By FRANK SWERTLOW
If Sherry Lansing had listened to her mother, she would have settled down near her hometown of Chicago and raised children and that’s very nearly what happened.
While attending Northwestern University, Lansing got engaged to her high school sweetheart. The career choices for her were nursing and teaching, both of which could be used to augment her husband’s income.
But Lansing yearned for something else. She was caught up by the flickering pictures she saw in Chicago-area theaters. Even today, seeing a film remains her favorite pastime.
“I loved sitting in a darkened theater and seeing this amazing, magical world on the screen,” she recalls. “I wanted to be part of it. But being a nice Jewish girl and getting involved in the horrible movie business was like going to the moon.”
Today, Lansing isn’t just the most powerful woman in Hollywood she’s the most powerful woman in the history of the entertainment industry. Chairwoman of the motion picture group of Paramount Pictures, Lansing was ranked No. 5 in Fortune magazine’s survey of the 50 most powerful women in American business.
After graduating from Northwestern in 1966, Lansing did get married, but she didn’t settle in Chicago. The couple moved to Los Angeles, where Lansing supplemented her income as a teacher with part-time modeling jobs and bit parts in films one of which was “Rio Lobo,” starring John Wayne.
“He was very supportive, very paternal and nice, like I was his 22-year-old niece,” Lansing recalls. “I still remember how very polite and respectful he was.”
A fast learner, Lansing quickly understood that she was not meant for an on-screen career.
“I was not a very good actress,” she admits. “I felt more comfortable behind the camera. I liked modeling better. You could be yourself.”
For four years, Lansing put her college degree to good use teaching high school math in Watts. But she still yearned for a career in the movies. She got one, sort of. At night, she read movie scripts, earning $5 per script. It was the bottom of the ladder, but she didn’t stay there very long.
Two years later, Lansing landed a job in the story department at MGM, and two years after that, at 30, she was promoted to head of the department. She jumped to Columbia Pictures and began moving up the ladder. In 1980, at the age of 35, she became the head of production at Twentieth Century Fox, the first woman ever to run a movie studio.
“It was like a moon shot,” Lansing recalls. “It was on the front page of The New York Times.”
But it still wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted to make movies, not green-light films for other people. After three years, Lansing, by now divorced, left Fox and became an independent producer with Stanley Jaffe. Among the films they produced were “The Accused,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Black Rain.”
After a stint with her own production company, Lansing Productions, which produced “Indecent Proposal” for Paramount, the studio offered her its top movie job in 1992. The offer came at the right time. She had recently remarried, to director William Friedkin, and the Paramount job meant she could stay at home and enjoy a family life instead of continually trotting around the world on location shoots.
Lansing now oversees all aspects of Paramount’s motion picture group. Her sanely budgeted films during the past four years have won three Oscars for best picture “Forrest Gump” in 1994, Braveheart” in 1995 and “Titanic” in 1997. That film is also the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Where did Lansing get the pluck and determination to reach for the brass ring in Hollywood? Ironically, she credits the same person who urged her to stay in Chicago and be a dutiful wife.
“My mother was my first role model,” Lansing says.
Lansing’s mother fled the Nazis in Germany as a young woman. Even as a child, she saw the impact of the Holocaust on those who survived its shadow. When the subject of Nazis came up, she would see her mother walk out of the room and shake.
“Survivors are strong and resilient,” Lansing says. “They had something in them to survive this incredible torture. People hid in rooms or closets and yet their remaining lives were amazingly productive afterwards.”
Luckily, Lansing’s grandparents sensed that something horrifying was going to happen to Jews in Germany. They put her mother on a train to the West with money hidden on her. There were other trains and boats ahead. So was New York, and finally Chicago, where she had two uncles.
She ended up having two daughters, with Sherry the eldest. When Lansing’s mother became a widow at 32, she was left to take over the family real estate business.
“I remember it as if it were yesterday, my two uncles came over, and they were well-meaning, and said we’ll run the thing,” Lansing recalls. “She said thanks, but she had two children and she couldn’t rely on them.”
At Paramount, Lansing and her boss Jonathan Dolgen, who oversees all of studio owner Viacom Inc.’s entertainment operations, have a reputation for being extremely cost-conscious. Films tend to be in the middle budget range, and on the rare occasions it does distribute a big-budget movie it tends to partner with another studio. Indeed, the highest fee that Paramount has ever paid for a movie was $65 million, which went to co-produce “Titanic” with Fox.
Although a rancorous temper and overwhelming ego seem to be job requisites in Hollywood, Lansing has a reputation for being especially courteous and considerate.
“This is how I was raised,” she said. “I like people. It would never occur to me not to return my calls. It’s rude and it’s not good business.”