The season of beach reads is here again, and if you haven’t yet found the right escapist fiction, you might want to try this nonfiction page-turner by entertainment journalist Rachel Abramowitz. Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women’s Experience of Power in Hollywood has all the elements of Jackie Collins or Jacqueline Susann — sex, money, love, betrayal, power — plus the sweep of a great generational coming-of-age novel. That the professional highs and personal lows of the women peopling this multiple biography are all real makes it even better than fiction.
Abramowitz, who over seven years interviewed more than 150 women about their lives and careers in Hollywood, has corralled the personal stories of a diverse, pioneering flock — from Elaine May, Sue Mengers, and Barbra Streisand to Paula Weinstein, Gillian Armstrong, and Jane Campion — into a roughly chronological narrative. At the heart of this feminist saga are two executives whose disparate styles reflect the extremes women once went to in order to succeed in the movie business: the warmly girlish Sherry Lansing and the aggressively ball-busting Dawn Steel.
Like many young women, Lansing came to Hollywood to become a movie star. Her curvy good looks caught the eye of director Howard Hawks, who vowed to transform her into another Lauren Bacall or Angie Dickinson. But during the shooting of ”Rio Lobo,” her big break, Lansing realized she hated acting. ”I was miserable on that set,” she says. ”I remember someone giving me a Valium and thinking, I am going to end up like Neely in ‘Valley of the Dolls.”’
Instead, she began reading TV-movie scripts for a male producer who valued her female perspective — and was quickly thought to be sleeping with him, the kind of rumor that would dog her for years. Even in 1980, when she was appointed head of production at Twentieth Century Fox — a groundbreaking promotion that made the front page of the New York Times (”Former Model, Named Head of Fox Productions”) — the victory was accompanied by a spate of nasty gossip. Lansing became known as the ”Beauty to the Beasts,” famous for disarming some of Hollywood’s most abusively powerful men. One executive cracked that, at a studio screening, ”Sherry worked the aisles like an airline stewardess, hugging and kissing everyone she knew.”
That kind of blatantly sexist typecasting was never a problem for Dawn Steel, whose abrasive swagger, hair-trigger temper, and sexual romps with the likes of Don Simpson, Richard Dreyfuss, and Martin Scorsese ensured her acceptance as one of the guys. Lansing’s mentor, producer Dan Melnick, dubbed her ”my favorite truck driver.” A former go-go dancer and head of merchandising for Penthouse magazine in New York, Steel came to Los Angeles to be with a young actor named Richard Gere. When the affair fizzled, she settled for a job at Paramount as VP of merchandising (including ”Star Trek”). She quickly rose to head of production — and became a living symbol of executive arrogance and rage, ”a woman who’d become a man in high heels,” before her death from brain cancer in 1997. Between them, Lansing and Steel paved the way for a new generation of ”D-girls” — that’s D for development, not cup size — to climb through the studio ranks.
While admittedly fun to read, the book’s talk-show tint does detract from the women’s achievements. Abramowitz tends to credit her subjects’ often-troubled relationships for hampering or fueling their ambition. She says ”Evening Star” producer Polly Platt, who got her start as a production designer on movies like ”The Last Picture Show,” spent years bolstering the work of men like James L. Brooks — but didn’t summon the courage to strike out on her own until 1971, when then husband Peter Bogdanovich ditched her for Cybill Shepherd. And she attributes Jodie Foster’s toughness and drive to her early years, when the child star financially supported her divorced mom and siblings. Gossip and personal drama aside, some of the women discussed — Carrie Fisher, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge — get short shrift. Still, Lansing and Steel lend the crowded epic a cohesive arc. Abramowitz may not have written a definitive history of women in Hollywood, but hers is the most complete — and juiciest — to date. Miniseries, anyone?