An Unlikely Life
Book Review by Pam Munter
Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing And The Making Of A Hollywood Groundbreaker
by Stephen Galloway
Crown Archetype, 2017
415 pages, $16.89 ($13.99 Kindle)
Forget the profane Harry Cohn, the tyrannical Louis B. Mayer, and the lascivious Darryl F. Zanuck. Never mind the fictional sociopathic Sammy Glick. Enter Sherry Lansing, billed here as the first female to head up a major motion picture studio, breaking the sexist executive mold forever. Stephen Galloway has written a delicious valentine to her in Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker.
In spite of historical antecedents, she climbs the slippery ladder to the top in an extraordinarily short period of time, from model to actress to script reader. After an apprenticeship, a steep learning curve and the formation of several propitious relationships, she began her rule, initially over Twentieth Century Fox, then over Paramount where she oversaw a billion dollars in production and marketing. Galloway writes, “She was as much a part of the entertainment landscape as the Hollywood sign, one of a rare breed of executives known by their first names alone.”
The book is filled with the intricate details of tense negotiations and the making of many of her biggest films— “Saving Private Ryan,” “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic” among so many others. How did a feminine woman, a former model with unfulfilled acting dreams, take over the testosterone-infused crude world of studio management? Lansing “ruled with an iron fist inside the most velvet of gloves.” She had prodigious interpersonal skills and a likable personality that, when melded with her driven work ethic and calculating smarts, separated her out from the tyrants and sociopaths. Not every project was a big winner but Galloway had trouble finding anyone to speak ill of her in his four years of research and collaboration.
The counterpoint to this book is the evolution of Hollywood, itself—studio consolidation, the death of the movie mogul, the rise of corporate mergers. Her tenure came at the beginning of the feminist movement so there were no available female role models. When she started her first job, she was paid less because she was an unmarried female. Even her own mother told her once she climbed to the top, “Well, no one’s going to marry you now.” It became her personal mission to mentor and promote capable women. She had been there. She knew how tough and lonely it could be.
Her personal struggles are more riveting than the studio battles, at least for a layperson. Lansing’s rise to the top came in spite of her low self-esteem and issues with depression. She told an interviewer at the recent Los Angeles Times Book Fair that her five years of intense psychotherapy represented the best decision she ever made. The self she buttressed there made it possible for her to charge ahead against her very nature. “Analysis is about re-parenting yourself and relearning the habits of a lifetime…I’m convinced I wouldn’t have the life I have today if it weren’t for that.” She maintained her essentially warm personality but added some necessary tools. Galloway tells us, “She liked to be liked, needed it even, and unsheathed the steel within only when absolutely necessary.”
Those occasions when she battled prominent actors, producers and directors make for a fun and juicy reading, spicing up the endless details of deals. Robert Redford and Mel Gibson are portrayed as the most cantankerous with Tom Cruise earning the award as most loyal. Galloway maintains that people ended up not only respecting her but liking her as well, a rare outcome in the-ends-justify-the-means Hollywood.
The deaths from cancer of her mother and her friend and competitor Dawn Steel sensitized her to the need for further medical research. She established the Sherry Lansing Foundation and became actively involved in fundraising for this and other nonprofit organizations. In the middle of still another set of studio skirmishes, her husband, writer William Friedkin, underwent an emergency triple bypass. It caused her to rethink her commitments. Galloway writes, “…she was drained by the petty squabbles and endless aggravation, and oversized egos and childish demands. She longed to get out.”
The book opens, in fact, with her limo pulling away from the iconic Paramount gates, on her way to a meeting with former President Jimmy Carter in Georgia. During their four-hour conversation, he apprised her of the pros and cons of the charity-driven life she was contemplating, encouraging her to jump in without fear. When her contract was up for renewal at Paramount, she announced her retirement. The well-attended farewell event on the lot was full of loving friends, effusive tributes to her success and some good-natured teasing covering the momentousness of the occasion. When the evening was over, “She walked around the deserted studio one last time, lost in silence. The buildings were bathed in a half-light, empty and abandoned at this unholy hour.” “I didn’t feel nostalgic,” she reports. “I just wanted to say one last good-bye.”
After four years of meeting with Lansing and completing an impressing amount of research, Galloway is clearly a fan. “Lansing was the first woman to reign in this man’s world is still the one who had done it the best.”
We end up respecting and liking Lansing, too and don’t even mind Galloway co-opting the First Female title from Mary Pickford, who—with three equally talented men who weren’t the least bit interested in administration—helped found and actually ran United Artists in the early part of the 20th century. The world in which Lansing reigned was more complex and far less hospitable to women, making her achievements all that much more laudable.
Pam Munter is a retired clinical psychologist, performer, and former film historian, working on a memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, and Angels Flight—Literary West, among others.