THERE IS A PRIMITIVE WOODEN MASK, A souvenir from Bali, staring out from the desk in film producer Dawn Steel’s office in Beverly Hills. Several extreme states of mind can be read into the mask—anxiety, misery, terror—and Steel, the only woman ever to run a major Hollywood film studio, can relate to all of them. “This is exactly how I fell every day at Columbia,” she says. “So I sat this guy up in my office and didn’t feel so bad, because he had it worse.”
The mask, however, bears no resemblance to the defiant survivor who comes across in Steel’s new memoir, They Can Kill You…But They Can’t Eat You: Lessons from the Front (Pocket Books). After a dozen trailblazing years at Paramount and Columbia, Steel, 47, decided she could inspire other women by writing about her own white-knuckle years at the top of an industry long ruled by men. It was never her intent to dish, Steel insists: “I had nothing to hide and no need to dump on people.” She does, however, include some revealing episodes from her love life, including an affair with Martin Scorsese and a “very magical, very torrid” romance with Richard Gere.
Reviewers have not been universally pleased. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin found the book lacking as both a memoir (“heavily padded”) and as a self-help treatise, saying it’s unclear who would benefit from most of Steel’s snippets of advice (“You can only sleep your way to the middle”).
At least Steel, once described by New York magazine as “arguably the most powerful woman Hollywood has ever known,” can still eat lunch there. She has just unveiled her first project as an independent producer. Cool Runnings is an offbeat, feel-good comedy about Jamaica’s Olympic bobsled team, a film that survived a tortured history typical of Hollywood productions—rewrites, budget cuts and bouncing back and forth between studios. Steel has also recently survived a greater crisis: the death of her mother, Lillian, last March of emphysema. “It’s unfathomable how you live without your mother,” says Steel. “Making the movie gave me something to focus on other than my grief. The movie and the book are really about perseverance.”
Steel grew up on New York’s Long Island, where her father, Nat, was an amateur weight lifter known as the Man of Steel after he changed his surname from Spielberg. When Dawn was 9, he suffered an emotional breakdown after a business reversal.
A popular girl from the “wrong side” of affluent Great Neck, Dawn managed to hide her troubles from her well-heeled schoolmates and struggled not to sweat her insecurity. “I had an obsession with underarm shields—pointy ones, round ones, full ones, half ones,” she says. “I never had the other girls’ clothes or teen tours to Europe or—the big status symbol—a shiksa nose. I’m. still self-conscious about my nose, but I’ve learned to live with it.”
Steel studied marketing at Boston University and NYU and later went to Penthouse., where she started as an editor but ended up marketing off-color novelties by mail. She then set up her own mail-order outfit with a partner, Ronnie Rothstein, selling Penis Plants (actually amaryllis) and toilet paper printed with a Gucci-like logo. The two married in 1975 but split amicably less than a year later. In 1978, Steel, then 32, ventured west after a friend at Paramount assured her, “If you can market smut and toilet paper, you can market movies.” Steel proved the wisdom of that assessment as director of merchandising at Paramount, then rose quickly once Michael Eisner, then Paramount’s president, moved her into production in 1980.
Steel mastered the game of high-concept hardball under a dream team of mentors including Barry Diller (now QVC Network Inc. chairman), producer Don Simpson (Top Gun), Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg (now, respectively, Walt Disney Co. CEO and Wall Disney Studios chairman). Her big break came after she look a nervy stand and fought for the go-ahead to 1983’s Flashdance, the sleeper starring Jennifer Beals that became a $90 million sensation. Two years later, Paramount Pictures president Ned Tanen appointed Steel president of production.
During her tenure, Steel earned a reputation as the Queen of Mean, given to haranguing and humiliating underlings—sometimes to the point of tears—and going through secretaries like toilet paper. “She was a screamer,” says a studio executive who has done business with Steel. “She could really work you over for your business weaknesses, and she was particularly adept at making it seem personal.” But Steel says it was her job to be tough. “I was trained to be loud, passionate, direct,” she explains. “I didn’t realize for the longest time I was intimidating.”
Screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) is among those who detect a sexist double standard in the criticism of Steel. “When a woman gets into a position of power all sorts of people get irritated,” she says. “Things not even worth mentioning if men do them become war atrocities if women do them.” Columbia publicity executive Mark Gill agrees. “You don’t put Bambi in as studio head,” he says. “Anyone who’s going to get walked over doesn’t belong there. I’ve worked for men who were far more difficult and who had much, much better reputations.”
Meantime, Steel’s love life was a long-running mess. In the ’70s she had a five-year affair with a married man. In 1975 she began an emotionally bruising romance with Gere, who had yet to become a star. “He was broke and gorgeous,” she says. But commitment was out of the question. In her memoir, Steel describes how Gere asked her to visit him in England while filming Yanks: She went, only to find he was seeing someone else. In 1983 she began a yearlong romance with Scorsese shortly after his divorce from Isabella Rossellini.
After breaking up with Scorsese, Steel didn’t date for a year. Then in 1984, she met producer Chuck Roven (Final Analysis, Heart Like a Wheel) at a screening. Their senses of humor clicked, and they married in 1985. Roven, 44—whom Steel describes as “calm, low-key and sane”—says that life with Dawn is never boring. “We have a relationship where we’re in each other’s face very much, and we tell each other what we’re thinking all the time,” he says. “That keeps it very lively.”
Despite such hits as Fatal Attraction, The Untouchables and The Accused—and record box office earnings at the studio in 1987—Steel clashed with Paramount president Tanen and chairman Frank Mancuso. The reasons for the conflict remain murky; some associates say it was a personality clash, others that Tanen resented the attention Steel was getting in the press. “Maybe I was too pushy,” she says. “Maybe they didn’t like aggressive women.” Whatever the case, Tanen and Mancuso effectively ousted her as production head in March 1987—just as she was going into labor with her only child, Rebecca.
It was a tumultuous time indeed. Days after the birth, Dean Paul Martin (Dino Jr.), Steel’s close friend and her first hospital visitor, died when the jet plane he was piloting crashed. “As crappy as I felt about losing my job, everything else pales by comparison when you’re dealing with life and death,” she says. “Besides, I now had this extraordinary gift in Rebecca, and that gave me the drive to survive anything.”
A half year later, Steel was snapped up as president of Columbia Pictures, where she released Postcards from the Edge, Flatliners and Awakenings. But she was miserable. She felt too far removed from creative decision-making and was tired of life in the corporate trenches. She also yearned to spend more time with her daughter. In 1991, a year after Sony bought Columbia and Peter Guber and Jon Peters were hired as cochairmen of the studio, Steel quit—”to spend my time thinking,” she says. “Isn’t that an unbelievable luxury?” It was one she could afford, since her stock options were worth a reported $7 million.
Since going independent, Steel has taken pains to keep her priorities straight. She starts the day al 6 a.m. with a transcendental meditation “mind flush” and always manages to spend lime focused on Rebecca. She also enjoys hiking in the canyons above Sunset Boulevard, biking at the beach and traveling with her family. And she has an active civic life; she was a tireless fundraiser for candidate Bill Clinton and serves on Mayor Richard Riordan’s task force to lure film business back to L.A. “I know how pretentious it sounds, but I do want to give something back,” she says.
In some ways she already has. “The only way to combat sexism is through competence and being great at your job,” she says. Yet Steel’s ultimate lesson from the front is that blazing trails doesn’t always mean happy
trails. “I’ve finally found something I love—participating at every stage in the creation of a product. It used to be about power. Now it’s about passion for the work. I’m one happy camper.”