Laura Ziskin: Breasts and blockbusters

At her memorial service in the summer of 2011, they called her “a mother in a man’s world.”

It seems an apropos epitaph for the late producer, whose gift for making movies was fueled by the same bottomless ardor that marked her mothering. Ziskin wasn’t one of those women who “sacrificed it all” for her career; she had her cake — and a daughter, too.

It is often said of Ziskin that the qualities that made her one of the industry’s most vaunted producers — of fare like “Pretty Woman,” “As Good As It Gets” and the blockbuster “Spider-Man” franchise — were the selfsame qualities that made her a steadfast mother. In an industry of unstable sorts, Ziskin solidly parented. On Saturday nights when she couldn’t meet agents to sip spirits and talk properties at the Polo Lounge, she’d scour women’s magazines for more obscure titles or devise new story ideas herself.

It was often said she had impeccable instincts. 

She knew, for example, that she had breast cancer before her doctors did. For five or six years before her diagnosis, Ziskin kept finding lumps and having mammograms. The doctors would tell her things were fine and send her home. “Eventually she started having things that if you have them, you should rush to the doctor’s office,” Julia Barry, Ziskin’s daughter, told me during a phone interview last week. “She knew something was really wrong.”

Barry, at the time, was a junior at Sarah Lawrence College and studying abroad. She finished out her year in London, at her mother’s request, though reports from home were dismal. 

Ziskin had asked for an MRI; her insurance refused. But one benefit of a blockbuster is you can afford to pay out of pocket. With her “Spider-Man” money, Ziskin got to buy a cancer diagnosis: Stage 4 lobular breast cancer, which Barry described as “a growing, lacy network of cancer” right around the veins where breast milk comes through. Instead of new shoes, a “very massive tumor,” “an unheard-of number of lymph nodes affected.” Instead of summer vacation, a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant.

Early on, one oncologist, Barry remembers, “basically looked at her like she was going to die.” 

Once, she was the Pretty Woman “nobody could say no to.” She told The Hollywood Reporter that although she had never read a comic book, she won the “Spider-Man” project by imploring Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal to “just give me the biggest motherf—-r you have.” Then, illness struck, and “nobody felt like we were going to come out of this,” Barry recalled.

But if there’s anything the movie business teaches, it’s lessons in fortitude. Ziskin brought her hard-charging career qualities to her cancer fight, a war she waged for seven years. “She became very lifestyle-focused,” Barry said, “changed her diet, practiced more yoga.” But for a Jew who had relaxed her Jewishness after her father died, spiritual sustenance didn’t come as easily: “There were some attempts at meditating,” Barry admitted, but “she was always saying she was a really bad meditator.”

Perhaps Ziskin inherently knew that some injustices can’t be quelled with quietude on a mountaintop; that they must be boldly battled in the world. An action producer by nature, Ziskin felt that one of cancer’s evils was the lack of cohesiveness within the medical community, with new treatments held hostage by competitive researchers and doctors stymied by bureaucracy from administering the best possible care. 

“When people are dying, you can’t just sit around and have ego wars over whose paper is getting published,” Barry said. 

So Ziskin co-founded Stand Up To Cancer, a nonprofit that encourages collaborative research in the development of cancer cures. It would be one thing to fight the disease in her body, quite another to fight an imperfect medical system. She enlisted the support of entertainment pals like Sherry Lansing and Katie Couric to launch the organization, which, along with her movies, became her living legacy.

“She wanted to stop the cannibalization of body parts,” Barry said. “Part of the problem in the scientific community is that people tend to work in silos, but they’re finding that mechanisms of cancer may be able to tell things to each other.”

For a woman used to owning her femaleness wholesale, “The gendered part of breast cancer frustrated her,” Barry said. Cancer is cancer, was how Ziskin saw it. It knows no gender; it consumes human cells. So while some women worry that breast cancer compromises their femininity, perhaps their very identity, Ziskin’s cancer awakened her to the indiscriminate torment of all cancers. “She was much more focused on what she could do to solve this problem for other people.”

That was the Ziskin way. Misfortune didn’t change her; it restored her to her essence: “She had an unwavering character, a drive, an unwillingness to compromise, an ability to collaborate. What she was able to do as a philanthropist and an activist was just an extension of what made her really great as a producer.”

But wherever there’s a Jew, there’s irony. Ziskin deplored the cliché about cancer being a good thing that has the potential to catalyze transformation. “She felt adamantly that this had not changed her, but all of us who were very close to her can look back and say, ‘Well, actually, it did.’

 “If she were able to look back” — and had her life been about movies alone — “I think she would feel a little bit empty,” Barry said. 

It wasn’t cancer that changed her. It was her aggressive, defiant, determined and hopeful response to cancer that intensified who she already was.