By Sean Smith
Sherry Lansing, the first woman to run a major studio, bids Hollywood farewell. An exclusive interview.
"I never thought of myself as a suit," Sherry Lansing says. Neither did anyone else. Lansing, who began her career as a model and actress, was named president of 20th Century Fox in 1980--the first woman to run a major studio. From 1983 to 1992, she worked as a producer. At 47, she married director William Friedkin, and for the last 12 years she has run Paramount Pictures as studio chairman. Over her three-decade career she has presided over a long list of culture-defining films, including "Kramer vs. Kramer," "The China Syndrome," "Fatal Attraction," "The Accused," "Forrest Gump," "The First Wives Club," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Titanic." But the last two years have been tough at Paramount. Once a top-grossing studio, it ended 2004 in seventh place, and Lansing has spent the last year fighting the perception that her company lacks cash, chutzpah or both. Last November she announced that she planned to leave Paramount--and the film business--behind. Industry gossip speculated that she had been forced out. Lansing says she's been planning her exit for years, and it's hard to imagine anyone more excited about a new beginning. As former talent manager Brad Grey prepared to take over on March 1, Lansing sat down with NEWSWEEK for an exclusive exit interview.
NEWSWEEK: Why now, after 12 years as chairman of Paramount, have you decided to leave the movie business?
LANSING: I want to have more fun. [Laughs] I've led a completely structured life for the last 12 years. I want more spontaneity. I want to have more quiet moments. I want more love and intimacy. Just once, I'd like to go on vacation and be able to say to my husband, "It's nice here. Let's stay an extra day."
NEWSWEEK: Was stepping down a hard decision?
LANSING: No. For five or six years now I've said I was going to stop working when I'm 60. It's an artificial demarcation, maybe, but I feel like 60 is the new 50. You're still young and vital enough to have a third chapter. I've loved my work, but that's not the third chapter that I want to have.
NEWSWEEK: In 1980 you became the first woman ever to run a studio when 20th Century Fox hired you as president of production. Did it feel as if you were making history?
LANSING: For about seven minutes. [Laughs] I never felt I was a trailblazer, or any of those things. After that initial moment of walking into my office, and knowing that it had been Darryl Zanuck's, I just thought, Boy, I have a lot of work to do.
NEWSWEEK: The front-page headline in The New York Times read: SHERRY LANSING, FORMER MODEL, NAMED HEAD OF FOX PRODUCTIONS.
LANSING: Today there would be huge class-action suit about that. [Laughs] I thought, God, I've done every single job within the studio system, and they've just eradicated all these years of work.
NEWSWEEK: What was it like being one of the few women executives in the industry back then?
LANSING: Before I became head of 20th Century Fox, I was at MGM. I got promoted to senior vice president, and I went to the head of the studio and I asked for a raise, to be equal to the guy who had the same job, and I was told that I was earning quite enough money for a single woman. He said to me, "Look, we have to pay him more because he has a family to support." I have to say, at the time, I accepted that.
NEWSWEEK: You did?
LANSING: Well, I was raised at a time when a woman wasn't supposed to have a career. She was supposed to get married and have two children. My self-esteem needed to grow. I needed to think that I was worth equal money before I could ask somebody to give me equal money. I'm the person who said in Life magazine back then, "There will never be a woman head of a studio in my lifetime." And I believed it. Today I'm convinced there will be a woman president of the United States in my lifetime.
NEWSWEEK: The Hollywood rumor mill worked you over pretty hard in the early days. For years people gossiped that you got jobs from men because you were intimate with them.
LANSING: There was no truth to any of that, of course. None. But if you're the first, it goes with the territory. People are always making up reasons why you got the job, rather than understanding that you got it because you worked hard. Then you get older, and no one says that anymore. [Laughs]
NEWSWEEK: You were accused of never giving bad news.
LANSING: I do not have other people deliver my bad news, and I never have. I actually find that insulting. Maybe it's a vestige of sexism. Trust me, I've had those tough, heated conversations. I just didn't do it in a manner that was cruel.
NEWSWEEK: You've always seemed comfortable being feminine. I remember the first time I met you, seven years ago, you hugged me.
LANSING: [Laughs] I like to hug people. I don't hug everybody, but I like contact. Part of being in the movie business is wanting to reach out to people, to connect. Anyway, I'm glad I hugged you.
NEWSWEEK: One of the first movies you produced, with Stanley Jaffe, was "Fatal Attraction."
LANSING: I was obsessed with the Glenn Close character. It's wonderful when she says, "I won't be ignored, Dan." I wanted to have T shirts made. [Laughs] At the time I was a single woman, and I had seen my girlfriends--and, I have to admit, myself--go out with guys who then wouldn't call them back, and it was like the guy left and took the woman's self-esteem with him. I wanted to do a movie about that. Every studio turned it down. Twice.
LANSING: They all were men running the studios. One threw the script in my face and said, "How can you ask me to make a movie about a guy who cheats for no reason? I'd never do anything like that." [Laughs]
NEWSWEEK: Not everyone loved Glenn Close's character. How did you deal with the backlash that accused the film, and you, of being antifeminist?
LANSING: It was devastating to me. Devastating. I actually called Betty Friedan and asked her to explain it to me. She said, "Don't you understand that this is how people are going to see career women?" I said, "I hear you, but I don't think so." I, of all people, would never do something antifeminist.
NEWSWEEK: You've been in the industry more than 30 years. What's been the biggest change?
LANSING: When I started, the most important thing was the movie. You made a good movie and you didn't really worry about opening weekend, because you knew that with word of mouth, the second-weekend gross would be bigger than the first. Today I believe that the marketing is more important than the movie, and that, to me, is tragic. "Fatal Attraction" opened at $7.6 million. Think about that. It went on to make $156 million domestic, but if a studio movie opens at that amount today, it's over.
NEWSWEEK: Paramount's box-office performance has not been great the past two years. The criticism has been that you don't take creative risks.
LANSING: We take creative risks constantly. The problem is that after a movie becomes a hit, people don't remember how risky it was. People say, "Of course you said yes to 'Forrest Gump'." Really? It's a movie about a mentally slow guy sitting on a bench and telling his story. Mel Gibson in a kilt? That was pretty risky, too. Look at "The Hours," a film about three gay women who want to commit suicide, and tell me that everybody knew that would get nominated for best picture and make $109 million worldwide. Please.
NEWSWEEK: So what went wrong?
LANSING: I'm not saying we did everything right. We made mistakes. Sometimes we were too tough on a deal, too tight with someone's budget. We were so successful for so long, but the business started to change and we needed to change with it. Other studios were spending more money on movies and on marketing, so we needed to start spending more money on both of those things to stay competitive.
NEWSWEEK: Was it tempting to stay longer and leave after a banner year?
LANSING: There's never a right time. One more year becomes two more. If I'd re-upped for another year it would have been... I'm proud that I didn't get sucked back in. [Laughs]
NEWSWEEK: What will you be doing next?
LANSING: Philanthropy has always been a major part of my life. I recently formed The Sherry Lansing Foundation, which will concentrate on health and education--cancer research in particular. Plus two new things. In the last election, California approved $3 billion for stem-cell research, and I've been appointed a citizen advocate on the oversight committee. And Jimmy Carter, who's always been an idol of mine, asked me to be on the board of the Carter Center.
NEWSWEEK: What will you miss most about this part of your life?
LANSING: [Very long pause]
NEWSWEEK: If the answer's "nothing," that's OK.
LANSING: [Laughs] I just don't know the answer yet. It's a question you'll have to ask me a year from now. I hope that I'll have such an active future that I'll just have wonderful memories. I leave this job with no regrets.
LANSING: If I think long enough, maybe I'll come up with one. [Laughs] I'm going into a whole other world and a whole other chapter, and I feel 20 years younger. I feel as if I have unlimited possibilities. I feel like everything is going to be... new.
NEWSWEEK: Before I go, do me a favor and tell me your favorite Howard Hawks story.
LANSING: He saw me in those Alberto Culver shampoo commercials and decided I was going to be the girl in "Rio Lobo," starring John Wayne. But he hated my voice, so he taught me to talk [in a Lauren Bacall growl] like this
. On set, not only was I terrified, but I didn't like being someone other than myself. Afterward, I was going through a divorce, I was in therapy and I'd just seen "Valley of the Dolls," and I thought, Oh my God, I'll end up just like that! So I went to see Howard Hawks and told him I was going to quit acting and take a job reading scripts for $5 an hour. He threw me out of his house and never talked to me again. Years later I called him and said, "Well, it didn't turn out so bad, did it?" He said, "You would have been a better actress," and slammed down the phone.
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