Studio Chief Sherry Lansing's Abrupt Exit Leaves Hollywood Wondering Who Outfoxed Whom

updated 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Sherry Lansing became president of 20th Century-Fox Productions three years ago, a highly visible star was born. As the first woman production boss at a major studio, Lansing, 38, enjoyed instant celebrity, a $150 million budget and a reported salary of $300,000 (with bonus options on hit movies that could have brought her up to a cool million). When she resigned last month, just as her pet project The Verdict opened to raves, Lansing forfeited her title—but not her ability to startle Tinseltown. KISS HER GOODBYE exclaimed an L.A. paper.

Insiders say Fox top brass criticized Lansing for not producing a string of hits. From Kate Jackson in Making Love to Neil Simon's I Ought to Be in Pictures to Christopher Reeve as Mon-signor, Fox has had a year of busts. Despite the success of Porky's, a $106 million box office smash, Fox reported a $16.9 million loss last fiscal year. But Lansing refused comment on rumors she was about to be replaced: "I'm proud of my track record."

Battle fatigue may have prompted her departure. Lansing warred repeatedly with distribution chief Norman Levy. The pair clashed over Chariots of Fire, which Lansing developed and Fox helped finance; Levy declined to distribute the film in the U.S. Says one friend, "Sherry was devastated by Norman's decision. When Chariots won the Best Picture Oscar, it was the most painful night of her life." The plot thickened when oil czar Marvin Davis bought Fox in June 1981. The cigar-chomping Davis, a capitalist of the old school, reportedly gave her less than total support, and bureaucracy and power struggles sapped her credibility among filmmakers, who wondered how long she would be around.

Ironically, Lansing's leave-taking may have come on the eve of her greatest triumphs: The Verdict seems surefire, and trade talk touts Robert DeNiro in The King of Comedy as a prospective smash. Lansing will soon surface at Paramount, where her mentor, Daniel Melnick, 50, is a producer. Though Melnick hasn't confirmed the move, he remains high on his protégée. "The single most important quality in a producer is enthusiasm," he says. "Sherry is absolutely, genuinely enthusiastic." But in Hollywood, where not all the princes are charming, Lansing's effervescent style may have been a handicap. As screenwriter Robert Towne has caustically observed, "Insanity and greed are what hold a picture together."

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