Thanks to Sherry Lansing, a long line of female executives have moved behind the camera in the film industry over the last two decades.
Sherry’s keen intelligence, confidence in her intuition and sense of self paved the way for some of the biggest names like Elizabeth Gabbler, President of Fox; Donna Langley, Chairman of Universal Pictures; and, Ava DuVernay, an independent filmmaker.
Sherry broke the proverbial glass ceiling in 1980, after she was named the first female President of 20th Century Fox Studios. Her path to the top as Chairman of a major movie studio in 1992 was an unlikely one, given her parents who refused to let her take acting classes in college. They insisted she study only those subjects that would help her support herself.
No slouch in the brainpower department, Sherry respected their wishes and graduated from Northwestern University in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics, English and Teaching. Determined to give acting a try, Sherry didn’t give up that easily and pursued her dream even after she married a doctor and they moved to Los Angeles for his residency.
During the day, Sherry taught math at a school in inner-city Watts and at night she’d go on auditions hoping to land an acting job. It wasn’t long before she was doing commercials for shampoos and various products alongside unknown actresses at the time, like Farrah Fawcett.
With her statuesque figure and blue eyes, this brunette beauty soon was cast in Rio Lobo with none other than John Wayne.
Of course, Sherry was the first to admit that she was not a good actress. She was insecure and felt uncomfortable pretending to be someone else. While on the set, she noticed others who were not actors and explored other related jobs. This translated into an opportunity one day while Sherry was working on the movie Loving. A producer took note of her input on script changes and admired her intelligence. Sherry landed her first non-acting job as a script reader, earning $5 a script.
Sherry was thrilled, and loved reading scripts and writing the synopsis for them. It was a chance to provide her opinion on a story’s audience appeal and also a welcomed escape from the anxiety she felt while acting. Sherry worked diligently in this role and soon joined script meetings, where her suggestions garnered noticed.
Three years later, in 1975, Sherry was named head of the script department at MGM. It was the first time she experienced discrimination, when she realized she was not being paid as much as the men doing similar work. Inquiring about the salary discrepancy, Sherry was told her status as a single person without a family meant she didn’t merit a raise. Lansing admits, that she swallowed this inequality at the time because “that was the way it was back then.”
Despite this, Sherry became Vice President of Production at Columbia two years later. Her first film, The China Syndrome about a nuclear meltdown, was particularly timely when the 3-Mile Island nuclear plant had a partial meltdown crisis just two weeks after the movie’s release.
Her next film Kramer vs. Kramer won the Oscar in 1980 for Best Picture the same year she was named President of 21st Century-Fox studios. Her promotion made front page headlines, coast to coast. The New York Times headline read “Ex-Model Becomes Head of Fox.” She had worked fifteen years up the career-ladder, the same way any male in the business had done, but she was immediately front-page news simply because of her gender.
It’s no surprise that Sherry’s love of movies and determination to work in a male driven arena lead to her success. Sherry was born in 1944 and grew up in Chicago, enamored with her father who was a successful real estate developer. He loved the arts, movies, opera and music. Every weekend, he and Sherry escaped to the movies and he made sure their home was filled with operettic music and stories. Sherry’s mother, Margot, was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. She was a quiet, typical housewife until her father died of a heart attack.
Sherry remembers how her mother’s strength and unwillingness to be dependent on others influenced her work ethic:
“My father died at 42, of a heart attack. My mother was 32 then. She never wanted to be a victim. And that really resonated as a nine-year-old child. And one of the most revealing things was, very soon after my father died – he was in real estate and he owned some modest buildings – they came to my mother, the men that worked for him, and they said, “You don’t have to worry. We will run the business and we will take care of you.” And my mother said, “No, you won’t. You will teach me how to run the business and I will take care of it and my children.”
Sherry’s reign as President of Fox lasted three years before she resigned. Tired of producing movies not of her choosing, she partnered with Stanley Jaffe. Her first project, Fatal Attraction, was a huge blockbuster and scared the life out of men across the country. It struck a chord and probably helped some to reconsider one-night stands!
More hits followed, like Indecent Proposal and The Accused, the latter earning an Oscar for actress, Jodie Foster. Because many of her movie choices tilted towards strong female characters, Sherry earned a reputation among Industry insiders as a producer of films focused on women getting revenge. Film about women not being treated fairly were “Sherry Lansing movies.”
In 1992, Sherry broke long-standing barriers by becoming the first female CEO at Paramount Pictures. She had amassed a production legacy of over 200 films, as variable as Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic and Mission Impossible. Six of the studio’s top ten grossing films ever were made during her tenure at Paramount. As the first female movie studio head to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sherry’s hands-on involvement with each picture and her promotion of an inclusive work atmosphere garnered respect from all quarters of the movie-making world. It also opened the door for other women in the business. Seeing life as a series of chapters, she decided to retire from Paramount and movies in 2005, at the age of 60.
Sherry’s next chapter was establishing the Sherry Lansing Foundation. Having been a teacher at the start of her career, education had remained a priority for Lansing – especially public education and encore career opportunities for people who wanted to learn later in life.
Approaching her mid-70’s, Sherry wanted to build new support networks for health and cancer research. Honoring her mother who died from cancer, she started the Stand Up to Cancer initiative. In 2007, Sherry was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Having married a second time to director William Friedkin in 1991, Sherry is happy. As a trailblazer in the industry, we’ll have to wait and see what the next chapter holds for Sherry Lansing.