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POWER PACK : Female Reps of Female Superstars Have the Clout

August 23, 1987|JENNIFER FOOTE | Foote, a free-lance writer, has just joined Newsweek as a West Coast correspondent

In the beginning, Susan Merzbach would drag Sally Field to meetings. At movie studios, at talent agencies, in New York, in Los Angeles. The idea was to establish authority. Susan's, not Sally's. So she would get up in front of everybody and say, "Here I am, here is Sally and these are the kinds of movies we love to do."

At one such meeting, to which Merzbach refers with a name too impolite to print, there was an "unfortunate incident." She won't say where it was or who was there. But she remembers exactly what was said.

"We asked what these people had for us and someone piped up and said, 'I want to make an image statement with Sally. Something knockout. Something shocking. Let's put a magnum in her hand.' "

"Why, yes," answered Merzbach, her voice frosty with phony enthusiasm. "Let's do it with a crotch holster."

The meeting was adjourned.

Susan Merzbach may not be famous, but the chief executives in Hollywood know her name. As the friend and film-making partner of Sally Field, she's one of a handful of women, studio veterans all, who have detoured corporate sexism to run independent movie companies with Hollywood's most bankable actresses.

With jobs that guarantee more power, less pressure and a higher profile than their counterparts in studio positions, these women now shun the kinds of beach party and bathroom humor movies demanded by movie-goer demographics. Their goal is to collaborate with the industry's top writers, actors and directors on what they perceive to be quality movies for Field, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Jessica Lange, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. Along the way, they are bringing a new style to making films and they are likely to have a significant impact on the kinds of images we see at the movies.

Three of these women never went to college; four come from New York. One of them used to design costumes for Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. One once edited a book about Mae West. They are all smart; they are all confident. And they are helping themselves to the power and prestige once reserved for an elite, male club.

Publicly magnanimous about sharing their turf, the fellows usually call them ladies, often in a less than admiring tone. One male studio executive referred to one of the women as "a piece of manpower." A male writer who's been in the business 10 years says: "Some of us aren't comfortable with women having power. It's the same way a man would feel getting stopped by a female cop."

Producer Jerry Weintraub, whose company has three women in top executive posts and five in middle management, detects "reverse prejudice" in the partnerships: "I would like to see men in those positions as well," he says. "I think it's kind of strange that all these women stars all have women."

"Basically, these women rule the world," says one writer, requesting anonymity. "They have the ears of the hottest actresses. If they tell their person to make a movie about people without legs it changes the lives of people without legs all over America. They can tell Goldie to support the homeless or Sally to make a movie about Polish Jews. They initiate the stuff that washes across the nation."

But even the attachment of any of these top stars to a project will not guarantee its unobstructed passage from idea to film. The women behind the stars have their calls returned. They have choice parking spaces. They are invited without hesitation to meet with studio heads. They have nearly unlimited access to creative talent and studio management, and enjoy the kind of freedom--and salary--usually reserved for independent producers (none of the women would reveal her salary except to say, in one case, that "the money is great" and, in another, "it's at least as much as I would make at the studio").

But the absolute power in the movie industry--the power to say yes to a movie and its price--still eludes these women. They've come about as close as one can get, especially if one is a woman, "but ultimately the studio is in control," says Jessica Lange.

In 1972, Susan Merzbach left her job in the accounting department at Bullock's to become a file clerk in the story department at MGM, thinking more about the possibility of being an actress than an executive: "Then I discovered, miracle of miracles, that some person could be paid what to me was an enormous sum of money to lie on their tush and read all day long." She became a reader.

Three years later, a former actress, model and mathematics teacher named Sherry Lansing took over the department and became Merzbach's mentor, allowing her to sit in on her meetings and calls. "She is my history," says Merzbach. "I learned by osmosis and observation. She is directly responsible for me getting my foot in the executive door."

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