Hollywood's Leading Lady

In the book "A Siegel Film," the autobiography of Don Siegel, the director of "Dirty Harry," he tells about a staff meeting that took place when he was working on his film "Telefon" with Lee Remick and Charles Bronson.

In the book "A Siegel Film," the autobiography of Don Siegel, the director of "Dirty Harry," he tells about a staff meeting that took place when he was working on his film "Telefon" with Lee Remick and Charles Bronson. The story is about Sherry Lansing, who at the time was the script editor of MGM studios. Since then, she has become the first woman to head a Hollywood studio - in 1980 she was appointed to head 20th Century Fox, where she produced box office hits for 12 years; afterwards she was the head of Paramount for almost 13 years.

During the past month she has been staying in Israel as a guest of the American Jewish Congress and of LAHAV (the Executive Education Center at Tel Aviv University's faculty of management), promoting a cancer foundation and accompanying her husband of 13 years, director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist"), who is directing "Samson and Delilah" for the New Israel Opera here. In the conference room of their Tel Aviv hotel, she says she had not known that Siegel mentioned her in his book, and listens to the story he told.

In the book, which was published in 1993, Siegel, who died in 1991, told about a meeting that took place in 1977. Lansing was the head of the script department at the time ("a very attractive woman," he makes a point of mentioning). The participants were scrutinizing a part of the film in which the lead actress was standing in the bathroom combing her hair in front of the mirror. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the criminal coming out of one of the toilet compartments brandishing a knife, with the intention of attacking her. According to the script, she was supposed to beat him up and overcome him. Siegel says he claimed it was difficult to film a woman in a physical scene; he said it was preferable for Charles Bronson "to take care of the matter." He preferred to omit the scene altogether.

"No," Lansing insisted, "when she overcomes the rapist, the audience will stand up and cheer." He insisted that the script was too long, and she said once again that she thought the scene was essential. He lost his patience: "When it comes to rape, you undoubtedly understand more than I do," said the director venomously, "and you know more about karate, too. Maybe the group here would like to see what would happen if I were to try to rape you - without a knife, of course. Come and stand with your back to me, don't be afraid to hurt me.

"She turned red," he recalls. "She remained glued to her chair. Now after I had proved my argument, they asked me to sit down. Sherry's face was no longer red, it was full of hatred."

How does Sherry Lansing recall this incident? "I remember Don Siegel. He was a very talented man who never listened to me," says Lansing, who two years ago was named the most powerful woman in Hollywood by the Hollywood Reporter, the movie industry weekly. There is a star bearing her name in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "What was hardest for me in those days was to be heard at all in the room, to have someone pay attention to me. I remember myself as the only woman at these meetings. Problems would come up, and everyone would ask `What should we do? What should we do?' And I would say something, and nobody would react, as though my voice hadn't been heard at all, and I would repeat it, and again - nothing. And then some guy would repeat exactly what I had said, and everyone would be very pleased with the suggestion.

Woman in control

"But I must say that Siegel deserves credit for telling this story in his book, for being nice enough to admit his behavior." The incident at the meeting was not exceptional, she adds. "Even when Marvin Davis, who took over my job at Paramount, came to meet me, he didn't understand what I was doing there. `I don't need coffee, thank you,' he said to me. He was familiar with my name, but thought that it was Jerry Lansing. Of course he expected a man.

"Another thing that Siegel's story demonstrates," says Lansing, "is that already then it was very important to me that the woman be in control. When I recall an earlier period such as that in my career, it's clear that my goal was always to have strong actresses, and definitely not victims."

In the past, Lansing has mentioned her mother as a source of inspiration. "My mother was 32 years old when my father died of a heart attack. I was nine years old, my sister was four and a half," she explains. "He had a real estate business, and after the funeral, two of my father's friends came and told my mother, `Margo, don't worry. We'll run the business for you.' She refused. She told them, `Show me what to do, and I'll run the business.' I remember myself as a girl traveling in the car with her, and seeing her taking responsibility as an independent woman." This principle guided her on the screen as well, she says. "As a producer and studio director I made films such as `Double Jeopardy,' with Ashley Judd and `Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,' with Angelina Jolie, action films in which the woman is the fighter and the main character. These turned into genres in themselves."

The films that she produced and that were produced while she was at the helm include "Indecent Proposal," "Fatal Attraction," "The Accused," "The First Wives' Club," "Kramer vs. Kramer," as well as "The China Syndrome," "Forrest Gump," "Saving Private Ryan," "Titanic" and others.

You speak about women in strong roles, but many of the films were controversial just because of the way women were portrayed in them.

"That's true. I define myself as a feminist, and a sentence such as the one said by Glenn Close in `Fatal Attraction' - `I will not be ignored' - was what I considered a feminist statement. I thought that after seeing this film, nobody would dare to take a woman for a one-night stand, and not even have enough respect for her to call her the next day. I also wanted to treat the fact that people go a little crazy when you leave them, and to understand why when you are abandoned by a lover, you feel that your identity is being stolen. Why do people call just to hear their beloved say hello, and then hang up? I also asked myself why I passed by a former lover's house in my car for no reason, what made me do that. I was devastated when I read that people thought the film was anti-feminist, presenting career women as crazy. By no means did I intend to say that all career women are psychotic avengers who cook bunnies in a pot. When I first read that they said the film was not feminist, my eyes welled up with tears.

"I was surprised again at the criticism of `Indecent Proposal.' Neither I nor Demi Moore understood it. After all, this is a film in which the woman decides what to do with her body, how can it be considered sexist? When we began the production of these films, it didn't enter my mind that they would arouse such controversy, but I'm glad they did. People spoke about these subjects. `Fatal Attraction' became part of our culture."

Unmarked territory

"The women's movement is the best thing that has happened in America," says Lansing, "as is the human rights movement." In an interview she gave to Life magazine in the 1970s, she said she didn't believe she would get to see a woman heading a Hollywood studio in her lifetime. Not only did she herself become a studio director, today there is an equal number of male and female studio heads, she says. She has now retired from her executive job after many years, because she decided that at the age of 60, she wants a little freedom in her life. The situation of the studio is not as good as it used to be (it was ranked in seventh place,) some say this is connected to her leaving. In an interview with Time magazine, she responded to the criticism that she took too few financial and creative risks; she said she made "Forrest Gump" after many studios had rejected it, and she is proud that during the period when she headed the studio, no film lost money.

In a conference about women as business executives, which took place last week at Tel Aviv University, she said that when she was a young woman and wanted to be in the movies, there were no acting schools. Lansing, who was born on July 31, 1944 in Chicago, actually paved the way. "We mapped unmarked territory." At the start of her career, she was a teacher of English and mathematics. Later, she was a model in Max Factor ads, and in 1970 she acted in two films, "Loving," and "Rio Lobo." "Fortunately, I was accepted to work in a film quite quickly," she says, "and I discovered early enough that I was really bad at it." In 1971 she worked as a script reader. She had a regular role in "Banyon," a detective drama that lasted for a year, and from there she began to work her way up in the film studios.

The women's liberation movement in the United States helped her to formulate her identity, she says, to spell out her ambitions and to nurture hopes. Feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan opened her eyes. When she was 30 and head of MGM's script department, she turned to one of the senior executives at the studio and asked why she was earning less than her male colleagues. His reply was that she was single, that she had no children and no family to support. She knew that it was wrong, but accepted it submissively. "I grew up in a period when that's what they accustomed women to think," she said. Today, she says, that doesn't happen any more.

Jolie's role

At the conference, you said the field in which you are active has become "gender blind." How can you say that, when there are many more male directors than female ones, and male actors who earn more than actresses?

"There are fewer female directors, but there are no fewer female studio heads, and they earn the same as men in similar jobs. When I was chosen to run Fox, the headline on the front page of The New York Times - not on the financial and business pages - was `Former model to be head of 20th Century Fox.' At the time it was a story; today they'll report the appointment of a new female studio head as a routine matter on the financial pages.

"A woman who wants to perform in an action movie can do so, as in the case of `Mr. and Mrs. Smith.' After it, Angelina Jolie will be ranked higher in the list of popular and profitable actors, and she deserves it. From my experience, female directors and actresses have preferred more artistic films, and I have no criticism of that. When I offered them a chance to direct films of that kind, and to participate in them, many didn't want to do so. They were attracted to films in which there is an emphasis on character and script development rather than on action - rather than to films that catered to international box offices."

Did you employ more women than men, as an affirmative action policy?

"No. I employed many more women when I ran the studios, but not one of them was hired because of affirmative action; if a woman was hired, it was because she was the most suitable person for the job.

"Once," adds Lansing, who does not intend to return to the film world, "the rule was that if one woman had received the job, it meant the second had no chance of getting anything similar. Because there was already a woman in such a position. Today in California alone there are two female Jewish senators. Two! Can you believe it? Things have changed a great deal."