Laura Ziskin—one of the most successful female film producers in Hollywood history, whose credits range from Pretty Woman to Fight Club to the Spider-Man franchise—has died after a seven-year battle with breast cancer. In addition to her work in film, Ziskin was also one of the entertainment industry’s most fervent fundraisers for cancer research, co-founding Stand Up To Cancer in 2008 and producing two of its telecasts herself. She was 61.
Ziskin got her start working as a personal assistant to producer Jon Peters, who helped her become first a development executive and then associate producer on films like 1976’s A Star Is Born. She co-founded her own production company with Sally Field in 1984 and under their Fogwood Films banner they began releasing movies like Murphy’s Romance (which landed James Garner an Oscar nomination) and the thriller No Way Out, in which Ziskin cast the still relatively unknown Kevin Costner and helped make him a star.
Her biggest solo success would come working for Touchstone Pictures, producing Pretty Woman. Ziskin was responsible for toning down the script’s notoriously harsher elements—specifically the main character’s drug addiction, the downer of an ending that would have seen Richard Gere’s character tossing Julia Roberts’ prostitute out of his car and driving away—and turning it into a lighthearted comedy. It was a case of Hollywood finding a way to sanitize and romanticize the reality right out of anything, yes, but you can’t argue with the results: Under Ziskin’s influence, Pretty Woman became one of 1990’s biggest hits and remains of the most popular romantic comedies of all time.
Ziskin had an even more direct hand in both 1991’s What About Bob? and 1992’s Hero, co-writing the stories for both with her husband, Alvin Sargent. In 1994, she produced the Nicole Kidman-starring To Die For under her own Laura Ziskin Productions banner. That same year, she was named the president of the new Fox 2000 offshoot and tasked with overseeing movies like Courage Under Fire, As Good As It Gets, Inventing The Abbotts, Never Been Kissed, Volcano, and The Thin Red Line.
She was also instrumental in shaping Fight Club—particularly in one famous row she had with director David Fincher over a line of dialogue delivered by Helena Bonham Carter. As The Wrap relates, Ziskin “cringed” at Carter telling Edward Norton, “I want to have your abortion” and personally begged Fincher to change it, even after test audiences responded positively. Fincher swapped it for “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school,” prompting Ziskin to plead with him to put the “abortion” line back.
After resigning from Fox 2000 in 1999, the early ‘00s saw some of Ziskin’s biggest successes: She became the first woman to produce the Academy Awards telecast in 2002; she’d do it again in 2007 and earned Emmy nominations for both. Also in 2002, she produced that year’s highest-grossing film, Spider-Man, and would remain with the franchise through all three Tobey Maguire-starring versions and next year’s upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, which will be her final credit. Just last week, Ziskin wrote a blog for The Huffington Post in which she recalled first being diagnosed with the breast cancer that would eventually take her life, and urged both other survivors and their loved ones to contribute to the ongoing fight against the disease.
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