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TV Preview: Hollywood women share success stories

Monday, May 12, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Lauren Shuler Donner knocked on doors in Hollywood looking for a job, a (male) executive gave her this advice: "Honey, either learn shorthand or get yourself a see-through blouse, because that's the only way you're gonna get a job in Hollywood."

She took Door No. 3, and it had nothing to do with steno pads or sheer fabric. She became the first female camera operator in the Hollywood union and worked her way up the producing ladder. Her credits include both "X-Men" blockbusters, all three "Free Willy" adventures and assorted other hits, such as "Any Given Sunday," "You've Got Mail" and "Mr. Mom."

"Women on Top: Hollywood and Power"

When: Tonight at 10 on AMC.


Shuler Donner, who says outsiders mistakenly believe her success is due to her director-husband Richard Donner, is one of the women featured in the documentary called "Women on Top: Hollywood and Power." Narrated by Chloe Sevigny, it airs at 10 p.m. today on cable's AMC.

It spends time with A-list actresses Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock and profiles industry leaders such as Shuler Donner and fellow producers Laura Ziskin and Paula Wagner; director Mimi Leder; writers/directors Mira Nair and Callie Khouri; cinematographer Ellen Kuras; film editor Sally Menke; and production designer/producer Polly Platt.

It's the quintessential good news-bad news story.

For instance, half of the 20 highest grossing movies of all time had a woman producer or executive producer. Paramount, Sony and Universal studios are headed by people with the first names of Sherry, Amy and Stacy, and women lead the four major guilds (actors, directors, writers and producers) in Hollywood.

On the flip side, no woman has ever won a Best Director Academy Award. Only 4 percent of the directors of 2002's top 100 films were female. Even the U.S. Senate has a better record than that.

And the "Celluloid Ceiling," a yearly study by Martha Lauzen of San Diego University, says that when looking at those same 100 top films from last year, 8 percent had women writers, 1 percent had women cinematographers and 12 percent had women editors.

One of the success stories is 1969 Carnegie Mellon University graduate Paula Wagner, an actress turned agent who represented Demi Moore, Val Kilmer, Aidan Quinn and Oliver Stone and spotted a "19-year-old with charisma to burn" in the 1981 movie "Taps." That newcomer was Tom Cruise, and he became a client and then her producing partner at CW Productions, home of the "Mission: Impossible" franchise, "The Others" and "Vanilla Sky."

Wagner, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, credits Carnegie Mellon's Drama School with providing rigorous, disciplined training that helped prepare her for the course she ultimately took. "It allowed me to have flexibility to make choices, the confidence to say I'm an actress, I can be an agent" and then a producer.

In a phone call last week from her office on the storied Paramount lot, Wagner said she wasn't the only female agent at CAA in 1980 but she was -- out of necessity -- one of the hardest-working.

"Did you have to work harder? Absolutely. Did you have to do a little more to prove yourself? Did you have to be, maybe, a little tougher of a negotiator? Yes, yes. You had to, doing that job, you actually had to be better than anyone could ever expect."

Wagner -- the oldest daughter of a businessman and a mother who doubled as mentor and raised and bred show dogs, wrote and painted -- didn't hide how she felt about equal treatment. "I wore, early on, my 'women's lib vest,' because I was involved with the women's movement, consciousness-raising and I was very vocal," but not in an aggressive or obnoxious way.

"I was a liberated woman, and I was going to be treated that way, and I do think your attitude says a lot," and people tended to treat an actress more like "the little cutie." As an agent, "You had to do it better, you had to go to the negotiating table and be tougher than anyone."

She thinks some young women take the pathways forged by the pioneers for granted.

"There have always been great females doing great things," but those achievements came with sacrifices. "I think one of the important things that has happened over the last 20-some years is that it has been acceptable and acknowledged that you can have it all.

"That was always the thing. If you want a career, you could have a career, you just couldn't have a family and a career. If you wanted a family, you had to make hard choices," said Wagner, who has a husband along with a 23-year-old stepson and 15-year-old son.

"You can live your life as a human being and fulfill yourself and do it more effortlessly, certainly, than what was going on in the last 25 years."

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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