Sherry Lansing, Dawn Steel and Sue Mengers: When the Broads Faced the Raging Bulls in '70s Hollywood

Sue Mengers and Tatum O'Neal - NATO Awards-1976-Getty-One Time Use- H 2016
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The '70s were a time of creative fertility in Hollywood, but the renaissance mostly didn't include women until a group of pioneers planted seeds of equality still being sown today.

"The reason women haven't really achieved power in our industry is they're scared shitless," said Sue Mengers, with characteristic bluntness, in Rachel Abramowitz's definitive book on this subject, Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Mengers, who became one of the most powerful agents of the 1970s, wasn't speaking about herself; on the contrary, she was famous for her truly preternatural chutzpah, stemming from — who knows? — a genetic defect that deprived her of her flight instinct? Whatever it was, she was immune to the rampant sexism that pervaded Hollywood during this decade, even as the industry was being revolutionized creatively. She fearlessly waded into the sea of testosterone the way Ratso Rizzo plowed through Times Square traffic in Midnight Cowboy, stopping only to pound on the hood of a taxicab and say, "I'm walkin' heah!"

Despite appearances to the contrary, however, even Mengers didn't have an easy time of it. When she got to CMA (Creative Management Associates) in 1969, she was introduced to the ubiquitous "boys' club." According to ICM Partners agent Toni Howard, who was then a secretary at CMA, agency heads Freddie Fields and David Begelman "were very much the male egos running the company. Right away Sue wanted to be on an equal footing with the men, but the guys tried to hold her back. Somebody would sign some kind of ordinary person, and everybody would go, 'Oh, how fabulous!' Sue would sign Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal after Love Story, and she didn't get the kind of attention somebody else would have gotten."

Women in the '70s had every reason to be scared shitless. If Hollywood in that decade was no place for old men, who were swept away by the tide of mostly male "movie brats" coming out of the film schools, it was certainly no place for young women, not if they wanted to get off their backs and get ahead. The Washington Post CEO Katharine Graham became the first woman to break onto the Fortune 500 list in 1972, Cathleen Black took over USA Today in 1983 and other women were making headway in the corporate world. But Hollywood was slow to get the news.

There were some crafts that were traditionally more inviting to female talent, such as costume design, casting, editing and even screenwriting. Some women slipped through by dint of their husbands' success. But female directors were harder to find than the Higgs boson. This may have been the directors' decade — but only for men. "The fact that the door had opened a crack for women didn't mean dick," Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Nashville and directed Old Boyfriends, told Abramovitz. "Any woman I knew who had any aspirations of directing or getting into it was not working."

Improbably, it would be easier to become a producer or even a studio head than it was to direct. For producers Lynda Obst and Laura Ziskin, the way in was through scripts. Obst came out to Hollywood from New York in 1979 and was hired by Casablanca, Peter Guber and Jon Peters' company, as a reader. "What [they] really meant was, you could serve mineral water at meetings to executives wearing cowboy boots," recalls Obst. "One of my bosses was locked up in a room all day long taking cocaine with hookers." She hated the job but hung in and developed Flashdance. As Ziskin, who would eventually have her own feature film division at 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, explained to me in 1998, "Everything starts with the material. There was a consensus that women were good with story. The men running the studios started hiring us to bring in material, to work with the writers. After you've worked on material, the natural extension of that is, 'I want to take the next step; I want to see it through. I want to produce.' "

Sherry Lansing became the first woman to head worldwide production at a studio when she was named president of Fox in 1980. After knocking around town for a few years in the late '70s, she became head script reader at MGM. From there, she was hired as senior vp production at Columbia, where she supervised Kramer vs. Kramer and The China Syndrome. "I experienced sexism constantly," she recalls. "The interesting thing was that at the time, it was so much a part of the culture that you sort of accepted it and learned to treat it like it was a speck on your jacket. And to work through it. Because we didn't think we had any recourse."

In 1980, chairman Alan Hirschfield lured Lansing to Fox, making her head of production at the tender age of 35. After bumping up her pay, saying, "If I don't give her the same salary as a man, no one will take her seriously," he turned around and hired Norman Levy as head of distribution. "He told Norman that in a year and a half, he could be my boss," recalls Lansing. "It was terrible."

Texas oilman Marvin Davis bought Fox in 1981. "Marvin asked to meet the head of the studio," she remembers. "I went into his office, and said, 'Hi, I'm Sherry Lansing.' He said, 'No, no, no, honey, I don't want any coffee.' I said, 'No, I'm Sherry Lansing.' He said, 'I'm so sorry, I wanted to see Jerry Lansing, the head of the studio.' I said, 'Mr. Davis, the head of the studio is Sherry Lansing.' 'A girl?' 'Yeah.' He said, 'OK,' and then we were fine." Even so, men who were OK with a "girl" couldn't help but fall into the sexist idiom. He persisted in calling her "dollface."

The next woman to head production was Dawn Steel, who moved from New York in 1979 when she was 32 to take a job in the Paramount merchandising department. She arrived in the heady days when the Four Horsemen of High Concept — Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg — were boiling down the character-driven scripts of the New Hollywood to log lines. "We were all intimidated by the collective power of Barry Diller and Michael Eisner," Steel wrote in her memoir, They Can Kill You But They Can't Eat You. "We would see them in the commissary or the parking lot, and we'd be panting like dogs, like, 'Oh please just recognize me.' "

Still, Steel found it a surprisingly copacetic environment. Simpson, who was head of production at Paramount, plucked her out of merchandising and put her to work reading scripts. "He hired the smartest people he could find, so that it would make him look good," she told me in 1996, a year before her death. "Don didn't care if you were hermaphrodite. He liked the fact that I was smart and had balls."

Still, Steel couldn't help notice that there were a lot of meetings she wasn't allowed to attend, and when she was invited, the important decisions already had been made by the "roaming men" who casually dropped into one another's offices. She wasn't allowed on the company plane. She wasn't allowed to work on certain movies. She wasn't paid a salary comparable to the men's. She certainly wasn't invited on Katzenberg's famous rafting trips down the Colorado River with the likes of Tom Cruise. And when she flew to ShoWest with the rest of the executives, she wasn't allowed to sit on the dais with them. "This is actually worse than not having your own parking space," she wrote. It may sound like a high-class problem, but, she explained, "I wanted to be respected by filmmakers, and why should they respect me if they saw that my superiors did not treat me with respect." In short, she wasn't a member of the boys' club. She had picked up Obst's Flashdance and convinced the studio to produce it, but she wasn't permitted to look at the screen tests for the female lead, which were for men only, and referred to as "peter-meter screenings."

"There was a lot of pain and humiliation in those years," she wrote in her memoir. "I would walk into my office and I would close the door and I would say, 'I won't cry, I won't cry, I won't cry.' … At least, I wasn't going to let them see me cry." Crying in front of male executives signified weakness, and it was the worst thing you could do. As Obst once said, "It scares men, and I don't blame them because they're afraid you'll turn into their wives or daughters or, worse, their mothers.''

Flashdance, of course, turned into a mega hit, and eventually, in 1985, when the so-called "Killer Dillers" left after the studio's lider maximo Charlie Bluhdorn died suddenly, Steel became head of production, reporting to Ned Tanen. The day after her daughter, Rebecca, was born by cesarean section, her husband, producer Charles Roven, picked up one of the trades on his way to her hospital room. While she was on the phone with Tanen, who was congratulating her, Roven showed her the front page, which announced that Tanen had hired Gary Lucchesi as executive vp, reporting to himself, not Steel. That meant she was out.

"It was an unbelievable example of duplicity and sexism," says Roven today. "He felt competitive with her. He wasn't getting any credit for what was going on at Paramount, and she was getting it all." There was a silver lining: Almost instantly, Steel became president of Columbia Pictures. Despite her success, according to her daughter, Rebecca, "she didn't really want me to go into the business. It was probably a result of how difficult it had been for her." (Rebecca became an executive at her father's Atlas Entertainment and is executive producing Wonder Woman.)

In the late '70s, Lansing told Life magazine that there would never be a female studio head in her lifetime. She was named chairman and CEO of Paramount in 1992.

OK, OK, I know, happy endings are just for the movies. And indeed, directing still is a man's game, and women have a long way to go in terms of parity with men. But the narrative did change dramatically in the '80s and '90s. "The women's movement was a tremendous help to me," reflects Lansing. "If you don't believe that you deserve the job, you certainly are not going to get it." Obst recalls the "power shower" Steel's friends gave her before Rebecca was born. "All of the girls got together, really for the first time, women supporting one another, realizing that we could be more effective together than separately," she remembers. "It was a real quantum shift. It inspired Dawn to create a day care center at the studio. It created the first sense of sisterhood in Hollywood."

Steel died in 1997 of a brain tumor at the age of 51. In her New York Times obituary, Nora Ephron paid tribute: "She hired women as executives, women as producers and directors, women as marketing people. The situation we have today, with a huge number of women in powerful positions, is largely because of Dawn Steel."

This story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.