Obituary: Dawn Steel
Wednesday 24 December 1997
It is hard to imagine a Hollywood without Dawn Steel, the New York vulgarian workaholic who rose to the uppermost echelons of, respectively, Paramount, Columbia and Disney.
Famed for her "big hair", and many would add her big mouth, Steel was an atypical brash New York Jew, a marketing merchant who applied a hard- sell technique to the movie business. Neither agent nor movie boss, nor graduate of any East Coast business school, Steel rose to the top of a particularly slippery pole, as a female executive in a resolutely man's world, and helped, inadvertently, to free up top industry positions to women. Her roll call of films - love 'em or loathe 'em - defined the look of the New Hollywood, every inch as vulgar as the old, albeit lacking the former's sense of taste and genuine style, and in so doing created the populist culture of incoming generations, also by the by generating an awful lot of hard cash for an ever- inflationary industry.
Steel was born in 1946 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the daughter of second-generation Jewish immigrants who met at a dance at 92nd Street Y. The family name was, ironically, Spielberg, but her father was a muscleman bodybuilder who called himself Nat Steel, and it became the family moniker. Her father's eventual breakdown led to a troubled and impoverished childhood, and she worked her way through both Boston and New York Universities, studying marketing at the latter's School of Commerce, working as a bookkeeper in the evenings.
Steel never finished her schooling and in 1968 began full-time employment, determined not to be a mere receptionist or secretary in an era when women were fighting for equal position in the workforce. She fetched up at Stadia Publishing in New York, sent to cover a Giants football game at Yankee Stadium, garnering a place for herself in her own press box on behalf of the National Football League Digest, knowing nothing about football and commentating on the costumes that the Vikings were wearing: it was a stop-at-nothing approach that would serve her well in Hollywood.
Steel worked for Penthouse magazine as merchandiser, placing Penthouse logos everywhere, aping Playboy, and trawled the world searching for apt products. In Frankfurt she secured the rights to a hand-knitted item that she successfully marketed as a Cock Sock: her next big success, in tandem with her first husband Ronnie Rothstein, was the wholesale sale of Dutch bulbs, marketing amaryllis as "Penis Plants" with the slogan "Grow Your Own Penis - all it takes is $6.98 and a lot of love".
Steel's next big success outlasted her marriage: toilet paper embossed with a symbol suspiciously similar to the interlocked "G" of Gucci. Gucci sued, but Steel continued to produce designer toilet paper, utilising such items as The Book of Lists and The Dieter's Guide to Weight Loss During Sex. Such shameless marketing triumphs could only end her up in one place.
Her marriage over, her only ambition to open a gift store in Greenwich Village, Steel was invited out to Los Angeles by a friend, a junior production executive at Paramount, who realised that if Steel could market Penis Plants and Designer Toilet Paper, she was ready for movies. For Steel's part, she had been inspired by the 1976 film Rocky, a movie about the will to succeed, and her personal taste inclined to Doctor Zhivago and The Godfather, but she had no filmic consciousness to speak of. In the cynical words of the Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Mathews: "Marketing designer toilet paper seems as good a background for success in Hollywood as anything else."
Steel's move on Hollywood was as swift as it was unpredictable. The Paramount powerbroker Michael Eisner (later "whiz-king" at Disney) hired Steel immediately after she related to him her life story to date ("It's a television series like Rhoda," Eisner is alleged to have said - "the Dawn Steel story starring Penny Marshall"), and put her on to marketing Mork and Mindy merchandise. Given Star Trek - The Movie to market, and denied access to the unfinished film, Steel put on a spectacular show utilising the whole Enterprise cast, which was beamed on to the main Paramount theatre stage via lasers, and successfully ended up with Klingons promoting McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Eisner was so impressed he immediately promoted Steel to Vice-President of Feature Production, and so, quite literally, a Hollywood legend was born.
Despite the myth, Steel wasn't quite the first woman to run production. By 1980 Sherry Lansing was already President of 20th Century-Fox, and both Zoetrope and United Artists had female executives. But Steel's own personal publicity was considerable, and her rise undeniably swift, and by 1983 she had become Senior Vice-President, Production, at Paramount, her position proceeded by her reputation and a variety of nicknames: "Hell on heels", for instance, or the "Queen of Mean".
"Abrasive" would be too mild a word for a woman who changed secretaries on a monthly basis, but the style suited her immediate boss, the equally abrasive Don Simpson. Under Simpson, Steel found and produced Flashdance (1983) - a trite, novelette-ish fantasy flick she parlayed through three writers (with one of whom, Tom Hedley, she had a torrid affair) into a fast- moving, energetic, identifiable smash hit. It cost $7m and took $90m domestic, and began the now-common device of marketing theatrical features via pop promos on MTV. Steel followed Flashdance with a virtual clone, Footloose (1984), an equally artless smash hit.
Steel's star was on the rise, as was her image. She was becoming perceived as the American career woman par excellence. In 1983 she met and embarked on a long and torrid romance with the director Martin Scorsese, and learnt about the cinema. It was Scorsese who urged Steel to turn a current news story into a movie and the result was The Accused (1988), which won an Academy Award for Jodie Foster. It was also Scorsese who introduced Steel to another aspect of film culture: Steel loved to relate how, prior to playing Trivial Pursuit with Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Ingmar Bergman, no less, she stayed up the night before memorising the cards.
Steel's formidable presence was responsible for a slew of popular successes at Paramount: she continued working with the Flashdance director Adrian Lyne on the box-office success Fatal Attraction (1987), forging a working relationship with that film's star, Michael Douglas, and immensely aided the success of the action movie Top Gun (1986) by astutely suggesting that, since the star Tom Cruise was the film's main attraction, all flying masks be dropped from the character's faces as often as possible, and where such masks were absolutely necessary, the character's name was to be written on their helmets. Realistic? Who cares - in marketing terms a major triumph.
But Steel's personal publicity was making enemies at corporate Paramount, and while actually greeting her new husband, Chuck Roven, after the birth in 1989 of her baby Rebecca, she learnt from a headline in Variety in Roven's pocket that she was no longer President of Production at the studio.
However, the head of Columbia, David Puttnam, had managed in his all- too-brief tenure to upset, offend, and generally rile agents and management at Paramount's sister studio, and the Columbia powerbrokers Ray Stark, Victor Kaufman and Herbert Allen offered the prime position to Steel. In her candid and admonitory 1993 autobiography They Can Kill You But They Can't Eat You Dawn Steel states that it was the call of her life, the proverbial offer she couldn't refuse, and on 28 October 1987 Dawn Steel became President of Columbia Pictures, effectively the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio.
The very antithesis of Puttnam, Steel had the extraordinarily difficult task of mending nets, bringing back into the Columbia field movies that Puttnam had no interest in; films like Ghostbusters II and The Karate Kid III (both 1989). Steel is on record as saying that David Puttnam thought these sequels were just crass and commercial movies. "To us, they were unmined gems."
Also at Columbia, Steel restored David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia and turned the 1962 film into a successful 1989 re-release, on the advice of her former lover Martin Scorsese. The nine-Oscar winner The Last Emperor (1987) also, as Steel put it, fell into her lap. Steel's Columbia regime began to reek of prestige product and box-office hits: The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1989), Postcards From the Edge (1990), When Harry Met Sally (1989), plus Look Who's Talking (1989) and its two sequels.
Many of the Puttnam- instigated titles were tried, and failed, and left a crippling legacy of celluloid. Columbia became ripe for takeover. On 25 September 1989 Victor Kaufman called Dawn Steel at 7am and announced that the company had been sold to Sony, and by 1991 Steel had settled her contract at Columbia, leaving Flatliners and Awakenings (both 1990) as her last two movies there.
Invited by Michael Eisner, who had first started her in the business, to join him at Disney, Steel didn't hesitate, and finally achieved that which was denied her previously: no title, plus her name on the credits of her own movies. (Traditionally, Hollywood studio executives take no credit on their own films.) Her first self-produced film was Disney's most successful 1993 release Cool Runnings, with a world-wide theatrical gross take of over $140m, and her own outfit, Steel Pictures, also produced Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992) and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), both tremendously successful.
It was a matter of time before Dawn Steel was courted by the mogul of moguls, Ted Turner, but Steel demanded complete autonomy before accepting Turner's offer as Chairman and Chief Executive, and negotiations collapsed, only to re-surface in 1994 when, as Atlas Entertainment (named for her father Nat Steel, who performed as "Mr Atlas"), she struck a first-look, multi-year production agreement with Turner Pictures, a 10-feature slate jointly funded by Britain's BBC, France's TFI, and Germany's TeleMunchen.
But rumours started to circulate in Los Angeles about Steel's health, and the family issued a wish for personal respect on behalf of the press; such was Steel's standing in the Hollywood community, this wish was observed. Although she had been heavily active with 12 Monkeys (1995) and Angus (also 1995), the New York Post broke the silence in 1996 with the news that Dawn Steel had an inoperable brain tumour.
Steel dealt with the revelation by immediately hiring the director Gregory Hoblit to helm her new Denzel Washington-starrer, Fallen, which, with City of Angels, starring Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage, will premiere in early 1998. Hollywood's First Lady, Dawn Steel, will not be around to see them open.
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