From the Margins towards the Centre: Sherry Lansing

From the Margins towards the Centre:
Women in 1970s and 1980s Hollywood:
Part 2 – Sherry Lansing

by Peter Krämer

Sherry Lansing rose higher than any other woman before within Hollywood’s studio hierarchies in the 1970s: after being head script reader at MGM and Senior Vice-President of Production at Columbia, she became the first woman to head a Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox). She worked for her own independent production company with Stanley Jaffe for much of the 1980s before taking over as Chair and CEO of Paramount. She was closely involved with two key films in the history of women and film, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Fatal Attraction (1987).

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) posterAt Columbia Pictures, Sherry Lansing was responsible for supervising the adaptation of Avery Corman’s 1977 bestseller Kramer vs. Kramer, a project which had been set up by independent producer Stanley Jaffe with writer-director Robert Benton. Lansing’s decision to pursue Dustin Hoffman for the lead role was of crucial importance.[1] From 1967 to 1976 Hoffman had been one of the most consistently successful stars in Hollywood, and, judging by critics’ responses to Kramer vs. Kramer, his performance, which was rewarded with his first Academy Award, was essential for the film’s success. Three years later Hoffman scored an even bigger hit with Tootsie, another movie revolving around the feminisation of an egotistical workaholic, which became the second biggest hit of 1982 (beaten only by E.T.) and was nominated for ten Oscars. Between them, these two Hoffman vehicles were instrumental for the renewed focus on female-oriented genres among studio executives, filmmakers and cinema audiences discussed in Part 1 of this blog.

Apart from the casting of Dustin Hoffman, Lansing’s second major input into Kramer vs. Kramer was her insistence on Meryl Streep for the female lead role of a woman who leaves her husband and child. In the films she had made before 1979, Streep had never had higher than fifth billing, and she was, therefore, by no means a movie star. Yet she was determined to develop Joanna Kramer’s part beyond what she felt to be a very limited characterisation in the script. Later Streep said: “I think Bob Benton and Dustin came to the story with a very strong understanding of where the man stood. He’s the wronged party of this equation. What they didn’t really know or care about was what her situation was. … They didn’t know what she would say to defend herself or why they thought she would even have any claim to the child. So I felt very strongly why she would have a very good claim.”[2]

Meryl Streep as Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)In the end, the courtroom speech, in which Joanna explains herself and presents a compelling case for getting custody of her son, was written by Streep, with crucial input and support from Lansing. Reviewers repeatedly singled out this scene as the one that presented Joanna in a sympathetic light. The scene was probably also crucial for the Academy’s decision to give Streep the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Arguably, it was this Oscar that launched Streep onto one of the most impressive careers in Hollywood history, with six Best Actress Oscar nominations between 1981 and 1988 alone, and a win, for Sophie’s Choice, in 1982; throughout the 1980s Streep was also listed twice in Quigley’s top ten (see Part 1 of this blog). It seems obvious that Streep’s rewriting of Joanna’s part and Lansing’s support for Streep had a lot to do with the fact that they were both women.

During the production of Fatal Attraction, personnel were similarly divided along gender lines with respect to the characterisation of the female lead, with writer James Deardon and director Adrian Lyne pitted against Sherry Lansing and, this time, Glenn Close. In this instance, however, the last word belonged to the preview audience, which rejected the ending for Fatal Attraction that was originally filmed (Alex Forrest commits suicide, Dan Gallagher is suspected of her murder, his wife finds evidence that will exonerate him). Instead, an alternative ending that had previously been considered unsuitable was filmed, offering the audience what might be considered a cathartic violent release and closure.

Glenn Close as Alex in Fatal Attraction (1987)In the process, the figure of Alex Forrest shifted from obsessive lover to violent psychotic, from dramatic character to monster. This undermined the intention of both Close and Lansing to make Alex a believable and understandable character. Yet, it may well have helped the film’s enormous commercial success, while by no means preventing Close from becoming a major Hollywood star. She received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Fatal Attraction and another one the following year for Dangerous Liaisons; in 1987, she made Quigley’s top ten. (I have also been able to show in a previous publication that critics and audience members disagreed substantially about whether Alex Forrest – like Joanna Kramer – deserved sympathy or not, and about the overall “message” of both these films).[3]

I want to suggest, then, that Lansing’s work on Kramer vs. Kramer and Fatal Attraction indicates that she had a female (perhaps even feminist) agenda. She worked in genres traditionally associated with female audiences, challenged male writers and directors on their limited characterisation of the main female roles and supported the young female actors playing them. In doing so, she helped to launch two of the major female stars of the 1980s, and also to make female-oriented films more central to Hollywood than they had been in the years before her tenure at Columbia began in 1977.

Sherry Lansing on set with Adrian LyneEven at 20th Century Fox, when Lansing was appointed, at the age of 35 in 1980, as head of production, her public statements conflicted with those of the man who had appointed her. For Fox Vice-Chairman Alan Hirschfeld, her brief had been to work with young filmmakers and to attract the all-important youth audience. Lansing, however, said: “Obviously the majority of the film-going audience is young… but one doesn’t aim for an audience as much as for a certain quality in a movie. I think if you make movies that emotionally affect people in some way, movies that are about people you care about, they will attract a wide range of audiences.”[4] And in 1984, when she was in her second year as an independent producer, following her three-year tenure at Fox, she was even more explicit: “The youthful audience is growing up.”[5] She and her producing partner Stanley Jaffe felt that this ageing audience could best be served with “films that appeal to the human element”, with “romance, emotional conflict and struggles for power.”[6]

The themes and qualities Lansing highlighted are mostly those that audience surveys over the years have consistently found to be of more importance to female than male cinemagoers. More generally, it should be noted that, in Hollywood, talk of youth audiences often implies a focus on young males, while mature audiences are more closely identified with women. It would appear, then, that when Lansing broke through Hollywood’s glass ceiling in 1980, she self-consciously set out to use her enormous power on behalf of the female audience, and successfully contributed to a significant reorientation in Hollywood cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

[1] Aljean Harmetz, ‘Sherry Lansing and 2 Hollywood Hits’, New York Times, 7 February 1980, p. C-17.
[2] Abramowitz, Is That a Gun, pp. 128-9.
[3] “Karrierefrauen in Hollywood: Die [Dar]Stellung von Frauen im amerikanischen Kino”, Sowi: Das Journal für Geschichte, Politik, Wirtschaft und Kultur, no. 3/05, 2005, pp. 75-83.
[4] Ernest Leogrande, ‘Sherry on the Job as Chief at Fox’, New York Daily News, 3 January 1980, p. 83.
[5] Howard Kissell, ‘Focusing Movies on a Maturing Audience’, Women’s Wear Daily, 29 March 1984, p. 20.
[6] ‘Sherry Lansing’s New Role in Movies’, New York Times, 6 November 1983, Section 3, p.15.

Peter Krämer is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia. He has published several essays on female film stars and producers (Audrey Hepburn, Sherry Lansing, Jodie Foster and Sandra Bullock) and on female audiences. One of his latest publications on female protagonists in science fiction cinema and adventure stories can be found here. His recent books include The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (2005), 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010) and A Clockwork Orange (2011).

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