bloated 1963 epic Cleopatra had left the studio so broke it was forced to sell off much of its land, allowing developers to swoop in and create the labyrinthine office complex now known as Century City.
Lansing’s unusual ability to pick winners and avoid too many losers had given Paramount a unique stability in a town where there was next to none, where writers, directors, producers and stars lived in dread that today’s success was merely a prelude to tomorrow’s failure. And that stability benefited not just the names that lit up the screen but also the thousands of workers, from secretaries to screenwriters, from accountants to attorneys, all linked in a golden chain leading to Lansing herself.
Because of this, she was rarely plagued by the fears that ravaged her peers, who at any moment could be toppled from their posts, losing assistants, expense accounts, fine tables at finer restaurants, trips on the corporate jet, seven-figure bonuses and above all the deference that was de rigueur in this most feudal of ecosystems, where everyone knew his place, where rich was rich and poor was poor and ne’er the twain did meet. Wealthy beyond her dreams thanks to a clever deal that had brought her millions of dollars when Paramount was sold to Viacom in 1994, she floated in a zone of her own, thirty thousand feet above the turbulence that buffeted almost everyone beneath her.
That, at least, was in normal circumstances. But over the past year, what had begun as a faint notion had gathered steam: that she would turn her back on Hollywood altogether.
At various moments in her long and storied career, she had contemplated weaning herself from the industry that had fed her. In her younger and less burdened days she had peeled herself free for weeks, voyaging down the Amazon, trekking across India and even living with the Maasai and Samburu tribes in rural Kenya. During those trips she had treasured life away from the rapacious rituals of Hollywood, but each time she had returned, ready to lock horns again.
Lately, however, the urge to escape had become overwhelming. Just three years earlier, she had declined to renew her contract, at a potential cost of millions in salary and bonuses, until her lawyer dissuaded her, promising there was nothing she could sign that he could not get her out of.
The past two years had been particularly taxing. Movies for which she cared passionately had stumbled at the box office—even one of her favorites, K-19: The Widowmaker, a rare Hollywood action-adventure film directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. Others had succeeded almost in spite of themselves, such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the picture that made Jolie a household name, whose troubled shoot proceeded amid allegations of drug use and sexual harassment, hardly the stuff to make Lansing proud.
Nor were most star vehicles any easier. Edward Norton, whose career she had helped launch with 1996’s Primal Fear, had given her endless grief, turning down roles for years even though he owed Paramount two pictures according to his original deal. When Lansing tried to book him for The Italian Job, and again he declined, she had enough. She threatened to sue; he threatened to countersue; and even when Norton caved, he made his irritation clear, hiring an assistant to videotape his every move on set, as if defying Paramount to find him remiss.
Once this would have been water off Lansing’s back. But she was drained by the petty squabbles and endless aggravation, the oversize egos and childish demands. She longed to get out.
In the years since she had arrived in Los Angeles, she had seen the business break free from the wreckage of the factory system, when a handful of studios controlled every aspect of filmmaking, holding thousands of workers in their thrall. She had lived through the golden age of the 1970s, as America emerged from the shadow of Vietnam, and masterworks such as The Godfather, Chinatown and Network poured forth. And she had endured all the way to the present, when giant corporations held sway over these once-proud islands of independence, the studio’s vassals that now churned out superheroes and special-effects films far removed from the human dramas she so adored.
She had come of age at a time when women were relegated to being secretaries or starlets, when breasts were fondled, bottoms pinched, and the casting couch was just another station of the cross for any young woman aspiring to be a star. She had carved a path for women who sought to break the shackles of the Eisenhower era and penetrate the studio citadels, never thinking she would end up running one herself. She had stamped her times through force of personality, molding herself to the world until the world was ready to mold itself to her.
“There’ve been those that have tested her,” said her Fatal Attraction star Michael Douglas, “and if Sherry had to get tough, she’d get tough. ‘You want to go eyeball to eyeball? You want to go that route? Fine. I’m from Chicago.’ ”
She had rocketed to power and held on to it with a firm grip, helped by the fact that the more power she got, the less she seemed to crave it. She made her bosses feel safe and her subordinates safer. She was, as one of her colleagues put it, “the best no in town,” able to turn down projects day in, day out, dozens of times a week, hundreds each year—a crucial part of any studio chief’s job—while making even those she rejected feel good.
“More times than I care to admit,” said producer and former studio head Robert Evans, “while walking over to her presidential suite, I promised myself, ‘This time [she] ain’t going to seduce me,’ and more times than I care to admit I walked out of the meeting feeling better at getting a no from her than a yes from anyone else.”
She was part of a dazzling generation of women, bound together by their gender but separated by their distinct personalities, who had arrived in Hollywood within the span of a few years and assailed the boys’ club they found there. They included the brassy Dawn Steel, who rose to become president of Columbia Pictures before Hollywood shut its gates on her, forcing her into the netherworld of independent production; Laura Ziskin, the erudite producer of the Spider-Man series, who had tried and failed as an executive before launching one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises; and Lucy Fisher, the Harvard grad whom Jack Nicholson called “the sweetest, smartest girl in class,” but who lacked the drive to take the bullet train to the top. These women were impressive by any standard, yet none had Lansing’s particular blend of artistry and authority, of people skills and commercial savvy.
But now her passion was fading. She knew that life was not about a beginning and a middle and an end, but rather about constant beginnings and middles and ends, and she was ready to start the cycle again.
A plan had begun to take shape in her mind: to create a new life when she turned sixty. All she needed was guidance. And so, without telling even her closest friends, she was traveling to Atlanta on a stealth mission to meet a statesman who had reinvented his life, in the hope he could help her reinvent her own.
For four and a half hours she sat in silence as she flew across the country, struggling to control her nerves, attempting on occasion to dip into her bag of scripts and failing each time. It was evening when her plane touched down and a waiting car whisked her toward the shimmering lights of the city.
As she drove through the half-lit streets, it struck her how different this world was from the one of her youth. A vital spirit seemed to pervade the place even on a bitingly cold night like this. Young interracial couples wove through the sidewalks hand in hand, something that would have been inconceivable when she was their age. She had grown up in a Chicago breaking free of the Depression and World War II, where segregation was a given and a doorman had once tried to bar her from entering a club because her companion was black. She had fought that fight and won, just as she would win so many others. But she no longer had the stomach for fighting, at least not the countless petty fights that made up her life in Los Angeles.
Here she was free from the numerous obligations she knew back home. There, call would follow call, dozens upon dozens each day, as her assistant “rolled” them, keeping one caller on hold while Lansing wrapped up with the other. No matter who phoned or when, she would call back within hours. That was her mantra: clear the decks, wipe the slate clean, never let anything linger from the past that could snap up and bite her in the future.
In Atlanta there was no office and no secretary—no laptop, not even a cell phone. She was curiously old-fashioned like that. For a woman who operated in such a cutting-edge business, she rarely bothered with emails and texts, because a call was better than both. Hollywood might be a multibillion-dollar industry, but it was an industry driven by personal relationships, and no one understood them better than Lansing.
After checking into her hotel, she went quickly to her room. By seven the next morning she was up and showered, and after a turn on the treadmill and a bran muffin for breakfast, she set out on her way.
As her taxi drove east, through the narrow streets that took her just a few hundred yards from the tiny Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr., a hero of her youth, had made his mark, she thought of his impact and wondered about her own. The lives of executives were ephemeral, their power transient; at best all she could hope for was the legacy of her films.
For ten minutes she sat in silence, toying with a single white card on which her schedule was typed out. Most days, many meetings would be noted here, but now there was only one, and it was all she thought about as her car slowed to a stop.
She waited in the lobby of the main building until an assistant came to greet her. The woman led her down a long hallway and into a plain office where a silver-haired man stood with his back toward her, gazing out the window at the rolling hills. He turned, and his soft blue eyes fell on her, and whatever anxiety she had been feeling melted away.
“I’m so happy to meet you, Sherry,” said President Carter. “Let’s sit down and talk.”
Six decades before Lansing’s trip to Atlanta, a much younger woman set out on a voyage of her own.
The year was 1938, the place Mainz, Germany, and fear was in the air. It was in the shops, few of which would remain in Jewish hands for long. It was in the classrooms, where Jewish admissions had been severely curtailed, pushing hundreds of boys and girls into the city’s synagogue schools. It was in the cinemas, where Jews had to sit through Nazi propaganda newsreels—most recently one about Hitler’s visit to Rome—on the same program as musical comedies including Pigskin Parade and Born to Dance, two of the later Hollywood pictures to trickle through Mainz’s theaters before the war.
Since the National Socialists’ seizure of power in 1933, barely a month had gone by without their tightening the knot on the twenty-six hundred Jews in the city, a Jewish enclave since the tenth century and a center of learning ever since its most famous son, Johannes Gutenberg, had invented the printing press. Oppression was racing so fast that few could keep up. In one public school, before the Jews were forced out altogether, the students had elected a Jewish girl to lead a Nazi parade, never imagining the consequences. Confusion, misery and uncertainty were all around, not least in the heart of a seventeen-year-old named Margot Heimann.
Until the past few years, Margot had lived a life of relative ease thanks to the wealth of her parents, with whom she lived in an apartment on the elegant Hindenburgstrasse, the tree-lined street that led straight to the domed Neue Synagogue, a vast edifice of marble and gold that was the center of communal life for Mainz’s Jews. She was warm, charming and exceptionally pretty. Her nickname was “Muschi,” meaning “kitty cat.”