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Review: How Sherry Lansing crashed Hollywood’s glass ceiling

“Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker” (Crown Archetype), by Stephen Galloway

Never heard of Sherry Lansing? That’s OK — neither had actor and producer Michael Douglas or industrialist Marvin Davis when she knocked at their doors.

Lansing was a young executive at Columbia Pictures when she was put in charge of “The China Syndrome” (1979), the movie Douglas was producing. She stopped by his office to introduce herself. “Honey,” Douglas told her, “casting doesn’t start until next week.” Sure, what else could a good-looking woman be doing there but looking for a role?

That was often the reaction to Lansing as she climbed each sexist rung of Hollywood’s corporate ladder. On her first day as studio president of 20th Century-Fox, a security guard refused to let her through the gate — even when she pleaded that she was the boss. “You can’t be,” he replied, oblivious to the headlines that a woman was in charge of a movie studio for the first time.

It didn’t stop there. Lansing had been running things at Fox for a year or two when, in 1981, Davis bought the studio with a chunk of his petroleum fortune. She stopped by his office to introduce herself. “No, no, honey. I don’t want any coffee,” he told her. When Lansing insisted she was in charge of his latest acquisition, Davis asked, “A girl?”

Sexism is just one interesting facet of the life and career that biographer Stephen Galloway explores in “Leading Lady.” He presents a fully realized portrait of a professional woman breaking glass ceilings. But more important, The Hollywood Reporter journalist shows us the person who endures failure as often as she savors triumph. Her strength of spirit, personally and professionally, is what underlies Galloway’s title.

It’s also a play on Lansing’s original goal of becoming a movie star. A dark-haired, 5-foot-10 beauty raised in Chicago, she moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Northwestern University in 1966. Minor roles followed over the next few years — she played a scarred young woman in John Wayne’s lackluster Western “Rio Lobo” (1970) — but found herself attracted to the business end of moviemaking.

Putting together projects, particularly analyzing scripts and the early versions of feature films, fed her creative side. Nurturing actors and directors appealed to her, too, and she wasn’t afraid to kick their butts if they crossed her. (She threatened Edward Norton with a lawsuit if he didn’t appear in 2003’s “The Italian Job” as obligated.) Being a math whiz probably came in handy when the bottom line threatened creative desires.

Like the old-school moguls, Lansing had a good sense of what worked on-screen because she loved the movies. As chairman of Paramount Pictures, she kept blockbusters “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Braveheart” (1995) on track despite the budget travails that threatened them.

She was wrong plenty of times, too, though her slipups receive relatively short shrift in Galloway’s recap. One example: She tried, unsuccessfully, to talk director James Cameron into cutting “My Heart Will Go On” from the “Titanic” soundtrack.

Lansing is surprisingly open about painful personal matters, particularly her insecurity. Her self-centered mother and stepfather were exceedingly difficult. She almost lost a leg in a car accident in 1978. She failed at one marriage and went through one relationship after another before establishing an unlikely and long-lasting union with “Exorcist” director William Friedkin.

Lansing did indeed break ground, though she is not depicted as a crusader. She bore the sexism, learning to work with older, powerful men who doubted her at first because of her gender. Like many women before and since, she did her job and let her achievements speak for her.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).

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