Women rise, shine at THR power fete

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The fact that women have made great strides in the entertainment industry but still face many challenges was a common theme addressed by various speakers Tuesday at The Hollywood Reporter's 16th annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast.

Speakers ranging from Jodie Foster and "Hairspray" co-stars John Travolta and Queen Latifah to Sherry Lansing, Lifetime execs Andrea Wong and Susanne Daniels and The Reporter's John Kilcullen and Elizabeth Guider noted that women have made significant progress from the early — and even more recent — days of the industry, evidenced by the fact that they are filling a greater number of positions in corporate offices and top creative roles.

But most seemed to agree that they still have a long way to go.

Foster, recipient of the fourth annual Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, said there were few women working in the industry when she started out more than four decades ago, and those who were weren't working in top-level positions.

"Growing up, there were hardly any women in my professional sphere — there was maybe a script supervisor, the makeup artist and the lady who played my mother," Foster told the 640 attendees in the overflowing ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "I became the prodigal daughter after I proved myself in a family of men."

Lansing, who presented Foster with her award, said that times have changed even since The Reporter began holding its annual breakfast 16 years ago in conjunction with the publication of its Women in Entertainment: Power 100 issue.

"I remember when we couldn't get 50 people to be part of this, and today it's oversold by 200 people," she said.

Lansing also told a story about the first time she met Foster, when she and fellow producer Stanley Jaffe were considering casting the actress in their 1988 film "The Accused." Lansing said she was "extremely nervous" about casting Foster, who had been nominated for an Oscar in 1977 for her role in "Taxi Driver" and would go on to win the first of her two Oscars for "Accused." But Jaffe and Lansing had just seen their previous two films flop and needed a hit.

"This movie had to work, and when I met Jodie, I'm embarrassed to say that I wasn't sure whether she was right for the part," Lansing said. "Jodie was educated and intelligent, and the character was someone who was uneducated."

So Lansing said she asked Foster if she would read for the part.

"She said, 'Of course, I'm an actress, that's what we do, we read,' " Lansing recalled. "She showed self-confidence, a lack of pretension and a work ethic."

Lansing recalled telling that story to other actresses who weren't as accommodating: "If a great actress like Jodie Foster is willing to read, why aren't you?"

For her part, Foster was modest about receiving the leadership award. "I'm not sure why I'm here today," she said. "I'm not powerful. I'm fragile, unsure, and I struggle to get there — wherever there is. I've been in this business for 42 years; there's no way to do that and not be as nutty as a fruitcake," Foster quipped.

Kilcullen, The Reporter's publisher, kicked off the event by welcoming the attendees and congratulating the women who made The Reporter's Power 100 list as well as others working in the industry.

"You're a shining example for the next generation of female executives who will keep raising the bar," he said.

Latifah, who delivered one of the keynote addresses, thanked a list of women who have had a positive impact on her, including Nina Jacobson, Stacy Sher, Emma Watts, Diahann Carroll, Renee Zellweger, "Living Single" creator/executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser and Latifah's agent, Randi Michel at WMA.

"We rarely discuss the positive roles we can play in everyone else's careers," she said. "They say that behind every successful man is a woman, but there is also a woman behind every successful woman. I want to inspire self-esteem and a positive attitude and give my support to other women because no one else can drag us down like we do ourselves."

Travolta praised his female "Hairspray" co-stars and joked that he's one of the few men who can really understand a woman's perspective after having played Edna Turnblad in the film.

"Everyone asked me why it took me 30 years to do another musical — but the best parts of a musical (are the female roles), so I held out until I was offered one of them," quipped Travolta, co-star of 1978's "Grease." "This is the first time a man has spoken (at the breakfast) truly knowing what it's like to be a woman."

In fact, Travolta holds a special place in the history of the Women in Entertainment breakfast as he is the first male to ever give a keynote address at the event.

Wong, Lifetime's president and CEO, said she wants her network to do its part to get more women in creative roles. Saying she's "committed to making Lifetime the home for female talent," Wong put a call out for more women to work with Lifetime Networks, which presented the breakfast in association with St. John Knits.

"We want the Lifetime brand to exemplify the amazing spirit in this room — the optimism, the energy, the hopefulness," she said. "When one woman succeeds, more women succeed. I want every woman to look at the Power 100 list and begin to believe in their own potential."

Guider, editor of The Reporter, also noted the strides women have made since the heyday of Mary Pickford and Ida Lupino. She gave credit to Lansing and Geraldine Laybourne, among others, for helping pave the way during the 1980s for women in the business today.

"You made inroads, and we as a result move easier down that road," Guider said. "I was gratified at how many candidates we had for the Power 100 list who met the rigorous criteria."

But there still are many challenges women must overcome, Guider added.

"Progress for women does not move upward in a straight line but in fits and starts," she said.

Daniels, Lifetime's president of entertainment, agreed. "Seeing how far we've come reminds us that we've got a way to go," she said, noting that there's "a celluloid ceiling," not a glass ceiling. "The description is apt because it's not easy to see a dent."

Daniels also recognized Liliana Greenfield-Sanders of New York and Jessica Marie Sutherland of Berea, Ohio, the winners of the inaugural Lifetime Movie Network Student Filmmaker Competition, sponsored by Lifetime Movie Network, The Reporter, New York Women in Film & Television, WMA and Women in Film Los Angeles.
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