With paperback sales alone of four million, her sexy feminist novel Fear of Flying had to be the hottest movie property since Jaws. But author Erica Jong—in the spirit of her hapless heroine Isadora—found yet another way to get victimized. Both she and the purchaser of the movie rights had retained International Creative Management, and “When one agent represents both producer and writer,” Erica feels, “the writer gets raped.” Embarrassingly, the producer was herself a sympathetic movement woman, Julia (The Sting) Phillips, but Jong smacked her with a lawsuit of $10 million anyway.
Erica was particularly concerned that the press would sensationalize the case into “a catfight between two women.” But the legal issues are more artistic than sexist. Jong unquestionably lost leverage by negotiating the deal in Febuary of 1974, before she realized what a blockbuster she had wrought. Julia herself admits she obtained rights “very cheaply, because it wasn’t yet a best-seller in paperback.”
Jong was offered a mere $10,000 for a one-year option to write the screenplay, and could be replaced after that. So, after two vacillating drafts (Erica had written 12 different endings to the original novel), producer Phillips switched to a male scenarist, David Giler, whose unprepossessing credits included Gore Vidal’s transvestite opus Myra Breckinridge. “I’m not on some kind of fern-lib soapbox,” explained Julia. “David is funny and a real stud. He told me, ‘After years of exploring the uterine mysteries, this is a perfect assignment for me.’ He’s right.” Aggravating matters further, Julia, who had promised the assignment of a “prestige” director, perhaps John Schlesinger, finally decided to direct the movie herself, though her only experience was a practice short in a woman’s workshop at the American Film Institute. To Phillips, the “point is to make a commercially successful feature. As a producer, I’m damned afraid of getting an X rating. As a director, I’m tempted to do some terrific sex scenes—from a woman’s point of view.”
Erica and Julia had started off such good friends when they negotiated rights to Fear of Flying, and indeed they have much in common. Both are recently separated. Erica, 33, took off from her Chinese-American psychoanalyst husband, Dr. Allan Jong, for a younger man, Jonathan Fast, son of novelist Howard Fast. And Julia, 32, quit producer Michael Phillips, with whom she shared an Oscar for The Sting, for much younger actor Greg Johnson.
“There’s no part for him in the movie,” says Julia staunchly, but she is still searching for Erica’s “Jewish princess” heroine. Contenders include Jane Fonda, Madeline Kahn, Carly Simon, Goldie Hawn and Brenda Vaccaro. “It’s 2 a tough search for a very tough role,” says Julia. If they ever settle their suit, = Jong and Phillips maybe could flip a coin between themselves.