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For Leading Lady, the new biography of Sherry Lansing, the legendary film executive had to do something she never did during her 12 years running Paramount Pictures: relinquish control. Lansing, 72, participated in the biography but she and her husband, filmmaker William Friedkin, granted author Stephen Galloway full autonomy to research her life, talk to dozens of her closest friends (and not-so-close collaborators) and write the book as he saw fit. Having read the final product after four years of interviews, Lansing invited THR to her Century City office (overlooking the Fox lot, which she famously ran as the first female studio boss in 1980) to talk about being the subject of a biography, reliving her mother’s death from cancer, her hopes for Paramount today and her new life as a philanthropist (Stand Up to Cancer, which she co-founded, has raised about $500 million to fight the disease). Is Lansing scared what people will think of the book? “Terrified,” she says.
Which parts of Leading Lady were the most difficult to read?
Reliving my father’s death. Reliving my mother’s death was extraordinarily painful for me to talk about. To go back into when you were a child and to remember all the insecurities. Reliving my time as an actress and remembering what it was like to face those rejections and all the feelings of the lack of self-worth. To relive the making of a lot of the movies, because I was kind of surprised at how difficult everyone was and how many fights there were.
What is something in the book that will surprise your friends?
That I was so painfully insecure for so long and that I went into therapy. I never kept it a secret, but I think that will probably surprise people. It doesn’t go away. Suddenly you just have a loss of confidence (snaps fingers), and you don’t know where it came from. And then the tools that you learn through therapy get you through it. I’m 72 years old, and every once in a while that 12-year-old little girl who lost her father just (snaps) comes right back up.
What will women in Hollywood take away from your story?
Certainly, times are better. There are women running companies, studios. We almost had a woman president. I remember when none of that was there. You can either say the glass is half full or the glass is half empty. It’s not a perfect world; I know what the numbers are for women directors, and I know how far we still have to go, but we have made progress.
Is there one movie that got away?
I remember pictures, like Searching for Bobby Fischer, that I loved more than life itself and they never could find an audience. People outside of the business don’t know that you don’t want to get out of bed when you fail with a movie. It hurts you.
How often do you and Billy go to the movies?
I see almost everything that comes out — two or three movies a week. I love binge-watching TV, too. I watched Homeland and binged on The Young Pope. I’m curious because I haven’t seen This Is Us.
What film has impressed you recently?
La La Land blew me away. Damien Chazelle is one of the most gifted young filmmakers I’ve ever seen.
Do you think you gave up a lot for your career?
I don’t regret any of my choices, so the answer is no, because I didn’t give up a great love for my career. I got lucky: I met my husband when I was 47, and I was able at that point to not make sacrifices, just to adjust our life schedule to work with one another.
What do you miss most about Paramount?
I don’t miss anything about the movie business. Life is all about chapters, and when I left, I was done. I’d been involved in close to 200 films and the passion I had for making movies was gone. The dream was for creating a foundation dedicated to cancer research, education and now putting retired people back to work. I didn’t lose my old friends. I still see everybody, I keep up with what’s going on in the business. My world just got so much bigger. We can have a group of friends over, and there can be some scientist who is trying to find a cure for cancer and somebody who just directed a movie. There’s a fallacy that if you leave the business nobody talks to you.
Is cancer the aspect of your charity work you’d like to be remembered for?
Yes, in honor of my mother. She died when she was 64. And it was so painful to watch her suffer. Everything I do is in honor of my mother. My dream is that in my lifetime there will be a cure for cancer or that it’ll be a chronic disease.
Paramount is in a period of transition. Do you hope the Redstones keep it?
Oh, yes. I still see Sumner and Shari, and I’m crazy about both of them. He is like an older brother — one of the most supportive bosses anyone could ask for.
What did you learn from the book? My favorite anecdote was Bob Zemeckis sneaking away on weekends to shoot the running scenes for Forrest Gump.
I didn’t know that [happened].
Do you consider that movie your biggest success?
It’s too glib to say, “Oh, my favorite movies are Forrest Gump, Titanic and Braveheart” because they won the Academy Award.
They also made a zillion dollars.
Yes, but so did Mission: Impossible. You work just as hard and love the ones that aren’t successful.
There’s a lot in the book about your relationship with Tom Cruise.
I’ve known Tom since Taps. I knew his family. He was at that time one of the most gifted actors — you could see right away. He’s one of the kindest, most decent people I’ve ever worked with.
What about Scientology?
I know he’s a Scientologist, but I never saw him do anything that made anybody uncomfortable. I think everyone is entitled to their belief system.
You’ve been a big Mel Gibson supporter as well.
Very much. I loved Hacksaw Ridge. Mel is very hardworking, very much understands the problems of the studio system. I have only had positive experiences with him. In my experience, he has never been homophobic or anti-Semitic.
Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy — there’s a genre of movies people call the Sherry Lansing thriller. Are you proud of that?
Yes. Those movies were from my heart, from my desire not to be a victim, from my sense of justice. It was something in the way that I was raised: I watched my mother not be a victim after my father died. And revenge was good — I mean, that’s a terrible thing to say, but if someone screws you over, you have the right to get even.
Are you nervous about the book?
(Laughs.) Yes, very. I’m terrified of it because I don’t know how it will be perceived. How can you judge a book that’s about you?
Leading Lady, which will be released April 25, is available for preorder now.
This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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