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Julia Phillips, Producer Whose Book Scandalized Hollywood, Dies at 57

January 03, 2002|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Movie producer Julia Phillips, who made Hollywood history as the first woman to win a best picture Oscar--for "The Sting" in 1973--and who became the talk of the town almost 20 years later with her scandalous autobiography "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," died Tuesday at her West Hollywood home. She was 57.

Family members said she had been diagnosed as having cancer in August.

Colorful and sharp-tongued, Phillips was known as a creative player in the freewheeling 1970s when young Hollywood filmmakers were gaining clout. She won the Academy Award as co-producer of the blockbuster "The Sting" and then co-produced Martin Scorsese's acclaimed "Taxi Driver" in 1976, followed by director Steven Spielberg's 1977 hit "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Her 1990 book helped redefine the nature of Hollywood autobiographies with its insider's chronicle of petty indiscretions and vindictiveness among the town's top echelons. Phillips not only named names, she also offered sometimes harsh personal judgments of former friends in high places in the movie business.

In an image-conscious industry, Phillips' candor was not appreciated. The book alienated many among the industry's elite--some of whom never spoke to her again, at lunch or otherwise. Friends and family members said she was stunned at the reaction to what she considered her honesty, and spent much of her remaining life in retreat. Still, they said, she would not have changed a word.

"You always have to pay your dues," she once told a reporter. "I paid them backward--starting at the top and going to the bottom."

Her son-in-law Modi Wiczyk said Phillips based her life on a two-word philosophy: "No rules." Though no one was off limits from her biting wit, she was always hardest on herself, he said. She died as she lived, he said: unrepentant and with no regrets.

"She didn't know the power of her own words," her daughter Kate said. "I think she was shocked that people would take things to heart and be so offended. . . . Would it make her do anything differently? No."

The daughter of Jewish intellectuals, Julia Miller grew up in New York and Wisconsin. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she failed math and French but won prestigious awards for her short-story writing. In 1965, she married investment banker Michael Phillips; they had one child, Kate.

After a career in magazine publishing, Phillips joined Paramount Pictures in 1969 as its East Coast story editor. She headed Mirisch Productions in New York, and later became creative executive for First Artist Productions, a group of actors seeking greater creative control.

Along with actor Tony Bill, Phillips and her husband went into business for themselves to produce "Steelyard Blues." Later, Phillips became president of her own company: Ruthless Productions in Los Angeles.

The name of the firm attested more to her candor than any chicanery, Bill said. "Her honesty was what set her apart," he said. "It was her calling card and her Achilles' heel."

Short, bright, stylish and profane, Phillips was a trailblazer in Hollywood where women producers, directors and executives had found few opportunities, said producer Roz Heller, a longtime friend. Like other women, Phillips had to assert herself and inflate her ambition just to avoid being trampled on, Heller said.

"Taxi Driver" was just one of the unpopular projects they had to fight to produce, Heller said. "We couldn't get the green light. I remember her being enormously pregnant, wearing a circle dress, standing up and saying, 'I'm going to drop this baby right now if we don't get this green light.' The men got very nervous." The film won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or in 1976 and was a commercial hit.

In a statement, Scorsese noted that Phillips worked with him personally in post-production on "Taxi Driver" and, along with her husband, helped the movie reach the screen as the filmmakers intended. "She was a friend," he said, "and I am sad for her loss."

Phillips had a visionary ability to identify talent, said Peter Biskind, author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," an account of Hollywood in the 1970s. At their Malibu beach house, she and her husband lived large, entertaining Scorsese and Spielberg, Brian de Palma, John Milius, Paul Schrader, Peter Boyle and Richard Dreyfuss, among others.

Ideas flowed as freely as mind-expanding drugs, and Phillips fit right in, Biskind said. "Someone would throw an idea out; Julia would say you ought to write that up."

Increasingly preoccupied with drugs, Phillips came to grief over producing "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) with Spielberg. "He essentially kicked her off the movie," Biskind said. "It pretty much ended her career."

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