Drawing on her own remarkable career for examples, filmmaker and philanthropist Sherry Lansing offered a series of life lessons to Occidental College's Class of 2009 today in a commencement speech that received a standing ovation from a capacity crowd in Remsen Bird Hillside Theater.
In tracing her own rise as a young college graduate from Chicago who dreamed of making it in the movies to becoming the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio, Lansing detailed some of the lessons she learned, including the importance of being persistent.
"When I came out to Hollywood, I simply began to knock on doors," said Lansing, who was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Occidental President Robert Skotheim. "I used to support myself by being a substitute teacher, so every day after school ... I would try to get a job in the movie business. It took me 3 1/2 years to get my first job."
Steadily advancing through the studio ranks, Lansing went on to head 20th Century Fox and later Paramount Pictures, where during her 12-year tenure the studio produced Academy Award Best Picture winners Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and Titanic, which remains the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Lansing, who today heads the Sherry Lansing Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cancer research and public education, also urged the 435 members of the Class of 2009 to start giving back to society early -- "it will make your life better."
Lansing offered not only advice, but praise for the graduating class, which included her niece. "Knowing some of you, I have to say I think you are a remarkable group of graduates," she said at the opening of her remarks.
Occidental also bestowed honorary degrees on Ramon Cortines, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and public school advocate for more than 50 years; John Paden '59, an African scholar of international reputation who is currently Clarence Robinson Professor of International Studies at George Mason University; and William B. Taylor '64, one of the country's most distinguished Latin American historians and Muriel McKevitt Stone Professor of Latin American History at UC Berkeley.
In brief remarks, both Paden and Taylor paid tribute to the many Occidental professors who inspired them to become scholars and teachers themselves. "My career has been spent mostly at larger public institutions, but I've always seen myself mainly as an undergraduate teacher, and my models for good teaching and mentoring were the ones I knew here," Taylor said.