Meeting Sherry Lansing seemed too good to be true in our family. As a journeyman actor and celebrity interviewer, my husband Mark and I considered Ms. Lansing—the then chairman of Paramount and first woman to ever run a major motion picture studio—nothing short of the president of Hollywood. But after our first brush with the most powerful woman in town, we were considering moving or changing our names. But first, a little back story…
Swing a cat and you can’t help but hit a person in Hollywood who’s had his or her headshots, family portraits, or prom photos retouched. The frequency of this practice, of transforming the imperfect to the flawless, was introduced to me when Mark took an office job following the commercial actor’s strike in 2000, working at a popular syndicated photo agency. Not one that represents the paparazzi, mind you, but rather the photogs who exist in partnership with celebrities and magazines as co-creators of the glamour machine. Through exposure to often-dramatic before-and-after photos kept in top-secret files in the agency’s back room, I was amazed by the degree to which most images don’t come straight from the camera, as we’re accustomed to seeing them. The practice of retouching is one of the most important steps in a long line of artistic and legal maneuvers from here to there, and most agencies and publications have in-house art wizards ensuring that every last detail is attended to. Dealing with big-time celebs and their cunning lawyers is no one’s idea of a good time; it is imperative to avoid rankling an A-lister by erasing her million-dollar dimples while leaving the larger ones on her thighs. But just because every player within the industry knows the written rule—that the public’s never to see the ultra-private shots of the oft-wrinkled, blemished, saggy, chubby, tired, or pasty-pale au-naturale famous ones (AKA, tabloid treasures)—clarity about who does what in the publishing process can get muddled.
In comes my husband, whom even as a newbie agent rep, understood the game. But somewhere in his urgent negotiations with Time magazine doing a lead story about the powerful women running the industry, which focused on the Paramount Studios chairman, an error was made and Sherry Lansing’s photo was published in its un-retouched, un-glory. Let’s just say that it was a good thing Mark’s acting career was picking up steam. A near international incident was created when millions saw the full-page photo of Ms. Lansing in bad lighting and thick, powdery, wrinkle-enhancing make-up. Honestly, heads didn’t roll, but you would have thought so by the ripples within the agency. Emergency meetings were scheduled; lawyers were called in to assess the potential damage. The talk for weeks was of nothing but lawsuits and firing Mark, and we braced ourselves for the wrath. I obsessed that the woman responsible for developing and/or green-lighting Forest Gump, Fatal Attraction, Braveheart, Titanic, and the Mission Impossible movies could, if so moved, blackball my man from acting in anything of quality again. Not to mention, ban me from interviewing her celebrity friends, which was just about everybody. I decided that sinister things had happened for less in the name of retribution in Tinsel Town, and we needed crisis management. Or female bonding.
Which is why I had no problem summoning the chutzpah to walk up to Sherry Lansing at a Paramount party for the DVD release of Grease and introduce myself, dragging Mark along as he courageously shook Sherry’s hand and admitted, “It was me!” By that time, more weeks had passed and nothing even remotely threatening had come from Sherry’s office. But despite feeling strangely bonded with the chairman after having her on the brain 24/7, I couldn’t quite believe that my husband was off the hook. [The odds of getting her for a cover story felt farfetched at that point, but I hoped that with time, it might happen one day. Voilà!] No one had thought to fill me in on the fact that Sherry had a reputation as a benevolent leader, but I had my suspicions as she enthusiastically hugged us both. “No worries!” she said, laughing and clasping our hands in hers, as if we were dear friends. “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens in my career, I’m a lucky woman!” Her words were appreciated, but it was what I saw in Sherry’s eyes that brought true relief. Total compassion. Lucky for us, the woman who started out as a model and actress apparently remembered being at the mercy of people wielding immense power.
Four years later, for this interview, we meet again, and I sense that Sherry’s trying to place my name with my face. “Do we know each other from somewhere?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, hoping that validating her memory isn’t unwise. “I’m the one whose husband sold your…” “Of course!” she exclaims before I’ve finished. “I’ve got it right over there…” Thankfully, Sherry’s smiling as she points to a photo in the corner, explaining that she normally doesn’t exhibit solo pictures of herself. “I can’t remember if Time magazine or the photographer or both sent it to me, but I keep it because that was just so funny. They put it in this nice frame, saying that this was how it was supposed to look.”
By the way, Sherry, I ask, sensing I’m on safe ground… What was your reaction when you saw the magazine? “You know,” she answers, shaking her head, “when I opened it up, I said, ‘Whoa!’ It was one of those times when I asked all my friends, ‘What do you think?’ ‘The article was great!’ they said. ‘The article was great!’ I said, ‘Forget the article; what about the picture?’ There would be this pause. Everyone always tells you that your picture’s okay. But not this time! They said, ‘You don’t look like that!’ to which I answered, ‘Well, maybe I really do.'” Sherry confesses that she fantasized about getting all the copies back. “That was impossible, of course, but when they mailed me this photo, I did think of going to all my friends and saying, ‘See! See! See! This is what was supposed to run.”
Rewire, not Retire!
Sherry announced that she would be leaving Paramount in 2005, on the eve of her 60th birthday, and it’s easy to see that she’s thriving in “retirement,” if that’s what you could call running The Sherry Lansing Foundation—her latest commitment to funding and raising awareness for cancer research (as well as supporting education, art, and culture—whew!). Inspired by a book by Mark Freedman, she also thought she’d try and change the world by starting a new movement—akin to the Civil Rights or the Woman’s movement. Bringing imaginary worlds to life in the movies must make one think bigger. This massive undertaking, called PrimeTime, is much like the Peace Corps in that it involves getting huge numbers of people to volunteer. Only rather than joining early in one’s life, you’ve got to be over the age of 55. “We tell people, ‘Rewire, not Retire,’ she says. “It’s so exciting because with 60 million Americans eligible, we have a lot of people who want to be relevant, and a whole lot of others who need them.” Our school systems come to mind, and Sherry explains that they’ve formed a partnership with L.A. Unified as their pilot program.
She’s been traveling the world, too, with her Academy-Award-winning movie director husband, William Friedkin (French Connection, The Exorcist). Sherry says that for the first time in her life, she’s able to enjoy a locale without a cell phone appendage. William’s been directing operas, allowing the couple to live in Italy and Israel for month-long intervals. Next up? “We’re going to Africa on safari,” she tells me. “Isn’t that incredible? I love this whole new chapter of life.”
Speaking of husbands, I’m feeling playful and hope Sherry will indulge me as I attempt to compare notes… about our marriages! Being married to an actor, I say,I know how crazy it can be. But, is it nuts at your house, married to the director ofThe Exorcist?” Sherry throws her head back and laughs. Either she’s heard this one before, or I’m on to something. “If you’re asking if he’s as dramatic as your husband, I would have to say most likely! Actors and directors see and think in dramatic terms. That’s who they are. They have high emotions, but we must need that or we wouldn’t be attracted to them, don’t you think?” So my friends have suggested, I smirk—never wanting to admit my own attraction toward drama.
“They also give you the most romantic life in the whole world,” she continues, her cheeks blushing, eyes trailing out over the emerald green golf course visible just outside her office. “And the most unconditional love, with surprises, like in movies.” She’s right, I agree, and we laugh and carry on about how our creative men write us poetry and crack us up with their zany impromptu skits and reenactments of life’s ironies. “They’re wonderfully crazy,” she adds, “creative geniuses who make us feel alive and keep us from boredom.” Sherry and William—or Billy, as Sherry calls him—eloped after knowing each other a mere twelve weeks. Mark and I were less patient, and married within eight weeks. Avoiding monotony? Check. Check.
That reminds me that expressing one’s emotions can get a person labeled as “high maintenance,” especially in this town, where gossip abounds and cameras lurk in the most unlikely places. I ask if the movie stars she worked with were ever difficult. “Occasionally,” she says, “but when some executive would say to me, ‘You know, Sherry, so and so is difficult,’ I’d think ‘God, we’re behind the camera, our face isn’t out in front of a billion people. Actors are the most exposed beings on earth. Have some understanding of that.'”
Walking in their shoes, even to a degree, has informed Sherry’s ability to work in harmony with superstars. “My brief experience as an actor gave me such respect for their ability to put themselves out there. I wasn’t that talented, nor was I comfortable playing someone other than myself, but I had such comprehension of the pain it takes to become that successful.”
Even when you are that successful, it can be brutal, I declare, to which she’s quick to react. “Yes! You have to read bad reviews, and turn on the TV to see people critiquing your every move. Success and popularity are difficult to sustain; they’re so ephemeral. I loved the actors I was fortunate enough to work with, and I loved the directors. I understood completely that they were so brave.”
Sherry relates a story about Michael Douglas. As one of the producers on Fatal Attraction, she rejoiced when Michael won the 1987 best actor Oscar for Wall Street. “I’ll never forget the genius of his acceptance speech. This is an actor who had done ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ for a long time, without being taken very seriously, and then spent years building a movie career, the fruits of which were culminating in that moment. When he came up to receive his award, he basically said that there are a lot of talented people out there, but that he just happened to have gotten the part. In other words, it’s not just about being talented; you have to have the right role in order to shine.” I nod, and as if reading my mind, Sherry says: “I’m sure your husband is a brilliant actor. And he needs luck to get the part. Then, if he gets the part, he’ll be seen as an overnight sensation, despite working regularly for over twenty years.”
As one who granted big parts to actors as the president of 20th Century-Fox and then as chairman of Paramount, I wonder aloud how Sherry reconciled her acting past with being in the position to make or break careers. “I so empathized with them,” she answers. “I wanted to be the opposite of what I’d experienced. ‘Do you have enough coffee? You were great. Don’t worry; you were great!’ It’s so agonizing to put yourself up for rejection day in and day out and people can be so mean sometimes. One day you’re hot, the next you’re cold and it can shift with little or no warning.”
Sherry’s experienced that firsthand. Her first two films, co-produced with Stanley Jaffe, weren’t considered successful at the box office, but the second two, The Accused and Fatal Attraction were huge hits. She remembers a journalist asking her what she’d done differently on the blockbusters vs. the flops. “‘Nothing!’ I told him. ‘We worked just as hard on the ones that failed as we did on the ones that succeeded.’ That’s what drives you crazy. And I liked them all the same! One of the emotional challenges for an actor who makes it is that he or she thinks to themselves, ‘But I did everything the same when I wasn’t making it, and now I’m this big star. Why? Why me?’ There’s so much luck involved.”
Compound that with the fact that Sherry’s highest grossing movies were the ones no one wanted to make. “Fatal Attraction was passed on by every studio, twice,” she says. “Seventeen directors passed on The Accused. Forrest Gump was in turnaround; it took forever to put that movie together. Over the years I’ve been turned down by a hundred people, had a script thrown in my face, and was told that people HATE my project. But you just hang in. Honestly, the movies that came together the easiest were usually the ones that were our biggest disappointments.”
You have a unique viewpoint of success, I tell her. “I’ve been blessed to see a lot,” Sherry answers, “and I think what’s wrong with our culture is that we don’t have enough respect for people who try. We need to stand up and applaud those who make the effort to just get up to bat, like the directors who go into the trenches every day and have never had a hit movie, or the cinematographers and actors who will never get rich or get recognized. We need to give them all credit. They never give up, and therefore, I tried never to give up on them.”
Maybe that’s why we all love a good comeback—like John Travolta, I say. We’re all secretly hoping the person down on his luck will rise again, just as we’d want for ourselves. “How true,” she responds. ‘And this goes for people who stick their neck out in all areas. We should applaud the kid who’s getting all C’s, but who is really trying, the single mother who goes back to school, or the father who takes a second job to pay off his credit cards. We value success more than the process of giving our best effort, and I think that’s a shame.”
60 is the New 45!
Is life better now than ever? I ask. “I’m having the life I dreamed about,” she answers. “Even though I always adored my work, I feel liberated. Joyous. When you turn 60, if you’ve been lucky enough to get your dreams to come true, or to fulfill even a handful of your goals, you want to give back. For me it was as strong as the desire to make movies was twenty years ago. And, as satisfying. I’m making a difference and feel younger than I’ve ever felt. I feel more alive than ever.” It shows, I tell her. You look younger than when we first met. “I think it shows on your face when you’re doing something new,” she answers. “And, right now, everything is new to me. I’m meeting new people. I’m learning about new things. And, I have spontaneity.”
Ah-ha! Now I understand why retouching has become so popular! Cameras do lie—by freezing and recording a fraction of whom a person is for all eternity, sometimes at her most unglamorous. (Of course positive images are frozen in time as well.) This woman is having FUN, and in person, where one’s inner and outer beauty are impossible to separate (hence, why a physically perfect but emotionally cruel person’s very image can repel), Sherry’s enthusiasm and happiness eclipse any laugh- or age-lines.
What are the Odds?
I look at the clock and see that we’ve been talking over two hours, so I hand Sherry a past issue of our magazine, to leave her with something tangible. “Oh, I love Linda Gray!” she says, noticing the cover. “I have the best story about Linda, if you have time.” Time? For President Lansing? Of course, I say. By the way, Linda and I have become friends. Is this something I can share with her? “Oh, she knows this story well,” Sherry says, and begins reminiscing about their modeling days together, back when the two brunets were often up for the same hair commercial. “You could feel the competition in those rooms, where everybody looked exactly alike—dark hair, blue eyes, long legs, whatever. My nature is to be outgoing and friendly, but when I’d say hello to women in those rooms, most were very reserved. But not Linda! She’d get this big smile on her face and say ‘Hi! How are you?’ We got to know each other. She was married, had kids, and lived in the Valley. I was single. We each got our fair share of work, but not as much as we’d have liked. Then, I realized that I no longer wanted to act, and I got a job reading scripts and lost track of her. Time flew by while I was busy climbing the ladder, and then, boom! I was running a studio.”
I have to interrupt her story here because Sherry’s too humble to reveal the best details—that the New York Times ran a front-page story about her being the first woman to climb that high in her industry. Her position made headlines around the world, and yet she won’t reveal that either. But she will admit that she was excited. “I went home on the night of my promotion, and thought about how lucky I was. I had just been given the most amazing opportunity; this from a girl who couldn’t land enough commercials to pay the bills. That’s when I thought about her, about Linda Gray, and the road not taken. I wondered what had happened to that nice girl, whom I hadn’t seen on the air lately. I thought, ‘Aren’t I lucky that I’m not still doing commercials!’
“About a year later there was a new hit show. The biggest one on TV. Everyone was always rushing home to see this thing called Dallas. One Friday night I rushed home too, and there was my friend as the star of the show!” Sherry called Linda, and the two met for lunch to celebrate their good fortune. “We went to Jimmy’s and toasted each other with champagne,” Sherry recalls, “and I asked her how she had finally made it, past the age of 35, no less. That was a big deal back then. Without missing a beat, Linda said, ‘I just hung in there. I just hung in, Sherry.'”
Sherry recently invited Linda Gray and me to her favorite spot for a girl’s lunch, where we toasted the continued good fortune of old and new connections. My dream role models offered me advice on my career, as big sister-types would, and I kept thinking that if my mother were alive, she’d never get over whom her daughter was “doing lunch” with. The next day, it was announced that Sherry would be receiving an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, this February at the 79th Academy Awards. Linda and I can’t wait until April, when Sherry returns from traveling and we can harass her for the glory details at our next lunch. We’re hoping that she’ll brag, even if it’s just a little, and that she’ll bring her new golden man to the table to join us. Friends don’t let their friends hide those things in bathrooms.
Just when you think someone can’t go any higher, the universe expands. If the way Sherry treated my husband and me years ago is any indication of the dignity she affords everyone, perhaps there’s nowhere to go but up? Sherry Lansing has inspired me to believe that women—even those like Sherry with children and a husband—should rule a heck of a lot more than movie studios. I’m thinking it’s about time they ruled the world.
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