Sherry Lansing broke barriers as the first woman studio executive when she became head of 20th Century Fox in 1980, going on to lead Paramount Studios to create wildly successful blockbusters like Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and Titanic. After joining MGM in 1973 as a script reader for films like The China Syndrome and Kramer vs. Kramer, she became head of its story department in 1975. She served as president of production for 20th Century Fox from 1980 to 1992, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture for Fatal Attraction, before becoming the first woman chair of Paramount Pictures. In 2003, Hollywood Reporter listed her as fourth on their “Power 100” list, and after retiring in 2005, she founded the Sherry Lansing Foundation to raise awareness for cancer research.
Family and Career
Sherry Lee Heimann (Lansing) was born in Chicago on July 31, 1944. Her father, a real-estate agent, died of a heart attack when she was nine years old, leaving a thirty-two-year-old wife and two daughters, of whom Sherry was the elder by four and a half years. His widow declined the offer of his colleagues to help her by running his business and insisted on carrying it on by herself. This provided an excellent example of female independence for Sherry, who frequently accompanied her mother on her business rounds.
Lansing graduated from Northwestern University and worked as a schoolteacher, model, and actress (1970, in the films Loving and Rio Lobo). She joined MGM studios in 1973 and quickly moved up the corporate ladder. In 1975, at the age of thirty-one, she was named head of the MGM Story Department. Although she told Life magazine that she did not expect to see a female studio head in her lifetime, in 1980 she shattered the glass ceiling for female studio executives when she became President of Production at 20th Century Fox. In 1992, she achieved another “first,” becoming the first woman chairperson of Paramount Pictures. Ten years later, Lansing was named Hollywood’s most powerful woman of the year by The Hollywood Reporter. Asked why Lansing had topped their 2002 list of the hundred most powerful women in Hollywood, an editor at the trade magazine explained: “It’s [her] business savvy and goodwill within the entertainment community that pushed her to the top of this year’s Power 100.” That same year, the trade magazine listed Stacy Snider, CEO of Universal Pictures, as number two, and Amy Pascal, then chairperson of Columbia Pictures, in the number three position—a reflection of Jewish women’s advancement in the film industry.
Lansing’s first marriage, to Michael Brownstein, ended in divorce. She was known to have dated very powerful men, including Pierre Trudeau, architect Richard Meier, who designed the Getty Center, and Count Giovanni Volpi, who at one time produced the Venice Film Festival. In 1991, she married director William Friedkin (b. 1935, Chicago), whose films include The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973).
Legacy and Career Obstacles
It is noteworthy that many of the movies Lansing produced were about women who, like her widowed mother, decide they are not going to be victims. Women moviegoers can thank Lansing for seeing them as an important part of the audience through the success of the many films she produced including Fatal Attraction, The First Wives Club and The Accused.
Lansing’s career was aided by her friendships with male studio executives and producers, most noteworthy of whom was Dan Melnick. A chance meeting at a dinner party resulted in a long and productive professional bond. Later she was to work with Stanley Jaffe on several very successful films. As happens in many businesses, Lansing was a classic mentee of men—but in Hollywood when one makes one’s way up, it is presumed that this is due to sexual liaisons. Mean things were said about Lansing’s ascendancy because there were too few power positions. Even the polite way of getting a big job made her suspect.
Although her career quickly accelerated, she was quoted as telling Time magazine in July 2002 that when she was named head of MGM’s story department she thought she would get a raise in salary. When the studio failed to provide it, she confronted a senior executive. “He admitted that I wasn’t earning as much as a man in an equivalent job. Then he thought about it and said, ‘We’re not going to give you a raise because you are single, you don’t have kids and you do not have a family to support.’” She knew it was wrong but at the time accepted those terms. She went on to say that being a woman influenced the kinds of movies she makes, saying that one has rational reasons for making a specific movie; a good story, the right budget, etc. “But ultimately it is in your gut and it has to be affected by who you are.”
Lansing is sometimes criticized within the industry for taking too few risks, both artistically and financially. She counters by reminding people that she made Forrest Gump after other studios had rejected the project and proudly claims that under her watch no slate of films ever lost money. She is known for relying upon test screenings by the National Research Group, using this process to decide upon re-editing or re-shooting films if necessary.
Since Lansing’s achievements in Hollywood corporate leadership, there have been many other women who have followed in her footsteps, but very few with the same kind of specious rumors of sleeping her way to the top. Lansing had to endure these insults probably out of envy for her talent and exceptional beauty.
Lansing retired from her post as chairman of Paramount Pictures in March 2005.
“Sherry Lansing to Leave Paramount.” CBSNews.com, Nov. 2, 2004.
“Women to be Reckoned with.” CBSNews.com, Dec. 3, 2002.