Mastering The Hollywood Process

September 20, 1992|By STEPHEN Hunter | STEPHEN Hunter,Film Critic

Studio chiefs have come and gone in Hollywood history, some of them trailing slime and some of them gentlemen of the old school. But Sherry Lansing, the first of their number not to be of their gender, did something no one, before or since, had ever thought of, and it stunned a town where rumors insist that writers' skeletal remains have been discovered clutching dusty, silent telephones. Sherry Lansing called people . . . back.

Now, some seven or eight years removed from her hectic and sometimes controversial reign as head of Twentieth Century Fox, Lansing can laugh about it.

"I still do," the 48-year-old executive says, sitting in a Washington restaurant. "It's the way I was raised -- to a tradition of common courtesy. I just don't understand the arrogance in not calling back." Besides, she adds, "It was also good business."

That's Lansing, now an independent producer who, with her ex-partner, Stanley R. Jaffe, has produced a somewhat incredible list of films over the past decade. Does the name "Fatal Attraction" mean anything to you? What about "The Accused"? Or "Black Rain"? "Racing With the Moon"? "School Ties"?

No, you may not have heard of "School Ties," because it's the one that just opened two days ago.

"School Ties," the latest from Lansing-Jaffe Productions as released through Paramount, is a story about a Jewish high-school quarterback back in the '50s with Johnny U.'s arm and Artie D.'s guts. Recruited by a Waspy prep school as a ringer to engineer an upset of a hated rival, he finds himself in a whole new world. When he arrives on campus, David Greene (Brendan Fraser) bumbles into a decision to hide his Jewishness and finds himself therefore obligated to keep quiet about the casual, reflexive anti-Semitism he encounters in the locker rooms, the late-night dorm bull-sessions and the mahogany club rooms. Until, of course, he is found out, and his Jewishness, his eternal Otherness, makes him the butt of great anger and ultimately the most likely suspect when an honor code violation is discovered. He then has to decide whose rules to play by -- those of his faith or those of the hallowed institution that is trying to destroy him.

Not exactly the stuff $200 million grosses are made of -- no car chases, explosions, banter; no big star (Fraser actually made the movie before "Encino Man"). A real subject -- anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, we are talking Sherry Lansing, and Sherry Lansing is one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood, with an extraordinary list of accomplishments. She's married to a classic A-list director, William Friedkin. Her former partner, Stanley Jaffe, has just been named president of Paramount Pictures. If anyone in Hollywood can get a film made almost instantly, even one with complex materials and moral dilemmas and a lack of easy answers, it has to be Sherry Lansing. But how long did it take her to get "School Ties" made?

"Nine years."

Indeed. Although some are calling it "Dead Poets Society With Football," "School Ties" actually pre-dates "Dead Poets Society." been in development that long.

"It just takes a long time," says Lansing. "The elements have to be right. We had a strong first draft, then we brought in a new writer and he worked on draft after draft after draft. But I feel if you fight harder, it makes you more commercial about passions. It separates the men from the boys."Quite a stretch

The story hails from Dick Wolf, who later went on to develop "Miami Vice" for television in the mid-80s. It's based loosely on the half-Jewish Wolf's adventures at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts in the '50s. But it was screenwriter Daryl Ponicsan who developed the piece through its long series of drafts over the years. It was quite a stretch for a screenwriter who made a name for himself with an evocation of the brutalities and banalities of enlisted life in the Navy with "Cinderella Liberty," his novel (for which he wrote the screenplay), and also the novel "The Last Detail," which also became a movie. But Ponicsan threw himself into it with such abandon that he seems to have brought it off.

Nearly everybody associated with the production seems to have had that sort of passion.

Lansing, for example, said she and Jaffe have always wanted to do a film on the subject of anti-Semitism -- it is the first, for the record, to deal directly with the problem since "Gentleman's Agreement" in 1947.

"I suppose I wanted to make this film because I'm Jewish," she says.

"I got into movies," says Lansing, "because I thought it was a powerful means of communication. But if movies could also have substance, that was important, too. I need a reason to spend nine or 10 years of my life on a project."

But she said the movie isn't just about "being Jewish."

"It's more a psychological thing, no matter what persuasion you are. Most people, and kids particularly, have this feeling of being an outsider. The movie is about how you deal with that feeling, and whether or not you let it wreck your life."

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