Laura Ziskin, a producer who worked on "Pretty Woman" and the "Spider-Man" trilogy and died Sunday at the age of 61, lived the life of a trailblazer. Sometimes that was intentional, other times not so much -- she just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Or, in the case of the breast cancer that eventually killed her, the wrong place at the right time.
Born in 1950 in Southern California, Ziskin was not one of those people who fell into film after trying other walks of life; she went to the University of Southern California specifically to study film. From there, she wrote on game shows and worked for producer Jon Peters, eventually being associate producer on his 1978 film "Eyes of Laura Mars." It was her first producer credit.
Soon, she stopped working for Peters and began producing her own films, including "Murphy's Romance" and "No Way Out." But her biggest hit of that time period was "Pretty Woman," which she executive produced. And like almost her early films, she was the only woman producer on the picture, earning her the distinction of being one of the prominent female producers of her era, which included Sherry Lansing and Kathleen Kennedy.
In the 1990s, right around the time she produced "To Die For," a movie that established Nicole Kidman not as just a beauty but as a major actress, Ziskin became president of Fox 2000, a newly established film department at Fox that tackled more challenging fare. During her tenure, she was responsible for (among others) "Fight Club" and "The Thin Red Line," nervy, challenging films that are much harder to imagine being made at a studio today. Just the trailer for "Fight Club" seems just about unthinkable in today's brand-heavy studio climate:
Then came Spider-Man. We forget this now because of how lucrative the franchise became, but at the time there were considerable questions. Tobey Maguire wasn't a huge name, Kirsten Dunst had never had a hit, and Sam Raimi wasn't a major Hollywood director. (James Cameron, among others, had tried and failed to get the property off the ground years ago.) $2.5 billion worldwide over three films later, the whole thing turned out fine:
Successful producer, studio suit, "Spider-Man" guardian, Oscar telecast producer: That's a pretty pioneering career, especially for a woman in an industry that's not exactly inviting to women in its upper echelons. Her next challenge was one she didn't ask for. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 in the midst of "Spider-Man" success, she formed Stand Up 2 Cancer with Lansing, Katie Couric and others to raise awareness. Her motivation was obvious. "There's nothing like a pissed-off patient," she once told Couric. Almost a year ago, she was still convinced that her work with SU2C would help find a cure for her disease. She just felt that it took people being motivated:
if you opened The New York Times today and it had the headline 1,500 AMERICANS DIED TODAY, people would be up in arms. They would say, "This is crazy, we have to do something." And that's the statistic for cancer, so we have to do something.
She and her friends did just that. They raised money and spread the word about the importance of getting tested. And their star-studded SU2C commercials are easily the most stirring PSAs produced in recent time.
Sadly, she wasn't able to conquer cancer. It was about the only barrier she didn't conquer during her lifetime.
Laura Ziskin, 'Spider-Man' producer and Hollywood trailblazer, dies at 61 [24 Frames/Los Angeles Times]