The Book of the Week is “Leading Lady, Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker” by Stephen Galloway, published in 2017.
The subject of this movie-studio-executive biography was born in July 1944 in Chicago. She had a younger sister. Her biological father died of a heart condition when she was almost nine years old. That childhood trauma made her driven to succeed in life. But she took her stepfather’s last name, Lansing.
After graduating from Northwestern University, she and her medical-student husband moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue her dream of becoming an actress. To earn a living, she became a substitute teacher.
She suffered through three years of cattle calls and other indignities, which allegedly did not include sexual favors for career advancement. Arguably, in retrospect, there were mitigating factors to the culpability of men who displayed behavior on the continuum of sexual harassment of women in the entertainment industry.
In Lansing’s generation, both females and males accepted the continually reinforced gender-stereotypes in American culture, especially in that line of work. The vast majority of women never thought to question their enforced inferiority. The tiny number who did, were left silently seething.
Any woman who dared to enter the entertainment industry knew that that was the status quo, or quickly found that out. Institutionalized gender discrimination was a fact of life. Nowadays, of course, men’s offensive behavior is considered by everyone to be inexcusable, but accusations are still very hard to prove, absent reliable witnesses or physical evidence.
Anyhow, Lansing finally got a few roles, the most exciting of which was a bit-part on the TV show Laugh-In. However, the phoniness of acting wasn’t for her; she found she needed to be true to herself and the world.
Lansing, then 26, had cultivated valuable Hollywood contacts, one of whom, a producer, gave her work as a script-reader. Again, in the 1960’s, movie-making was still a male-dominated field, in which few women were able to tolerate the old-boy-network’s frat-boy behavior if they were trying to climb the corporate ladder. Lansing had a calm, peace-inducing temperament and engaging personality. She was able to keep her mouth shut and endure her hostile work environment until such time as she wielded the power to work with men as an equal.
That time came in November 1992, when Lansing became chair and CEO of Paramount Pictures’ movie division. Nevertheless, her work involved a boatload of stress and worries. She was the ultimate decisionmaker on whether a movie got made, but there were frequent problems with, and fierce arguments over hiring crews, financing, casting, shooting, screening, promoting, etc.
By the 1990’s, studios were forced to jointly pay production costs because filmmaking had become so expensive with high-tech special effects and for other reasons. So the relocating of the shooting of Braveheart from Scotland to Ireland due to foul weather, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Irish government provided 1,700 extras on the set, free of charge. Despite the astronomical costs of Titanic, the movie reached its break-even point prior to the revenue streams of cable TV, home entertainment and ancillary markets. Eventually it raked in revenues of $2.19 billion.
But after ten years at the top, Lansing was becoming disenchanted with the trends of the industry. For, “…the quality of pictures no longer seemed essential… clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies.” In other words, execrable movies that never should have been made were profitable, anyway– the marketers had become more important than the producers, casts and crews. Curiously, the same thing happened in publishing– the people managing the creative side of the business got greedy when cultural changes caused costs to rise.
Besides, Lansing asked, “How did the Oscars become the monstrosity where people [movie studios] are spending zillions and having parties and slipping things here and there? What happened to the camaraderie?” It should not have come as a surprise that by early 2003, Wal-Mart had become one of the largest distributors of DVD’s in the nation.
Read the book to learn more about Lansing’s career trials, tribulations and successes, her personal life, and the activities she found more fulfilling after she left Paramount.