Life in the Foxhole: Insiders Recall 83 Years of Scandal and Stardom at 20th Century Fox

6:00 AM 8/2/2018

by Gregg Kilday and Ben Svetkey

The Fox film studio essentially died July 27 when shareholders voted to merge with Disney. As the House ?of Zanuck and Murdoch faces a fraught future, The Hollywood Reporter looks back at the hits ('The Sound of Music,' 'Star Wars'), the flops ('Cleopatra'), the stars (Marilyn Monroe) and the legacy of a Hollywood institution: "It was a family."

Shirley Temple -20th Century Fox film studio lot - ONE TIME USE ONLY - Getty-H 2018
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
  • 1935

    William Fox already is a broken man when Darryl F. ?Zanuck's 20th Century Pictures purchases his Fox Film Corp. The Hungary-born newsboy turned mogul had built one of the silent era's great studios, but after the 1929 market crash — ?and a hostile takeover — he is squeezed out of his own company. When Zanuck takes over, he keeps Fox's name in the studio's title, even as Fox himself is battling bankruptcy. According to Vanda Krefft, author ?of the 2017 biography The ?Man Who Made the Movies, Fox would not be thrilled with this latest chapter in his studio's history. ?"He would have hated the Disney merger," she says. "He's rolling in his grave."

  • 1935-1940

    To get through the Depression, Fox relies on ?a cute, tap-dancing little ?darling, Shirley Temple, who at just 5 is signed to a ?$150-a-week, seven-year contract. Her star rises so quickly at the studio, she gets a bump just six months later to $1,000 a week ?(and is assigned a team of no fewer than 19 writers).

  • 1943

    Fox sings and dances its way through the war years with movies like Busby Berkeley's Technicolor extravaganza The Gang's All Here, starring the ?exotic Carmen Miranda, who ends up making nine ?films for the studio. Billed as "the Brazilian bombshell," her diminutive 5-foot frame is always topped by towering fruit-filled ?headdresses. She draws criticism from some for playing up a stereotype but also becomes the first Latin-American star to leave her handprints in Sid Grauman's forecourt.

  • 1947

    Though Laura Hobson's novel, Gentleman's Agreement, about a journalist who poses as a ?Jew to expose anti-Semitism, had become a major best-seller, no studio?is eager to adapt it for the screen. And when Zanuck, the only gentile studio chief, shows interest, his fellow moguls like Samuel ?Goldwyn try to dissuade him, fearing it could draw unwanted attention, ?with the House Un-American Activities Committee beginning to focus ?on Hollywood. But Zanuck ?persists, Gregory Peck takes on the starring role after Cary Grant turns it down and Elia Kazan directs. The critically lauded film earns Fox a ?best picture Oscar, and the local chapter of B'nai ?B'rith honors Zanuck as ?its "man of the year."

  • 1950

    All About Eve sets a record for Oscar nominations — ?14 — that stands unchallenged for 47 years until Titanic, another Fox film, equals that number. ?Eve itself wins six, including best picture and best director, but Bette Davis loses best actress after ?co-star Anne Baxter splits the vote by insisting on ?being submitted for the ?best actress category, ?leaving an opening for Judy ?Holliday to win for Born Yesterday. "Good, a newcomer won, I couldn't be more pleased," Davis tells reporters, giving what ?many described as the performance of her career.

  • 1951-1962

    Zanuck loathes Marilyn Monroe ("He thought I ?was a freak," Monroe once ?said) and nearly tears ?up her first contract ?after her nude Playboy cover comes out. But ?by 1953, Monroe has three of the studio's biggest hits — NiagaraGentlemen Prefer Blondes and How ?to Marry a Millionaire — and rene­gotiates a new contract paying $100,000 ?a picture and giving her creative approval. Her first film under the new deal is 1956's Bus Stop, co-starring Don Murray. "I'd never ?done a feature before," says the actor, now 88, "so I didn't know what to expect. From what others on the ?set told me, Marilyn was ?on her best behavior. She'd ?just been to the Actors Studio, and she really wanted to concentrate on her acting. But even so, she was late every day. She'd get to the studio on time, but then she'd spend hours dawdl­ing in her trailer, getting the nerve up to act. She was trying hard — she would sometimes do 30 takes in ?a scene — but she was very anxious about her acting. She would actually break out in a rash before the ?cameras would start filming. The cameras gave her ?a rash."


    By: Mitzi Gaynor 

    "The theater was going to pay me $250 a week, and Fox was going to pay me $1,000 a week. What would you do? Go with the money! Everybody was scared to death of Mr. Zanuck. I wasn't because I didn't know him – and I thought he was a Hungarian, which I am. It was a family. I love family. I got paid. I went to work. It was fun. One time I was doing three pictures at once – I was the happiest girl in the world! I never said, 'They can't make me!' Make me? 'Gee, I'm gonna be in that one too?!' Everybody was good to me and sweet to me and kind and fun. Listen, I had Betty Grable's makeup man, so what can I tell you?" 

  • 1953

    As television invades the American home, moviegoing in the U.S. plunges from 90 million per week in 1946 to 60 million per week in 1950. Looking for a way to lure audiences back, Fox president Spyros Skouras orders his staff to come up with a new method for shooting and projecting movies, which leads to ?the widescreen anamorphic process that the studio dubs CinemaScope. Production is halted on ?the biblical epic The Robe, starring Richard Burton, ?so that it can be outfitted with the new lenses.

  • 1956

    At 54, Zanuck quits his job, leaves his wife and moves to Paris to become an independent producer (and date young actresses). Producer Buddy Adler takes over as head of Fox but drops dead within a year. Skouras, who had frequently clashed with Zanuck, brings in a series of successors, but the studio flounders. In 1958, however, hopes on the lot are riding high for a just-greenlighted $2 million historical drama that will star Joan Collins ?as Cleopatra.

  • 1958-1963

    Elizabeth Taylor gets $1 million to replace Collins as the Queen of the Nile after one of the producers offers the star the then-outrageous sum as a publicity stunt. Another $7 million is eaten up by the film's first director, Rouben Mamoulian, who shoots only 10 minutes of footage over the first 16 weeks of production before getting replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In the end, the $2 million Cleopatra ends ended up costing Fox $44 million ($350 million in today's dollars). It puts Fox in such a deep hole, the board of directors brings Zanuck back from Paris in ?1962 to save the studio. Zanuck shuts down the lot, laying off nearly everyone, while rushing Cleopatra to completion. The film ends ?up winning four Oscars ?and becomes 1963's ?highest grosser, taking ?in $48 million domestically ($390 million today), ?but nearly capsizes ?the company.

  • 1965

    Christopher Plummer sneeringly refers to the beloved musical as "S&M," but The Sound of Music smashes box-office records ($159 million domestic gross, or $1.3 billion, adjusted ?for inflation) and puts Fox ?back in business. Julie Andrews recalled filming the iconic meadow-twirling scene to THR in a 2015 interview: "You've got these huge speakers out in the pines somewhere out on a mountain, and there's a helicopter coming at you from the other end of the field, through the trees, and walk, walk, walk, walk, ?walk, turn around, cut," she said. "They did many takes, and every time the helicopter just leveled me into ?the ground! I got angrier and angrier."

  • 1968

    While the first script, written by Rod Serling, is rejected as too expensive, director Franklin Schaffner's adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel about a simian-run society, produced for $5.8 million ($42 million in today's dollars) ?becomes a hit, grossing $32.6 million domestically ($236 million today) and launches one of the studio's most enduring franchises. ?It spawns four sequels in ?the '70s, Tim Burton's 2001 remake and a whole new trilogy of apes movies beginning in 2011. But Charlton Heston, who stars in the original, is skeptical about the viability of future movies and tells Dick Zanuck, "I'll ?do your sequel free if you kill me off in the first scene."

  • 1968

    It is the most expensive musical of its time — $25 million — but Barbra Streisand knows it will be a stinker before she shoots a single frame. “I thought I was too young to play Dolly,” she revealed to THR recently. “I thought they should’ve used an older woman, and I talked to Marty [Erlichman, Streisand’s longtime manager] and said, ‘Can I get out of this? ’Cause I don’t even understand the pairing of me and Walter Matthau. It’s not romantic. Nobody’s gonna root for us to be together.’ ” The film ends up losing $10 million,part of a string of Fox’s post-Sound of Music musical duds (like Andrews’ Star!, which also loses $10 million in 1968).

  • 1970

    When Zanuck returns to run the studio in 1962, he brings along his son Richard, 27, and names him Fox’s head of production. Richard has some iffy ideas, like casting Rex Harrison opposite a chimpanzee (Doctor Dolittle loses $10 million) but also good ones like casting Roddy McDowall as a chimpanzee. By the late 1960s, though, pricey flops put Fox back in debt and strain relations between father and son. In 1970, Darryl engineers the firing of Richard, then promptly gets ousted by his board. "I recovered from being fired," Richard said years later. "I don't think he ever did."

  • 1970

    In a desperate effort to appear hip, the studio embarks on a taboo-busting adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, a satiric novel about a transsexual bent on Hollywood revenge. Film critic Rex Reed plays the pre-op Myron, while Myra’s played by Raquel Welch, who feuds on set with Mae West, who comes out of retirement to play lascivious agent Leticia Van Allen. Outraged critics proclaim the X-rated film one of the worst movies ever made.

  • 1977

    “I was behind it 100 percent, but no one else liked it really,” Alan Ladd Jr., then the studio chief, recalls of backing George Lucas’ space fantasy, which had been turned down by United Artists, Universal and Disney. Costs for Star Wars, initially budgeted at about $8 million, rise to $11 million ($45 million in today’s dollars). But audiences flocked to the movie, which through its original and subsequent rereleases has grossed more than $775 million worldwide.

  • 1980

    “I remember the day I started at Fox,” Lansing tells THR of her hiring as Hollywood’s first female president of production. “I drove to the gate of the studio, but the guard didn’t recognize me — I guess he hadn’t been reading the trades — and he wouldn’t let me in. I told him I was the new head of the studio, but he didn’t believe me. So I drove through the gate anyway. And then all these police started following after me. Finally, I got to the executive building, and the police were all around me and thank goodness [Fox chairman] Alan Hirschfield was there. He told them not to arrest me. He said, ‘Stop! She’s the head of the studio!’ ” Lansing goes on to oversee production on such films as The Verdict and King of Comedy, among others, before moving on to become Hollywood’s first female studio chief, at Paramount Pictures in 1992.

  • 1981

    Larger-than-life Denver based oil man Marvin Davis and financier Marc Rich buy Fox for $722 million. But they don’t last long in Hollywood. By 1984, Rich is on the lam in Switzerland after being charged by U.S. prosecutors with racketeering and illegally trading with Iran during the hostage crisis. Davis often is at odds with his own execs. At a private screening of the gay love story Making Love, he reportedly stands up and bellows, “You made a goddamn faggot movie!,” and storms out of the room. So he buys out Rich’s shares — reportedly for $116 million — and immediately starts looking around for an exit.

  • 1984-1985

    But before Davis leaves, in what Hollywood views as one of the oddest couplings in town, he hires Barry Diller away from Paramount to run Fox’s film and TV operations as chairman and CEO of Fox Inc. The two immediately butt heads, and when Davis sells out to Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. in a series of deals amounting to $575 million, Diller finds himself working for a new owner. Although they also frequently clash, Diller focuses on the TV side as he launches the Fox Broadcasting Network. Although it’s touch-and-go at times — at one point in the early 1990s, Murdoch is so overextended with bank debt ($7.6 billion) there’s speculation News Corp. is teetering on bankruptcy — Fox ultimately finds its footing.

  • 1993

    Fox licenses the rights to the X-Men comics from the then-struggling Marvel Studios. It will be seven years before the first X Men film, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, hits the big screen in 2000, but that first film earns $290 million in revenue for the studio, setting up a franchise that has since grown to encompass 11 movies, including Wolverine and Deadpool stand-alones. With $5.7 billion in worldwide grosses, it’s the sixth most successful movie franchise of all time and has several more films, including X-Men: Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants, about to hit theaters.

  • 1997

    James Cameron’s dream project, which he sells to the studio as a Romeo and Juliet story, is greenlighted by then-Fox Group chairman Peter Chernin and then-studio chief Bill Mechanic for $109 million. But as the obsessive director films Titanic in a gigantic tank in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, the budget begins to rise to more than $200 million. To protect its downside, Fox strikes a deal with Paramount, which will chip in $65 million and handle domestic distribution. The first time Murdoch watches an early cut of the film, the edit splices keep tearing apart, and so an anxious exec borrows a print of Air Force One from Sony so the boss has something to watch. After he finally watches Titanic, he calls studio chief Mechanic and says, “I know why you like it, but it’s no Air Force One.” The movie finally opens on Dec. 17 and stays No. 1 at the box office for an astounding 15 weeks.

  • 1997

    Fox's visual effects company, then known as VIFX, acquires a majority interest in the Connecticut based animation house Blue Sky Studios. The deal gives Fox entree into the lucrative animation market, allowing the studio to compete with Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, beginning with 2002’s Ice Age, which grosses $383 million worldwide.

  • 2009

    Initially, the studio balks at Cameron's proposal to film an original sci-fi movie using cutting-edge performance-capture technology, but when it learns that the director is pitching the project to Disney, it exercises its right of first refusal and backs the effort, which eventually costs $237 million (plus another $150 million to promote). Not to worry. Again, Cameron defies expectations as his newest movie soars past Titanic to become the first movie ever to top $2 billion at the worldwide box office. A sequel is set for 2014, but that date is continually pushed back as Cameron’s grand plan eventually grows to encompass four sequels, which finally begin filming in 2017. The first is scheduled for 2020 release.

  • 2016

    The studio has enjoyed more than a decade of stability under co-chairman Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, who took the reins in 2000. But then Rothman is forced out in 2012 and Gianopulos leaves in 2016. Former Universal and DreamWorks exec Stacey Snider is named chairman and CEO of Fox Film, only the fourth woman to head a Hollywood studio.

  • 2018

    Shareholders for The Walt Disney Co. and 20th Century Fox’s parent corporation, 21st Century Fox, approve the $71.3 billion sale of the bulk of Fox’s entertainment assets. The deal is at least 2,000 times bigger than the original 1935 20th Century Pictures merger with Fox Film Corp. (A stock transaction estimated to be worth about $40 million at the time, an amount William Fox called “recklessly exorbitant”) and marks the beginning of the end of the storied Pico Boulevard studio as an independent entity. 

    This story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.