Hollywood’s first female studio boss (finally!) tells all in a new biography that charts her rise to power and the epic battles (Glenn Close refused to film the ending) behind the classic thriller.
In early 2005, Sherry Lansing sent shock waves through Hollywood when she stepped down as chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, bringing an end to one of the most storied careers in entertainment.
Her decision to leave Paramount at age 60 (after greenlighting such classics as Forrest Gump, Braveheart and Titanic) and create a nonprofit foundation was only the latest twist in Lansing’s roller-coaster life.
The Chicago native had gone from being an 8-year-old overwhelmed with guilt at her father’s death, to a teacher in South Central L.A., to an aspiring actress who landed a lead role opposite John Wayne in 1970’s Rio Lobo, to a young woman who hated acting so much it made her physically sick. Changing careers, she became a script reader at $5 an hour and rose to become the first female head of a studio when she was named president of 20th Century Fox in 1980.
She went on to become a major film producer (Indecent Proposal, The Accused) before running Paramount for 12 years.
Despite many offers, she has never told her remarkable story in a book — until now. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from his upcoming biography Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker, THR‘s executive features editor Stephen Galloway picks up her story in 1983, just after Lansing had left Fox to produce.
Terminate the Bitch With Extreme Prejudice
On Jan. 4, 1983, with great fanfare, the industry’s trade publications announced the formation of Jaffe-Lansing Prods., partnering well-known producer Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing for the first time. Flush with excitement, Lansing settled into her oak-paneled offices in Paramount’s Lucille Ball Building. It was here that Howard Hughes had once held court, and here that her new life as a producer would begin, just days after she’d stepped down as president of Fox after a three-year run that had left her feeling battered and bruised.
At last, she was living her dream — or so she thought. “When you’re running a studio, you’re largely reactive,” she said. “You walk into the office. There are 60 calls. There are constant fires to put out. But you’re usually not creating anything from scratch. A producer has to come up with ideas. If you’re not active, nothing gets done.”
Plunging in with her usual whirlwind energy, she set to work reading, developing, meeting with writers and directors, all with the goal of making the kinds of movies she loved. The industry was watching, waiting. And it kept waiting. One small movie emerged and fizzled (Racing With the Moon); so did a second Jaffe-Lansing endeavor (Firstborn). A year went by and then another; the luster faded, the sizzle was gone.
Despite all of Lansing’s efforts, by 1985 she began to question herself, wondering if she had erred. Rather than work on a diverse group of projects at various stages of development, the company’s slate was limited to a few choice vehicles, and now, with nothing even close to being greenlighted, only two scripts were ready to go a step further. One, Diversion, was adapted from a British short about a husband who commits adultery; the other, Reckless Endangerment, was a rape drama based on a real-life case that had made headlines across the country. But the sad truth was, nobody wanted to make either one.
“The titles alone suggested our predicament,” said Lansing.
With her professional life stalled, CAA’s Michael Ovitz stepped in. At 39 years old, he was at the peak of his power, and as the producers’ agent, he was responsible for directing material their way. Over the previous decade, he had built CAA into the dominant force in Hollywood; he was admired and feared, respected and reviled, but Jaffe and Lansing felt they should heed his advice. The three met for dinner at Spago.
“We sat in a prime booth in the corner, with a picture window that featured a full view of the Sunset Strip and its movie billboards,” said Lansing. “Ovitz was showing the town that we were worthy of dinner.”
He was also showing the producers how ineffective they were. As he gestured toward the Strip, with its cascading billboards for upcoming movies, it was obvious none were theirs. Nor was that likely to change with their current projects.
“Put those things aside,” he counseled. “Stop beating your heads against the wall. Let me get you guys back in the mainstream. Eddie Murphy’s really hot, and comedies with him are in demand. I can put one of those together for you.”
“He was doing what an agent should, because we were as cold as ice,” recalled Lansing. “But that wasn’t what we expected.”
Had she opted to be a producer simply to make the vapid comedies Ovitz was recommending? Had she given up an executive’s salary to oversee films she would never pay to watch? Was it not possible to have success and still make the movies she cared for?
She listened and said nothing, and the more Ovitz spoke, the more her heart sank. At last, the threesome said goodbye, as Jaffe and Lansing stepped out of the restaurant into the chill of the night. The city stretched before them, its lights gleaming with the promise they had held so many years earlier when Lansing first came to Los Angeles, but at this moment, the world looked dark.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“Only movies we believe in,” replied Jaffe.
At 40, Lansing knew what it was to be obsessed.
Just a few years earlier, she had been jilted by a steady boyfriend who had told her, “I don’t think I love you anymore,” while both were in bed, and then got up and said goodbye, leaving her so deflated she could not drag herself out of her home for two full days. No matter what she had accomplished, it seemed like nothing compared to his love. And for the next few weeks, this woman who had been a pioneer in her field, who had risen to the summit of the most competitive industry in the world, kept circling his house deep into the night, searching for evidence of the thing she dreaded: another woman’s presence. She would call him at all hours, only to hang up as soon as he answered the phone. Her emotions were in turmoil, her life seemed unhinged. Wasn’t wisdom supposed to kick in by now? “I felt he took part of me with him,” she said.
This was the backdrop to the movie that would revitalize her career.
Fatal Attraction was based on a short film written and directed by James Dearden that Jaffe had discovered on a scouting trip to London. Diversion was the story of a writer who is left alone for a weekend when his family goes away and then calls a woman whose number he has kept. That night, they sleep at her place, only for the woman to slash her wrists before he leaves. Shaken, the man nurses her through the night and returns home, believing the nightmare is over. But when he is sitting with his wife and kids, she calls. The film ends with him staring at the ringing phone as his wife asks, “Aren’t you going to answer it?”
It was the rejected woman who drew Lansing far more than the male protagonist. She knew men like him — successful and seemingly content, with loyal wives on whom they cheated without a shred of guilt. Once she had gone on a blind date with a former basketball star, only to learn after he picked her up that he was married. She told him to turn around. “I was furious,” she said. “And I was even angrier with the friend who set me up for assuming I’d ever go out with him.”
Lansing invited Dearden to L.A. to discuss the short film, debating ways to make it strong enough to sustain a feature.
“We’d meet all morning and all afternoon, and maybe all morning and all afternoon again,” said the writer. “It was quite intense.”
Just when both were about to give up, Lansing had an epiphany: “What if our woman got pregnant? An affair can come and go, but a child is forever.” Said Dearden, “That was the key to up the stakes and make it much more dynamic.”
Over the course of a few hours, he created a new plot that pushed his story into deeper and darker terrain. “We wanted to escalate Dan’s problems and show that his actions had real consequences,” said Lansing, referring to the movie’s hero, Dan Gallagher.
His nemesis Alex’s line, “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan,” resonated with Lansing. “That was the essence of the movie for me,” she said. “She was standing up for her rights, saying, ‘You can’t just discard me because it’s convenient.’ Alex was a successful career woman who became involved with one married man too many. I didn’t think she was crazy to start with, but each of us has a tipping point.”
With the screenplay in place, there remained the question of casting. On a flight with Jaffe, Lansing ran into Michael Douglas, who read the script. “It was the perfect what-if, the ultimate quickie nightmare,” he said.
The actor was no longer the B-list star Lansing had met when she served as an executive on 1979’s The China Syndrome. But he still did not have the heft to get a film greenlighted on his name alone, and Paramount, where Lansing and Jaffe were based, passed on the project, as did every other studio. Its head of production, Dawn Steel, was so outraged by the script, she hurled it across the room.
“She yelled, ‘How can you give me this? I’m a newlywed!’ ” recalled Lansing. “She said, ‘Why should we care about a guy who cheats on his wife, especially when he doesn’t have a reason?’ But the fact there was no reason was the whole point. Things like that happen, and knowing it adds to the feeling of, ‘This could happen to me.’ “
She failed to persuade Steel, however, just as she failed to persuade numerous directors to sign on. “Everyone passed,” she said. “I begged John Carpenter [Halloween]. And it wasn’t just him. I begged everyone.”
The movie was in trouble. Studio readers were sick of seeing the same old script recycled, making its way again and again through their story departments. And the agencies were bored with Lansing’s repeated requests to show it to clients.
Everything changed when Brian De Palma (The Untouchables) said yes. The director was at the top of Hollywood’s A-list, and Steel could not have been more excited. Suddenly it became her favorite project. Red flags might have been visible if Lansing had cared to look: De Palma did not share her sympathy for the jilted woman and wanted to make changes that seemed close to turning the story into a horror film.
“We even had a Halloween scene, with Alex running around in a Kabuki mask, terrorizing the household,” noted Dearden.
But De Palma had Steel’s support, and that meant Fatal was a go. Gearing up for the shoot, Lansing rented an apartment in New York, where the movie was going to be filmed, while Jaffe set to work finding locations and staff. Then De Palma had second thoughts.
“We were just a few weeks away from the shoot,” recalled Lansing, “and he said, ‘I can’t make the movie with Douglas. Michael’s completely unsympathetic. No one will ever like him.’ ” De Palma gave an ultimatum: “It’s either him or me.”
“It was one of those come-to-Jesus moments,” Lansing continued. “De Palma was the element that got us a green light, but Michael had been on the movie for two years, when everybody else rejected us. We said, ‘We’re sticking with Michael.’ “
With De Palma out, the film was dead. It had an actor nobody wanted and a script in which no one believed. Then ICM agent Diane Cairns sent it to her client Adrian Lyne. The British director was at home in the South of France when he received the package and sat down on the stone steps of his farmhouse to read it. He finished the whole thing without moving.
“I woke my wife up,” he remembered. “I fell in the bed and said, ‘Listen, if I don’t f— this up, I know this is a huge movie.’ “
A key piece of the puzzle lingered: finding Alex. “The role was critical because she had to be sexy but vulnerable, a career woman who had her act together but could still completely collapse,” said Lansing. Her first choice, Barbara Hershey, was unavailable. Another possibility, French actress Isabelle Adjani, did not speak enough English. Debra Winger, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange were all considered or turned the role down. Melanie Griffith was also in contention, but the filmmakers feared that what she had in sexuality, she might lack in gravitas.
Cheers star Kirstie Alley read for the role and contributed a unique element to the film. “Her husband [Parker Stevenson] had been stalked by a woman who camped outside their house and made their lives hell,” said Lansing. “Kirstie had saved a tape of the woman’s calls and gave it to Adrian. You could hear the woman crying as she begged to be part of this man’s life. Adrian ended up using it verbatim.”
The options were fast running out when agent Fred Specktor urged the filmmakers to meet one of his clients, Glenn Close. The actress was in her mid-30s and the right age for the part, but Hollywood still thought of her as Robin Williams’ earth mother from her debut film, 1982’s The World According to Garp.
“There was a debate about her sexiness,” said Douglas. “They gave me the most beautiful wife [Anne Archer] you could imagine, and the whole thing was, how could you leave this gorgeous woman for Glenn Close?”
Close eventually met with the producers in their offices on the Paramount lot. She had changed her look for the meeting: Her hair was wild and so were her clothes. “My hair was long, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” she explained. “I finally said, ‘F— this,’ and I let it go all crazy.”
Said Douglas: “She just knocked it out of the park. She already had the Medusa hair. It was a Glenn you’d never seen before.”
In fall 1986, shooting got underway in New York. The producers, like their director, wanted the film to be as believable as possible, and at times their efforts to ensure realism bordered on the comic, not least in the scene where Archer finds a dead rabbit boiling on her stove. It was a real rabbit — already dead, procured from a butcher.
“We tried to take its innards out to make it real,” said Lyne. “But then it didn’t have any heft. It was just like a little bit of skin. So we had to boil it with all of its innards, and the stench was beyond belief. That probably helped Anne because the smell was so bad.”
Lyne urged Douglas to make his character believably flawed. “I was trying to get myself in shape,” said Douglas. “Adrian said, ‘No, no, don’t worry about it. I like the way you are.’ But then I got a little on the chubby side, and one day he came and said, ‘Jesus Christ, Mike! You look like bloody Orson Welles!’ “
When Douglas and Close first have sex, Lyne loved Douglas’ suggestion that he should carry Close draped around him and get tangled up in his trousers as they fall to his ankles. “Adrian thought audiences were uncomfortable watching others have sex, and if you didn’t give them something to laugh at, they’d laugh at the scene instead,” said Lansing. “I thought it was a bad idea. I was wrong.”
The director had flights of imagination that breathed life into what otherwise might have been a genre piece, but he also could be demanding and obstinate. Halfway through filming, he had a heated altercation with Douglas.
“There’s a scene where they’re arguing as they go down into the subway, and [Close] says, ‘I’m pregnant,’ ” recalled Lyne. “It’s this ghastly moment, and he’s struck dumb. It’s one of very few scenes where I thought of using a Steadicam, and I’m not crazy about the Steadicam. [When that did not work], I got a circular track and laid it around them, and halfway through I realized that was a mistake, too.” Douglas was furious about the delays. “I said, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ and we go to the trailer,” added Lyne. “I start yelling, and he comes right back at me. I thought he was going to murder me. He let me have it more than I was giving him. It was absolutely this cathartic shouting match. He was somebody not to mess with. I remember thinking, ‘F—, that’s his dad in there.’ “
Said Lansing: “Adrian got nuanced performances. But that need for perfection could drive a producer crazy. Stanley would threaten him, ‘Shoot the damn scene or we’re moving on,’ and then Adrian would yell at him. The three of us had operatic screaming fights.”
At one point, for a simple sequence with Douglas in a hotel room on the phone, they found the director had added a maid in the background and was in the process of elaborately lighting her. It was deep into the night, the crew had been working the whole day, and everyone was exhausted. “We were on hour 13,” said Jaffe, “and he’s shooting this woman scrubbing the floor in the bathroom. I said, ‘What the f—? Are you crazy?’ “
Months after production wrapped, a test audience saw the movie for the first time. Its title had changed from Diversion to Affairs of the Heart to Fatal Attraction.
Lansing was thrilled with the result — and then, to her astonishment, it received a dismally low score of 74 out of 100.
“We did about six screenings,” she said. “And at every single screening, when Anne says, ‘If you come near my family again, I’ll kill you,’ the audience bursts into applause. [Paramount CEO] Frank Mancuso said, ‘I think they want Anne Archer to kill Glenn Close.’ And I looked at him, speechless, because I thought he was crazy.”
From the beginning, the filmmakers had sensed the ending was not quite right. In early drafts, Alex frames Dan for her murder, and the police arrest him. When Jaffe showed those drafts to a screenwriter friend, Nicholas Meyer, he argued the ending was too harsh. “I thought, in the words of The Mikado, ‘Let the punishment fit the crime,’ ” said Meyer, who ended up polishing a draft of the script. It was Meyer’s ending that had been filmed, with a redeeming finale in which Archer finds a taped message Alex has left that exonerates her husband. But audiences hated that ending.
Steel’s boss, Ned Tanen, was blunt: “They want us to terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice,” he said.
“Adrian went nuts,” noted Lansing. “He felt that changing the ending was kowtowing to the lowest common denominator, and I agreed. Here was this wonderful film about how all your actions have consequences, and now they wanted to change the whole point. I felt it was morally wrong, and if I agreed to do it, I’d be selling out.”
Tanen offered a compromise: He would give the filmmakers $1.5 million to shoot a new ending for the $11.6 million film, no strings attached. “That was brilliant,” recalled Lansing. “How could you say no? I would later use that tactic constantly whenever I was at an impasse with a filmmaker.”
Everyone knew Close’s character had to be killed, but how? It seemed logical and morally fitting that Douglas should kill her; but somehow that failed to satisfy. It was only when the team began to consider his wife, Beth, that they felt they had their solution. She was the perfect spouse, smart and good-humored, but she had been reactive rather than active for most of the film. To have her, the sole innocent, take this action was nothing if not appropriate.
“We thought of Diabolique,” said Lansing, referring to the 1955 French thriller in which two women seemingly drown a man in a tub. “Dan draws a bath for Beth and then goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. He doesn’t realize Alex has broken into the house. Just as Beth is about to have her bath, she looks in the mirror and sees Alex, but the whistle of the kettle drowns out her scream. It’s only at the last minute that Dan hears her, runs upstairs and drowns Alex in the bathtub. When she pops out of the water, alive, Beth finally shoots her and kills her.”
Douglas was on board, but Archer was appalled at the thought of scrapping the scene she liked best, when her husband is carted away by the police. “I burst into tears,” she said. “I felt like a little kid. Sherry held me in her arms and comforted me. God love her, she held me tight for as long as I needed.”
Close resisted the changes even more. She felt sympathy for Alex, a woman battling mental illness, and fiercely resisted cliches about another female psycho. And so she categorically refused to do the reshoot.
“She came into Stanley’s office, and we couldn’t even get through the conversation with her,” said Lansing. Dearden and Douglas stepped in. “I had to pretend it was a great idea,” said Dearden. “I had to sit there and tell her what the new ending would be, and tears were running down her cheeks. Glenn said, ‘You can take me in a straitjacket, but you can’t make me do it.’ “
Said Douglas: “I had a big talk to her about the theater, and how you play the show to out-of-town audiences, and then you adjust. The argument was, ‘It may not be the best for your character, but it’s best for the movie.’ “
Close rejected that out of hand: “I remember screaming at Michael, ‘How would you feel if they did this to your character?’ He said, ‘Babe, I’m a whore.’ [Finally] I called William Hurt, and he said, ‘You’ve made your point. Now it’s your responsibility to buck up and just do it.’ “
Close consented to shoot the new ending, although she never came around to liking the version she filmed.
“We went back to [the Gallaghers’ house], and other people had bought it, so we had to reconstruct it just the way it was,” said Lansing. “It cost a fortune. Glenn had the worst of it, by far. She was dunked in the bath more than 50 times, and her eyes and nose became infected.”
Back in Los Angeles, Lyne assembled a rough cut and then called Lansing into the editing room to show her what he had done. She watched the new ending unfold, as Archer enters the steaming bathroom, glances in the mirror and jumps at the sight of Close. When Archer jumped, “I jumped, too,” said Lansing. “I leaped right out of my seat.”
The changes paid off. Test scores shot up, and when Fatal Attraction opened Sept. 18, 1987, it held the No. 1 spot at the box office for eight straight weeks and earned $156.6 million domestically. Time put Douglas and Close on its cover and called Fatal “a nightmare parable of sex in the ’80s.”
And yet feminists and many critics loathed it. “It’s about men seeing feminists as witches, and, the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael. “This shrewd film also touches on something deeper than men’s fear of feminism: their fear of women.” Lansing was horrified. It had never been her intention to demonize women. “This was one woman, not all women,” she believed.
But the critical attacks failed to quell the movie’s momentum. Fatal received Oscar nominations for best picture, best actress (Close), best supporting actress (Archer), best adapted screenplay, best director and best editing. Douglas alone among the key participants was shut out.
Lansing attended the Oscars as a nominee for the first time. Even though Fatal lost best picture to The Last Emperor, “It was one of the greatest nights of my life,” she said. “We’d bet on ourselves and won.”
Adapted from Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker ©2017 by Stephen Galloway. To be released by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on April 25. It’s 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.