Throughout December, Julia Phillips, the brash, talented ex-movie producer, worked on the details of her last big deal: her own death. Diagnosed in August with terminal cancer that had spread from her breasts, the first woman producer to win a Best Picture Oscar (for 1973’s The Sting) invited a New York Times reporter to her West Hollywood apartment to offer up details for her obituary. She welcomed her friends, says her former producing partner Tony Bill, “with a morphine drip in one hand and a cigarette in the other.” She pruned the guest list for a small private memorial. It was held in L.A. four days after her Jan. 1 death at 57, which took place at home with daughter Kate Phillips, 28, an attorney, by her side. Says her friend Ruth Vitale, copresident of Paramount Classics: “She planned it down to a T.”
The truth is that, thanks to Phillips’s 1991 memoir you’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again—one of the nastiest, tastiest tell-alls in showbiz history—much of Hollywood had been treating her as though she were already dead. Her wunderkind career (she won her Oscar at 29) already damaged by rampant cocaine abuse and endless ego clashes, Phillips used the bestselling Lunch to cast herself as a cynical David hurling stinging pebbles at one Goliath after another. She ridiculed Steven Spielberg (with whom she worked on 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as a stuttering boor; described Goldie Hawn as “borderline dirty, with stringy hair”; and—heresy!—said she’d heard Warren Beatty was lousy in bed. Hollywood doors slammed shut. She was even briefly barred from L.A. power restaurant Morton’s. “The book’s title,” notes Vitale, “was prophetic.”
Its mix of fearlessness and recklessness was pure Phillips. “Where some of us glow, she burned,” says Joni Evans, her editor on Lunch. The Manhattan-born daughter of Adolph Miller, an engineer on the Los Alamos atom bomb project, and his wife, Tanya, “Julia had the ability to get people to do what she wanted,” says brother Matthew Miller, 54, of Weston, Conn., who runs a semiconductor-chip company. “She was a star from the day she was born.”
But it was Hollywood’s constellation of movers and shakers that the Mount Holyoke College graduate was eager to join after working as a Paramount script reader in the ’60s Six years after she married investment banker Michael Phillips in 1965, the couple formed a production company with friend Tony Bill. Their first film, 1973’s Steelyard Blues, flopped, but they shot to the top with The Sting, a colossal hit starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and 1976’s Taxi Driver.
Intimidating and blunt, Phillips thrived in the New Hollywood—a hip, drug-loving town where studios were ceding clout to a younger generation. Fellow producer Rosilyn Heller recalls that at a studio meeting during the struggle to get financing for Taxi Driver, Julia, pregnant with Kate, “stood up and said, ‘I’m going to give birth right here if we don’t get the green light.’ ” Phillips, says Bill, “would smoke, chew gum, tap her foot and talk about three different things with all the balls in the air, never dropping one.”
After her 1975 divorce from Michael, Phillips began snorting, as she put it, “samovars of cocaine” and losing control of her life. Though her name remains in the credits for Close Encounters, she was elbowed out of her position as controlling producer. It took several rehab stints before she sobered up for good in the early 1980s. By 1991 she was working on the film of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire with producer David Geffen. Then she published Lunch, in which she said that Geffen’s “collagened face” made him look like a middle-aged baby. He fired her. She never produced a film again.
Why did Phillips maul the hand that fed her? “I think Julia just didn’t want to produce another movie,” says Rice. “It was like she retired.” Still, “she had no regrets,” says daughter Kate. She devoted much of her last decade to writing. But her follow-up book, 1995’s Driving Under the Affluence, didn’t come close to matching the success of Lunch. “At the end, her body was incredibly weak and tiny,” says Kate. “But the brain and the mouth were still working full course.”
Champ Clark in Los Angeles and Olivia Abel in New York City