In early 2005, Sherry Lansing sent shock waves through Hollywood when she stepped down as chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, bringing an end to one of the most storied careers in entertainment.
Her decision to leave Paramount at age 60 (after greenlighting such classics as Forrest Gump, Braveheart and Titanic) and create a nonprofit foundation was only the latest twist in Lansing’s roller-coaster life.
The Chicago native had gone from being an 8-year-old overwhelmed with guilt at her father’s death, to a teacher in South Central L.A., to an aspiring actress who landed a lead role opposite John Wayne in 1970’s Rio Lobo, to a young woman who hated acting so much it made her physically sick. Changing careers, she became a script reader at $5 an hour and rose to become the first female head of a studio when she was named president of 20th Century Fox in 1980.
She went on to become a major film producer (Indecent Proposal, The Accused) before running Paramount for 12 years.
Despite many offers, she has never told her remarkable story in a book — until now. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from his upcoming biography Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker, THR‘s executive features editor Stephen Galloway picks up her story in 1983, just after Lansing had left Fox to produce.
Terminate the Bitch With Extreme Prejudice
On Jan. 4, 1983, with great fanfare, the industry’s trade publications announced the formation of Jaffe-Lansing Prods., partnering well-known producer Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing for the first time. Flush with excitement, Lansing settled into her oak-paneled offices in Paramount’s Lucille Ball Building. It was here that Howard Hughes had once held court, and here that her new life as a producer would begin, just days after she’d stepped down as president of Fox after a three-year run that had left her feeling battered and bruised.
At last, she was living her dream — or so she thought. “When you’re running a studio, you’re largely reactive,” she said. “You walk into the office. There are 60 calls. There are constant fires to put out. But you’re usually not creating anything from scratch. A producer has to come up with ideas. If you’re not active, nothing gets done.”
Plunging in with her usual whirlwind energy, she set to work reading, developing, meeting with writers and directors, all with the goal of making the kinds of movies she loved. The industry was watching, waiting. And it kept waiting. One small movie emerged and fizzled (Racing With the Moon); so did a second Jaffe-Lansing endeavor (Firstborn). A year went by and then another; the luster faded, the sizzle was gone.
Despite all of Lansing’s efforts, by 1985 she began to question herself, wondering if she had erred. Rather than work on a diverse group of projects at various stages of development, the company’s slate was limited to a few choice vehicles, and now, with nothing even close to being greenlighted, only two scripts were ready to go a step further. One, Diversion, was adapted from a British short about a husband who commits adultery; the other, Reckless Endangerment, was a rape drama based on a real-life case that had made headlines across the country. But the sad truth was, nobody wanted to make either one.
“The titles alone suggested our predicament,” said Lansing.
With her professional life stalled, CAA’s Michael Ovitz stepped in. At 39 years old, he was at the peak of his power, and as the producers’ agent, he was responsible for directing material their way. Over the previous decade, he had built CAA into the dominant force in Hollywood; he was admired and feared, respected and reviled, but Jaffe and Lansing felt they should heed his advice. The three met for dinner at Spago.
“We sat in a prime booth in the corner, with a picture window that featured a full view of the Sunset Strip and its movie billboards,” said Lansing. “Ovitz was showing the town that we were worthy of dinner.”
He was also showing the producers how ineffective they were. As he gestured toward the Strip, with its cascading billboards for upcoming movies, it was obvious none were theirs. Nor was that likely to change with their current projects.
“Put those things aside,” he counseled. “Stop beating your heads against the wall. Let me get you guys back in the mainstream. Eddie Murphy’s really hot, and comedies with him are in demand. I can put one of those together for you.”
“He was doing what an agent should, because we were as cold as ice,” recalled Lansing. “But that wasn’t what we expected.”
Had she opted to be a producer simply to make the vapid comedies Ovitz was recommending? Had she given up an executive’s salary to oversee films she would never pay to watch? Was it not possible to have success and still make the movies she cared for?
She listened and said nothing, and the more Ovitz spoke, the more her heart sank. At last, the threesome said goodbye, as Jaffe and Lansing stepped out of the restaurant into the chill of the night. The city stretched before them, its lights gleaming with the promise they had held so many years earlier when Lansing first came to Los Angeles, but at this moment, the world looked dark.