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MOVIES : A Look Inside the Studio Gates : Dawn Steel was the first woman to head a movie studio when she took over Columbia Pictures in 1987. In a new book about her trip to the top, she wants to show other women how to scale the heights of Hollywood

August 29, 1993|HILARY de VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Her living room looks a little like the house in "Out of Africa." The late afternoon sun, fractured by a massive banyan tree on the lawn, streams through the French doors, splays across the Aubuisson carpet, the overstuffed sofas with their faded linen pillows, the pair of leather club chairs. In the distance, the small, high voice of a child is heard.

You might just take a nap, except the serenity is shattered when Dawn Steel--the woman who was once described as "The Queen of Mean"--clatters in wearing jeans and a T-shirt, scuffling her heels, flinging her leather satchels to the floor.

She is here to talk about her autobiography, "They Can Kill You. . .but They Can't Eat You," her chronicle of her career as the first woman to head a major studio, due out next month from Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books. In addition to her book, Steel is also overseeing the release this fall of "Cool Runnings," her first film as a producer since leaving Columbia three years ago.

"I have to be somewhere at 7:30," she says. "Oh, where did you get those shoes? Let's talk about what's important. Do those come in other colors?" Eventually, she settles, barefoot, on one of her sofas, and begins to play with her fabled hair. Despite her casualness, Steel seems to have as much relationship to her living room as one would have with a nicely appointed hotel lobby. And for a 45-year-old former studio head, responsible for such films as "Awakenings," "Casualties of War" and "Flatliners," Steel is oddly insouciant.

"I asked my kid, 'Do you think I'm an adult?' " Steel says, relating a recent exchange with her 6-year-old daughter, Rebecca. " 'No, Mommy.' That's my proudest accomplishment, that I don't feel like a grown-up."

There are other definitions of Steel, who since her arrival in Hollywood in 1978 after working at Penthouse and running her own direct-mail business, earned a controversial reputation as a studio head. Prior to her appointment at Columbia, Steel worked at Paramount Pictures, first in the merchandising department and eventually as president of production, where she oversaw the films "Flashdance," "Footloose," "Top Gun," "The Accused" and "Fatal Attraction" among others. Although she became the first female studio head with her appointment at Columbia in 1987--and took some hard knocks along the way, like learning she was ousted from Paramount while on maternity leave--her reputation was such that California magazine put Steel on its cover for a 1988 story about the state's worst bosses.

Not that her pugnaciously titled autobiography will relive those years in a gossipy, crash-and-burn narrative a la Julia Phillips' "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again." If her memories seem to have been carefully edited--some of the better stories she has kept to herself--it is perhaps a judicious career move by someone who is no longer one of the industry's top powerbrokers.

Although Steel has two other films to come after "Cool Runnings" this fall, her three-year development deal at Disney, under the aegis of her former Paramount colleagues Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, has ended out of mutual frustration. She is shopping for alternative financing and even, surprisingly, contemplating a move into television. There has been some talk that she may set up an independent production company and partnership with her husband, producer Chuck Roven. Even those producers and executives with whom Steel once butted heads--most notably former Paramount executives Ned Tanen, David Kirkpatrick and Frank Mancuso, who is currently head of MGM/UA--declined to comment on her forthcoming memories. Says one, "It's her memory, her moment in the sun."

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Question: Your book, despite its suggestively combative title, isn't really very candid.

Answer: How can you say that? The book is completely frank.

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Q: I was going to say it isn't terribly candid about other people. Unlike Julia Phillips' "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," you're very circumspect about a number of individuals who have less than terrific reputations.

A: You know why? Because it's not about them. The book is aimed at young women coming up the ladder. My editor asked me to write a book like all those written by male executives like Don Trump, Iacocca, on how to succeed in business. So any time I came across one of those kind of gossipy incidents I asked myself, "Does that kind of story teach anybody anything?" I didn't want to write a let's-dissect-every thing-that's-bad-about-Hollywood book, because I think there is a lot that's really great about it and I wouldn't be where I am today without it and I wouldn't be sitting here trying to be a mentor.

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Q: A mentor? I think a number of people might be surprised to hear you describe yourself that way. For a long time you had one of the worst reputations as a boss.

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