"Look at Me When I’m Talking to You”
Laura Ziskin’s Reboot of the Female Producer
by J. E. Smyth

A 1973 graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Laura Ziskin (1950–2011) worked as a studio or an independent producer in Hollywood for more than twenty-five years.

During the past year, you couldn’t scroll through a newsfeed or skim a newspaper without reading more headlines about women in Hollywood. Time’s up…the industry is finally changing…American men are getting the witch-hunt they deserve...no auteur is safe... But for ordinary people deciding whether to spend any of their diminishing income on a night at the movies, the real question is whether there’s something playing at the multiplex to compete with Netflix. Some feminists in the film industry have argued that all these issues are connected—and, given time, the overall quality of Hollywood films will improve when more women are directing and when men and women are paid equally for equal work. Hmm. Grandiose predictions aside, women certainly should have an equal chance to make movies as expensive, lousy, and demeaning as those made by men. After all, they’ve got a long way to go to catch up.

This discussion often ignores the people truly responsible for the lineup in today’s sparsely populated theaters: film producers. As critic Susan Faludi pointed out decades ago, Sherry Lansing (these days identified as a “pioneering feminist” in the business) was responsible for films emblematic of the postfeminist media backlash against women. Remember Fatal Attraction (1987) and The Accused (1988)? It’s easy to make excuses for Lansing—so often critics and the public assume she was one of the first powerful producers and the only woman at the Hollywood high table. It’s almost impossible to get the movie you want greenlit in any era, and Lansing was outnumbered by a bunch of male executives who basically gang-raped the original script of Fatal Attraction.

But Hollywood has a long history of employing women as producers, and they developed material with substantial roles for women. In the 1940s, Joan Harrison made Phantom Lady (1944). Press queen Louella Parsons’s Wellesley-educated daughter, Harriet, developed and produced Enchanted Cottage (1943) with Dorothy McGuire and I Remember Mama (1948) with Irene Dunne, among others. Virginia Van Upp was responsible for Cover Girl (1944) and Gilda (1946). Constance Bennett starred in and produced films about female resistance leaders (Paris Underground, 1945) and lawyers (Smart Woman, 1948), and colleagues Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, Gail Patrick, Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, and Mary Pickford also did the job. Comparing them to Lansing prompts me to paraphrase writer/director Nora Ephron: maybe all the last generation got out of Second Wave feminism was a boiled bunny.

Lansing was one of many women working as producers and executives in poststudio-era Hollywood. Hannah Weinstein (no relation to Harvey) was their role model. Fleeing the blacklist in the 1950s, she went to Britain and produced television scripts for writers such as Waldo Salt and Ring Lardner Jr. She returned in 1971 and formed Third World Cinema Corporation with Ossie Davis, Rita Moreno, and James Earl Jones. We have Weinstein to thank for Richard Pryor’s Stir Crazy (1980). Her daughters Lisa and Paula also became producers, along with Julia Phillips, Dawn Steel, Lynda Obst, Stacey Sher, Carolyn Pfeiffer, Nora Ephron, Amy Pascal, and Laura Ziskin. Among them, these women were responsible for Flashdance (1982), Choose Me (1984), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), and Erin Brockovich (2000), developing a remake of Little Women (1995), and greenlighting Fatal Attraction. They also made The Sting (1973) and Fight Club (1999). All of these films may not have burnished Hollywood’s artistic image. They may not have pushed politically correct versions of femininity. But they made money.

In 2007, producer Laura Ziskin consults with co-producer Grant Curtis on the set of Spider-Man 3.

It is, however, certainly ironic that during the 1980s, a postfeminist media backlash coincided with a rise in numbers of women producing in Hollywood. It might be unfair to blame the housewife/whore, victim/nutcase paradigms in so many films of this period on the more substantial presence of women in the boardroom who were optioning and developing this kind of work. And it wasn’t all bad news. In 1990, the year Faludi was putting the finishing touches on Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, two films aimed at female audiences, Ghost and Pretty Woman, had the top slots at the box office. Admittedly, the screenplays for both films—respectively, about supernatural romantic victimization and a streetwalker Cinderella —were written by men. But Pretty Woman’s producer was one of the most influential in contemporary Hollywood, a woman who fought to make movies her way, regardless of what men (and other women) in the boardroom said. And if the postfeminist Hollywood backlash was limiting content and constraining women’s image on screen, it was Laura Ziskin who fought back, armed with many of the traditions and tricks of old Hollywood.

Early in her career, Ziskin consciously gravitated to material from the studio era. No Way Out (1987) was a remake of The Big Clock (1948) starring a fresh-faced newcomer named Kevin Costner. She followed that up in 1988 with a remake of D.O.A. (1950) starring Hollywood’s then It Couple, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. She provided the material for Stephen Frears’s Hero (1992); it was a remake of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941). When she was running Fox 2000 Pictures, Ziskin greenlit Anna and the King (1999), a remake of John Cromwell’s 1946 original adaptation and The King and I (1956).

Her interest in film noir was reminiscent of the work of the influential Harrison and Van Upp, who worked in the 1940s (Harrison would transition to television in the early 1950s). Was Ziskin a feminist? Not if her employment of writers is any criterion. Unlike her studio-era predecessors, Ziskin worked almost exclusively with male writers. The one exception was her first, and for many, most memorable major production, with Sally Field, Murphy’s Romance (1985), which paired Ziskin with Harriet Frank Jr., who began her career in the 1940s. But Frank and writing partner/husband Irving Ravetch were brought in at the behest of director Martin Ritt, who made Norma Rae (1979) with them and Field.

Ziskin acknowledged that when she was starting her career in the late 1970s, “the consensus that women were good with story” and their ability “to work with the writers” helped get them producing opportunities. Her comment indicates that screenwriting in the poststudio age was identified as a man’s profession, while women could enter the business behind the scenes in development, progressing to the position of producer only after a lot of hard work. It was certainly a change from the studio era, when women made up a sizable percentage of working writers, and lucky ones like Harrison and Van Upp moved from writing to producing. But Ziskin was good with story, and consistently delivered for her directors, though, as Buck Henry once joked, she sometimes “got the rewrite she wanted” by unconventional means (writers Julian Barry and Alvin Sargent were husbands one and two). Perhaps this was why she preferred male writers—they were easier to leverage.

In a recent interview, Ziskin’s friend, colleague, and former Sony co-chairperson Amy Pascal, identified Ziskin beyond any of her other colleagues as “a producer with a definite agenda.” But what kind of producer was she, and just what was that agenda? How could the same woman produce Murphy’s Romance and then later set the comic-book franchise in motion with Spider-Man (2002)? Though the industry recognized her with a Women in Film Crystal Award (2002) and a David O. Selznick Achievement Award (2005), and, following her death in 2011, her name became attached to foundations and new awards for women in film, there has never been any serious examination of Ziskin’s career.

Ironically, Pascal is now at the heart of Ben Fritz’s new book, The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies (NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), an exposé that lays the blame for Sony’s demise on Pascal’s inability to confront the franchise phenomenon adequately. Her production playbook, sourcing good original story material for domestic audiences well-versed in genres, owed a debt to Ziskin, herself a reboot of the old-style producer—a vanishing breed committed to original, standalone feature filmmaking in which “content had no gender.”…

To read the complete review, click here so that you may order either a subscription to begin with our Summer 2018 issue, or order a copy of this issue.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2