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Julia Phillips, Oscar-winning producer of The Sting, remembered

January 3, 2002
Julia Phillips
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Julia Phillips

The world press eulogized Julia Phillips, the first woman to win an Academy Award as a producer, following her death on January 1, 2002. 

Raised by a father who worked as a chemical engineer on the Manhattan Project, Phillips graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1965, where she won the Phi Beta Kappa award for creative writing but floundered in math and French.  After four years working in low-level positions in publishing, she got a job as a story editor and creative executive for film companies in New York.

In the early 1970s, she moved to Hollywood and formed Bill/Phillips Productions with the actor Tony Bill and her husband Michael Phillips.  After producing Steelyard Blues with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, the company had a worldwide hit in 1973 with The Sting starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  The blockbuster garnered seven Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture. Phillips became the first woman to produce a film that earned this prize (the next would be Lili Fini Zanuck for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989).

She followed quickly with The Big Bus, a comic disaster in more ways than one. Although it starred Stockard Channing and Lynn Redgrave, it tanked at the box office.  But her career revived in 1976 when she produced Taxi Driver, which earned her a second Oscar nomination.

Her private life also began to have dramatic ups and downs as she struggled with drug addiction. In 1977 she was fired during post-production of another cultural phenomenon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She became unemployable in the industry that had brought her success and acclaim.

It wasn’t until 14 years later that she entered a new phase of public notoriety, publishing a scathing memoir of her experiences with the male power structure in Hollywood.  You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists in 1991.  Though it was unflinching in its raucous, often vicious portrayal of the major players in Tinseltown, Phillips didn’t spare herself from harsh criticism.  With the book and its sequel, Driving Under the Affluence in 1995, she effectively burned her bridges wrecked her reputation, and alienated her contacts in a town that thrives on cultivating them.  But she was unrepentant: “Nothing I did in my book is as mean as any of the people I wrote about.”

She attempted to return to the business but despaired at her meetings with younger executives.  “Did I really want to be patronized once more as a woman?  Did I really want to be told what a major motion picture was?”

Variety quoted Ruth Vitale, co-president of Paramount Classics, saying of Phillips, "She was as ferocious a friend as she was a foe.  She said what she meant and always said it.  In this town, that's a rare asset."  The Los Angeles Times reported that Phillips based her life on a two-word philosophy: "No rules."  Julia Phillips was 57 when she died of cancer at her Hollywood home.

Sources:  “Julia Phillips,” Cineplex.com; “Julia Phillips, 57, Producer Who Assailed Hollywood, Dies,” New York Times; “Julia Phillips, Producer Whose Book Scandalized Hollywood, Dies at 57,” Los Angeles Times“April 7,” Jewdayo; Julia Phillips, producer, author, dies at age 57,” Variety.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Julia Phillips, Oscar-winning producer of The Sting, remembered." (Viewed on April 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jan/03/2002/julia-phillips>.