Inside Hollywood, she was becoming known not just for her work, but for her persona -- the finishing school manners, an ability to soothe ruffled egos, the dutiful returning of every phone call. For some she epitomized a working woman who hadn't forgotten how to be a woman. For others, particularly the few other women in the business, she seemed like a 1950s throwback; she was derided as a "geisha," a woman who served men.
In the late '70s, Life magazine ran a spread on the new rising class of Hollywood executive; all the women wore business attire, except Lansing, who appeared bare from the shoulders up, with tousled wet hair, as alluring as any star. She infamously told the magazine that she didn't think she'd live to see a female studio chief in her lifetime.
It's hard today to imagine the hoopla that rained down on Lansing when it was announced on Jan. 1, 1980, that the 35-year-old was going to become president of production at 20th Century Fox. She landed on the front page of the New York Times under the slightly ignominious headline "Sherry Lansing, Former Model, to Run Studio."
Life behind the press release was a distinctly less shiny. Privately, Lansing was savaged with gossip that she had slept her way to the top, the kind of innuendo she'd learned to ignore. Moreover, she ended up with much less autonomy and support than advertised. Eventually she left to become producing partners with Stanley Jaffe.
Their first movies, "Racing with the Moon" and "Firstborn," fizzled. .
And then came "Fatal Attraction," the morality play that scorched the box office of 1987. The tale of a happily married man who engages in a one-night stand with horrifying ramifications was seen as a post-AIDS cautionary tale, a screed against working women. Lansing herself professed not to understand why feminists were upset and jumped into the media fray. "Fatal Attraction," c'est moi, could have been her credo, as she went on national TV and announced how she too had once called an old boyfriend, only to slam down the phone when he actually picked up.
The grosses on "Fatal Attraction" made Lansing rich enough that she'd never have to work again and taught her invaluable lessons such as relentlessness (the script had been turned down by every studio in town) and giving the audience what it wanted. After a bad preview, she, Jaffe and director Adrian Lyne had famously thrown out the original ending and added a crowd-pleasing slasher finale. Ironically, for all the women upset about "Fatal Attraction's" apparent message, the audience for the film was primarily women, drawn to the bold displays of female power.
"She made movies about female heroes, which for me is the most important thing," says Sony's Pascal, a friend. "Sherry helped other people make movies where women were the main characters. Sometimes they were the hero and sometimes they were the villains, but they were the driving force in the narrative."
When Lansing ascended to the chairmanship of Paramount in 1992, she became famous for a certain kind of Sherry movie, the female revenge flick, such as the drama "Double Jeopardy" or the gleeful comedy "The First Wives Club" and female-aspiration pics such as "Save the Last Dance" and "Clueless."
Of course, Paramount made many other types of pictures, from the substantive such as "Saving Private Ryan" (with DreamWorks) and the provocative, including "The Truman Show," to action-driven franchises such as "Mission: Impossible."
"One thing that was hard for Sherry is that she loved her movies. She never wanted to give up on a film and was relentless in trying to make a film a success," says Jonathan Dolgen, Lansing's former boss at Viacom. "That can be a negative because it grinds you down. If a third of the movies are not successful, that means one out of three times you're ground down by the process of trying to make them work and them not working. Nothing was just another movie to her."
For almost a decade the money rolled in, abetted by a Dolgen-led business philosophy of sharing the risk, selling off parts of almost every picture to other financial entities. It allowed Paramount to stretch its production budget, which became, according to at least one insider, less than half the allowance of its competitors. The other studios eventually began to compete in a whole new arena, the mega-budget event picture, like "Spider-Man," which Paramount seemed unwilling or unable to make.
In 2002 came a downturn, with a series of tired retreads of old Paramount formulas. Perhaps it was simply cyclical, though close associates wondered if Lansing herself had finally been run down by the relentless nature of the quest for profitability and risk aversion.