By Kaye Foley
Sherry Lansing, first female studio head and former Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO, is behind some of the biggest movies — and has dealt with some of the biggest movie stars — ever. She moved to Los Angeles in 1966 to pursue her dream of acting and wound up climbing to the top of the executive ladder.
Her life story is told in the new book “Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker,” written by journalist Stephen Galloway.
Lansing sat down with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric to talk about her career, sexism in Hollywood, behind-the-scenes stories about Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, among others, and her “third-act” shift to philanthropy.
In 1980, at the age of 35, Lansing became the studio president of 20th Century Fox, the first woman to head a movie studio.
“I think we’ve come a long way since then,” Lansing said of women in the industry.
“I never thought about [being a role model] when I was doing the job,” Lansing said. “At the time all I thought about was doing the work. And there was so much work. If I let all the other things affect me, I would have lost my focus.”
Lansing worked in the movie industry for almost four decades before she left in 2005. She told Couric the industry has changed a lot since she first started, with the marketing and promotion of movies becoming as important as the movies.
“Today you make a movie and even if it’s great, you have to be able to sell it. Word of mouth doesn’t carry it anymore,” Lansing said. “The kind of intimate movies that I like where people talk and are about character movies, those movies are made less by the studios and big franchise tent poles are made far more often.”
Throughout the book, Galloway shares behind-the-scenes accounts from some of the most beloved and iconic movies that Lansing worked on, such as “Fatal Attraction,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic.” Couric asked Lansing about some of these stories, including why she related to Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction.”
“What I think I related to was that she had an emotional relationship with a man, albeit just for a weekend, and then he never called her again.” Lansing explained, “That phrase ‘I will not be ignored, Dan,’ is what I related to… because I wanted my voice to be heard. It goes way beyond the movie.”
Lansing worked with Gibson on “Braveheart,” which won five Academy Awards. Couric asked Lansing about Gibson’s fall from grace after he made anti-Semitic and sexist comments when he was pulled over for a DUI in 2006.
“The Mel Gibson that I knew and that I worked with for seven or eight years is not homophobic, and he’s not sexist and he’s not anti-Semitic,” Lansing said. “I think he has demons and when he drinks, those demons come out and he becomes another person.”
“I think he has worked very hard to get rid of his demons. He doesn’t drink anymore. He’s sober. And that’s the real Mel Gibson.”
Lansing developed a close bond with Cruise throughout her career, working with him on blockbusters such as “War of the Worlds” and the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. She first worked with Cruise on “Taps” when he was only 19 years old.
“You recognized right away his extraordinary talent,” Lansing said. “He was the hardest working actor. … He was incredibly focused, and he was incredibly polite. He was nice to everybody on the crew, and that’s the way he is today.”
When Cruise began to receive backlash for his involvement in Scientology, Lansing reached out to her friend, eager to understand more about it. She went to the center in Los Angeles.
“There was never any pressure to become a Scientologist,” Lansing said. “I just learned about it.”
“All I see in Tom Cruise is a man who has a religious belief that has given him the ability, I’m sure, to face whatever difficulties he faces in his life… what I also see is a person who is kind to everybody, respectful of everybody… all I have is respect for him.”
Couric also asked Lansing if there were any stories she wished Galloway had not included in her biography. She mentioned an argument with Mike Myers after he inadvertently failed to get the rights for the original “Wayne’s World 2” script, and with Hawn when she got cold feet before the start of “First Wives Club” and tried to leave the film.
“I was shocked. If she didn’t show up that meant Bette Midler wasn’t going to show up, Diane Keaton wasn’t going to show up — our whole movie was going to fall apart,” Lansing said. “So I threatened to sue her.”
“The truth of the matter is that’s what the job requires. That you have to do everything you can to protect the movie, and sometimes you have to be tough.” Lansing added, “But what Stephen didn’t include is that Goldie and I are still really, really close friends… At the end of the day, even though these are fights at the moment, they’re passionate people fighting for what they care about, and then you come together to do what’s best for the movie.”
An admirer of former President Jimmy Carter’s charity work, Lansing left Paramount in 2005 and turned her focus to philanthropy.
“If you can keep curious and have new chapters all the time,” Lansing said of her career change, “you will have a really interesting life, an authentic life, and be young ”
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