October 15, 2019

Goodbye to Laura Ziskin: ‘A mother in a man’s world’

The next time someone says that Hollywood-types don’t have heart, I’m going to namedrop Laura Ziskin.

The trailblazing producer of mega-hits including the “Spider-Man” franchise and the Oscar-nominated “As Good As It Gets” died on June 12 at age 61, after nearly a decade-long battle with breast cancer. Ziskin was a fiery female anomaly; one of those people who defied industry stereotypes at the same time as she was defining them. She was a true original.

At least that was the portrait that emerged at the lavish memorial – well, really party (just as she wanted) – that was held on Stage 15, where “Spider-Man” was filmed, at Sony Pictures Studios on June 25. More than 1,000 people attended – including Warren Beatty, Renee Zellweger, Sherry Lansing and Cuba Gooding Jr. – to pay homage to Ziskin’s life and work, in what many said was typical Ziskin style.

It was like a scene from a Sunset-strip club: crushed velvet couches, cabaret tables and expert low-lighting; a jazz band, a Celine Dion-caliber singer, wide open bars and buffets featuring wild kind salmon and summer corn risotto. There was a “signing wall”, the likes of which you see at a Bar Mitzvah and 12 giant flat screens looping personality-filled pics of Ziskin & Co., from her days as a beautiful blonde (“She was the prettiest Jewish girl I ever met” went one voiceover) to her twilight with the breast cancer buzz cut. Tributes and testimonials from Brian Williams to Emma Stone overlaid of on-set action and at-home family time.

“It’s a Laura party,” gushed one of her assistants. “It’s a total Laura party.” 

But despite exhortations to “keep your drinks in your hand” it wasn’t without tears.

Beginning with her only child, the incredibly poised and well-humored Julia Barry, Ziskin was remembered as a fierce, wholesome heroine whose nurturing maternal instincts were as powerfully felt by director Sam Raimi as they were by friends and family. “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are,” Barry said, quoting the 20th century writer and philosopher, Joseph Campbell. “My mom had that her whole life – the only thing she hid behind was a chic pair of sunglasses.”

Barry referred to her mother as “a mom in a man’s world” and Ziskin’s first producing partner, the actress Sally Field, echoed the same. Upon meeting Ziskin, who was then pregnant, Field recalled saying, “Laura Ziskin, will you please work with me?” Anticipating her upcoming birth Ziskin told Field she wouldn’t always be available. “I’m not one of those mothers who leaves their child at home and goes to work.”

Field replied: “Well, neither am I!”

She said she’d never forget the image of Ziskin in their production office, arguing with a studio head—while breastfeeding her daughter from their donated couch. 

Raimi, the director of “Spider-Man” called Ziskin his “white knight” and said her optimism changed his life during the decade they worked together. “In moments when I feel lost, I now feel lost until I’m found – she changed me.”

But Ziskin was more than a Blockbuster producer – she was a champion for cancer research and prevention. After her diagnosis, she created the non-profit organization “Stand Up 2 Cancer” and raised more than $200 million for the cause. In tribute, Spidey himself (the actor Tobey Maguire) read a letter from a cancer survivor who had met Ziskin at an event and wrote to her after her death. The heartfelt missive emphasized Ziskin’s impact on cancer research, how effective she was at influencing and informing. So much so, in fact, that a chocked-up Maguire, who never raised his eyes, had to pause while reading to suppress his grief. “I’m sorry,” he said.

The up-and-coming young actress Emma Stone made a pitch to solicit donations for Ziskin’s cause. “I wish I could say Laura didn’t keep tabs on actors who didn’t donate to Stand Up 2 Cancer – but she did,” Stone quipped. 

To conclude, “the love of Ziskin’s life”, Alvin Sargent, ascended the podium. He told a telling tale, about how Ziskin would call him from the Sony lot, all disgruntled. “They hate me!” she’d say.

“Well, what did you do?” Sargent would ask.

“I just told them ‘I want what I want’ and they didn’t understand.”

“Did you say something you shouldn’t have?” Sargent said.

“Maybe,” Ziskin would say. “But I want what I want! I want Woody Allen to be on my Oscar show,” Sargent recalled her saying.

“You can’t get Woody Allen,” he said. “He doesn’t come to Hollywood and he doesn’t even touch the Oscars he wins.”

“I want what I want,” Ziskin would say. “And she got him,” Sargent said, before his voice broke describing his plan to scatter her ashes at sea.

By this point, the memorial had turned melancholy with nary a dry eye in the house. A thousand people had paid their respects to a woman who was “inspiring, funny, ballsy, bold, tough, vulnerable – and sometimes inappropriate” according to the speakers.

A film clip of Ziskin speaking at a cancer event told her heroic Hollywood story: “In my world, the hero always defeats the villain, the boy always gets the girl, and cancer is no more,” she said.

At the end of the night, her good friend Amy Pascal, chairwoman of Sony Pictures, threw her arms around her 11-year-old son. Her husband, former New York Times correspondent Bernie Weinraub was wearing sad eyes. “Let’s go,” Pascal said to her family.

On the way out, clips from Ziskin’s movies played. A line from “Spider-Man” felt uniquely resonant: “Sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most,” said Spidey’s aunt, May Parker.

For the vivacious Ziskin, this was nothing short of life itself.