Lynda Obst on Her Trailblazing Career and Devastating Diagnosis


Oscar nominations were announced in Los Angeles at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 23. The backlash began by sunrise. Barbie received eight nominations, including for best picture, but where were individual nods for director Greta Gerwig or star Margot Robbie, the A-list architects who constructed a billion-dollar blockbuster out of an $18 plastic doll that was born in 1959? Barbie fans went berserk online, denouncing the Academy for what they saw as a sexist snub. Breathless press coverage of the controversy dominated the news cycle for days, and even Hillary Clinton weighed in to support her shunned sisters. 

By Jan. 26, producer Lynda Obst had heard enough. “I have to write about this misplaced horror,” Obst unloaded on Facebook, offering a history lesson pulled from personal experience, reminding her readers that comedies rarely fare well at the Academy Awards in top categories. Furthermore, she and best friend Nora Ephron “didn’t flip out” when the late filmmaker’s movies failed to gain traction outside of screenplay categories. Ephron did not “expect kudos” simply for being female, nor did Obst “expect applause” for casting Jodie Foster in 1997’s Contact, one of Hollywood’s rare female-fronted sci-fi blockbusters, alongside Alien, with Sigourney Weaver.Barbie is a super fun, super commercial movie that made a trillion dollars or something and that is a serious reward. This is feminism run amok and having devoted my career to hiring and developing female talent I know from whence I speak.” 

The post drew cheers, with more than 500 likes and 260 comments, the majority praising Obst for typing up what they had been afraid to say. Then again, Obst has always had a knack for finding an audience as one of Hollywood’s most prolific female producers. A veteran industry insider in her fifth decade of producing, she has amassed an enviable list of credits on starry films like Sleepless in Seattle, Interstellar, Flashdance, The Fisher King, One Fine Day, Adventures in Babysitting and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. She’s also long been a wordsmith, as a onetime Oscar columnist for New York magazine, a former editor for The New York Times Magazine and the author of two how-to-make-it-in-Hollywood tomes. 

But the Barbie post reflects a new Lynda Obst. “I’ve gotten to the point where I kind of don’t give a shit what people think,” she says during a three-hour conversation in the living room of her Silver Lake home. She’s agreed to an interview because there’s something she wants the town to know. “I’m bloody tired of hiding,” she says. “It’s painful to share because people like me don’t want to be seen as weak. But guess what? I’m human. I’m weak. I have weaknesses. I have health issues. It happens when you get older.” 

Six years ago, Obst was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD, or as Obst calls it, “Spanish for ‘I fucked up my lungs.’ ” It is incurable, progressive and often fatal, a life-altering blow. 

Obst, shown in her smoking heyday, says now, “This is how I got COPD.”

Courtesy of Subject

For years, the best place to be in Hollywood was on a smoke break with Lynda Obst. The gossip, the stories, the laughter and, oh boy, all that smoke. Didn’t matter if it was streaming from a cigarette or a joint, though Obst enjoyed marijuana the most. “I smoked everything God has ever grown on this green earth since I was 16. I smoked with joy and with pleasure, and was one of the most devoted potheads around,” she says. “Smoking with movie stars like Kate Hudson outside of trailers was one of the great things a producer could do. I just loved it.” 

Now 73, Obst still has the best stories, but the sentences are punchier, more abbreviated. “Can you hear my labored breathing?” asks Obst, whose voice is deep and gravelly à la Demi Moore but never breaks with emotion. When she got the diagnosis, she never cried, she says, but she did immediately put down cigarettes for good. Quitting pot took years. (“I convinced myself that pot didn’t have the harm that nicotine and cigarettes did. I had no medical support for that position,” she says wryly.) Today, packs of Parliaments and bags of weed have been replaced by a new and necessary accessory, a portable device that takes air and turns it into pure oxygen. Obst has been sneaking it around in a K-pop tote bag to promote her affection for all things Korean. (She’s currently shepherding a K-pop film with Parasite executive producer Miky Lee that’s set to star May December’s Charles Melton.) “I use it at night. I use it after exertion. I sometimes have it on during writers meetings on Zoom because writers don’t give a shit and they’re really supportive,” she says. She also uses it after strength training sessions at a local studio and on Sundays during gymnastics, a sport she picked up 30 years ago and is something that not only brings great joy for the self-described jock but also helps activate her lungs. “Exercise is what gets me high now,” she says. “Sad, but true.” (Next time you see her, ask to see the recent video of a near-perfect back handspring onto a mat with minor assistance. She’ll be 74 in April.)

Of her only son, Oly, seen here with Obst in 2009, she adds, “He’s responsible for a lot of my joy.”

Courtesy of Subject

Her son, Oly Obst, a top manager and producer at 3 Arts Entertainment, likes to remind her that “people are so self-involved that they don’t notice as much as you think they do.” She’s also gotten good at being discreet. She’s still actively producing — through her eponymous production company, Obst is steering a slate of five films stacked with of-the-moment stars like Melton, Andrew Garfield and Daisy Edgar-Jones, as well as two TV projects at Sony, where she has an overall deal and an office. But most of the time, she works from home. She steers clear of restaurants, grocery stores, large-scale gatherings and sporting events to avoid catching a cold: “We want to avoid pneumonia at all costs.”

Infections can lead to flare-ups that can last days or weeks, resulting in treatment or hospitalization. As lung function declines in late-stage COPD, exacerbations become more frequent and severe. “I very much want people to know that you could be the one hit with the fickle finger of fate, and I want to be clear what the consequences of smoking are. It’s not the way you want to spend your retirement or your last 10, 20 or 30 years,” Obst cautions. “Because you can’t go places, you can’t hike and put your feet on the forest floor, and you can’t shop. Amazon becomes your best friend. I think they just really subsist on me.”

Her granddaughters, Sunny and Marlowe, help with breathing exercises. “Being a grandmother is transformative. Being a mother is transformative,” she says.

Courtesy of Subject

Anyway, she’s comfortable at home with her cat, an orange puffball named Queen Esther. A smokeless fire blazes in the living room throughout the interview. A stunning view of Mount Baldy can be seen in the distance. “Can you see the snow?” she asks without looking over her shoulder. The backyard down below contains dual in-ground tubs, one hot and one cold, which she accesses thanks to a motorized chair lift, a gift from her son that she calls the “Oly Trolly.” 

She’s not entirely a homebody. Aside from gymnastics, she enjoys outings and spending time with her granddaughters, Marlowe and Sunny, and visiting with girlfriends and family. “I go places where I will feel comfortable,” explains Obst, who sometimes makes use of a wheelchair. “I go to all of Miky Lee’s parties because she takes great care of me,” she says. “I went to a party recently for Alexander Payne, who’s a great friend. That was the last event I went to, and I put my oxygen on. You just can’t care about what people think about you. If they’re going to not feel good about it, then they’re not the kind of people I care about.”

***

Hollywood has long cared about Lynda Obst. Raised in Harrison, New York, a Westchester County suburb, Obst studied philosophy at Pomona College as an undergrad and at Columbia University for graduate school, eventually specializing in the 19th century likes of Hegel and Kant, which, she says, “you can really get stuck in because it’s indescribably dense and hard to read. It satisfied my intellectual yearning.” 

What philosophy didn’t do was lay out a clear path. Before finishing her degree, Obst left Columbia to edit the Random House book The Sixties, a historical look back at the revolutionary decade through interviews with key voices. Obst also had a failed stint as a classical music deejay (“for five minutes”) and as a copywriter for rock and roll artists she didn’t care for all that much: “I was always driven but had no idea where I was going.” That changed when she and her husband, David Obst, a literary agent, traveled from their New York home to Washington, D.C., to visit a friend’s farm, where she first encountered Ephron. “I was beside myself,” she says. “I had read every column she’d ever written for Esquire, and there she was, playing volleyball. I decided that I was going to be the greatest volleyball player I could possibly be so she would notice me, because she loved winners. Nora did not like losers. I somehow transformed myself into a great volleyball player” — not an easy feat for someone 5 feet tall. 

A newfound friendship with Ephron led the writer to ask Obst to read one of her essays. Obst passed it back with no notes. “It was perfect. She decided I was a brilliant editor. Nora then called Lee Eisenberg at Esquire to get me a job, but there were no openings.” When a position presented itself at The New York Times Magazine, Obst’s husband put in a good word and got her an interview. Obst landed the gig as an editor. 

When her husband was offered a job by Simon & Schuster to start a production company, off they went to Los Angeles (where they would later divorce). Obst left for the West Coast without a blueprint. But she had connections to “Hollywood people,” she says, having assigned and edited many stories about the industry during her Times tenure. One of those was producer Peter Guber, who gave her a position in development at his company Casablanca Record and FilmWorks. “He offered me a job when I was still in New York and heard I was moving. Peter said, ‘If you want to do books, do books. If you want to do magazines, do magazines. If you want to do movies, do movies,’ ” she recalls. “What he really meant was, ‘Do movies.’ ” 

So, she did, working for a company whose history of excess and reckless abandon is well documented. “It was utter madness,” Obst says of Casablanca in the early 1980s. “The number two guy under Peter Guber was a man named Bill Tennant, and he was on blow 24 hours a day, locked in his office with these women wearing spiked boots. [Late producer] Craig Zadan was there with me at the time. We called each other Hansel and Gretel, and we were just dumbfounded at what was going on.” (Tennant, who reportedly experienced a period of homelessness, died in 2012, per IMDb. Obst says his body was discovered in a baseball dugout in Pasadena.)

Lynda Obst was photographed Feb. 14 at her home in the Silver Lake hills.

Photographed by Maggie Shannon

In Guber, Obst found, at times, a supportive boss who “gave me license to do whatever I wanted.” She remembers sitting in her first office at Casablanca, staring at the walls and wondering, “How does one actually make a movie?” She recalls, “I decided I would just meet with writers, so I found one who was in exile from Esquire, and his name was Tom Hedley.” He pitched Flashdance, a project about a female welder who moonlights as a dancer at a local bar but dreams of being accepted to a prestigious dance conservatory.

Obst developed it for years and set it up with Dawn Steel at Paramount Pictures, but ultimately had to fight to keep her credit on the film, as producing duties were handed over to more influential Hollywood players like Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer and her Casablanca bosses. “I was the low man on the totem pole (remember the words of Bob Dylan: “He who comes first will later come last”) and ultimately reduced to my lowest possible contractual credit: associate producer,” Obst wrote in her 1996 Tinseltown memoir, Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches

“It was very controversial at the time,” Obst says of her 1996 book.

Courtesy

Looking back on it now, “It was horrible and good at the same time because I immediately knew what world I was living in — this was not a world of beneficence,” says Obst, whose two brothers also have industry cred. (Rick Rosen is the longtime head of TV at WME, while Michael Rosen spent two decades in TV news at ABC, CNN and Crumpe.) “I didn’t feel like a victim. I knew that I had better learn how to be a player.” 

Obst decided to leave Guber’s Casablanca. A slice of Ray’s pizza with mentor David Geffen turned into a job offer from the mogul. She initially declined in favor of a job working for Mary Tyler Moore at her production company (at the suggestion of another notable mentor, Barry Diller). But when that turned out to be “a disaster,” back to Geffen she went, “with my tail between my legs,” asking for a job at his Geffen Film Company. “It was the best decision I ever made because David’s brilliant. He was active, unafraid and an inspiration. He’s mean, but at the same time, he couldn’t be more fun,” she says of the tycoon, who went on co-found DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Mean, how? “The most terrifying thing about David was if I gave a party and he came first, I’d have to entertain him for 20 minutes before people arrived. I remember quaking in my boots, because there wasn’t enough gossip in the world to satisfy him or make him not bored.” (In Hello, He Lied, Obst lists “good gossip” as No. 2 on a list of the top five things moguls love most.) 

But moments on the clock were “phenomenal.” She recalls having a meeting with Prince one day and with Michael Jackson on another. Then there was the day they both were in her office at the same time, sitting across from her. “They happened to be visiting David and I had to entertain them while they waited,” she says. “I just sat there, and they barely looked at each other. I think they were both uncomfortable.” 

She stayed with Geffen for three years, ultimately leaving to take charge of her own fate. “I wasn’t in a fief about any particular project. I realized that to be a producer, you could be more of an independent actor and choose to work on what you loved.” Though he was dismayed by her departure, Geffen set Obst on the path to her next professional phase when he encouraged her to put an end to a rift she’d had with Paramount chief Steel over Flashdance. She placed the call to offer congratulations to Steel on her recent successes (including her own picture, Flashdance, as well as Footloose and others). What came back was an invitation to attend the Women in Film luncheon honoring Barbra Streisand in May 1984.

Thus began “one of the deepest relationships of my life,” Obst says of Steel. “She was my best friend, and I became godmother to her daughter, for 34 years now. I was with her when she passed [in December 1997].” It was Steel who planted the seed for Obst to segue from development to producing. “But she said, ‘You don’t know physical production. I know who you should partner with, and that’s Debra Hill. She’s brilliant at production and you two will make a perfect team,’ ” Obst recalls of Steel’s introduction. 

They paired up for five years, running one of Hollywood’s first all-female production companies, Hill/Obst Prods. During their time together, they produced Chris Columbus’ 1987 directorial debut, Adventures in Babysitting, starring Elisabeth Shue, and his 1988 follow-up, Heartbreak Hotel, as well as Terry Gilliam’s 1991 film The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Steel was right — Obst learned by watching Hill expertly manage productions, thanks to time spent shepherding early installments of the Halloween franchise, The Fog, Escape From New York and Clue

With Paramount’s Sherry Lansing (center) and Bebe Neuwirth at a 2003 premiere.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“I also learned that as a producer, if you don’t have a point of view about talent, you’re an employee,” explains Obst, who describes herself as a busybody on set, someone who always knows what everyone else is doing. “Plus, I have the Teamsters telling me everything — that’s the secret.” Her other tricks of the trade include great catering and good parties. “You have to keep the spirit going and keep the crew really happy and the actors really happy.” 

Splitting from Hill after The Fisher King, Obst went solo. Over the past 30-some years, she has turned out 20 projects, among them Ephron’s directorial debut, This Is My Life, and her follow-up, Sleepless in Seattle, Michael Hoffman’s One Fine Day, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, Forest Whitaker’s Hope Floats, Ed Zwick’s The Siege, Donald Petrie’s How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. The latter marks the highest-grossing film on her résumé, with more than $730 million in receipts. 

With the Hope Floats team in 1998, (from left) Harry Connick Jr., Sandra Bullock, Mae Whitman and director Forest Whitaker.

Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Obst loves all her projects for different reasons. “They’re perfect for what they are,” she says. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was the most fun she’d ever had on a set, she says, thanks in large part to the warmth and humor of star Kate Hudson and her comfort with Matthew McConaughey, whom Obst has worked with “a million times.” But Contact and Fisher King reflect Obst as a human being, someone with a passion for philosophy and an obsession with facts and science. “I’m always searching. Contact really reflects the extension of my life that I dedicated to asking big questions about science and religion.” Meanwhile, Fisher King is her soul. “It’s a movie about grace, redemption, how kindness can transform a person. It’s a reminder that you’re never just one thing.”

CAA chief Bryan Lourd, a longtime friend, has had a front-row seat to Obst’s career. “When I first showed up and was young, coming out of the mailroom, Lynda was already known, connected and working this town in a very masterful way,” Lourd recalls. “She was very savvy and smart about how things worked and how movies got put together. Her special sauce is this crazy intuitive intelligence and taste.”

Her other gift is for managing talent. When How to Lose a Guy hit theaters, Obst pulled Hudson into a movie theater in New York. “She wanted me to experience the laughter in a real theater, and to really feel the success of the movie with an audience,” says Hudson. “The whole experience was not only an absolute blast but a real defining moment for me in my career.”

“There wasn’t anything that she didn’t include me in 100 percent,” Kate Hudson (right) says of working with Obst on How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. “Even as a young woman, she made me feel like what I said mattered. She will forever go down as my most cherished working partnership on How to Lose a Guy from the very beginning.”

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Obst was widely credited with rescuing the 1994 all-female Western Bad Girls ­— starring Madeleine Stowe, Andie MacDowell, Mary Stuart Masterson and Drew Barrymore — from an utterly calamitous shoot. Obst was a late hire, brought in as an executive producer by 20th Century Fox chief Peter Chernin to right the ship after director Tamra Davis was fired two weeks into filming. “All the girls were arguing over a red dress, and the hair and makeup people all hated each other,” Obst says of the mess, made worse by the fact that cast and crew were all being paid during the shutdown (with the actresses earning nearly $100,000 per week). “I had a fun time solving it, moving the whole production to a Western town in Brackettville, Texas, and sending the actresses to cowboy camp, where it didn’t matter how good or pretty you were. You had to learn how to ride a horse and shoot a gun, and that made them like one another again. It broke the ice.”

With Jennifer Garner (left) at the 2009 premiere of The Invention of Lying.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Barrymore hosted a surprise, tear-filled Bad Girls reunion in January on her daytime talk show. Obst made a cameo and received high praise from the host. “She was always fixing and solving problems,” Barrymore said of Obst (who revealed on the broadcast that Barrymore was arrested during production). “From her, I learned this is how you run a set. This is how you create female camaraderie.”

Obst’s fierce feminism makes her Barbie comments all the more resonant. “There’s a tendency to make a monolith out of the Academy, as though it’s a big mean white guy who goes around making pronouncements to usurp the power of women, minorities and underlings,” says Obst, a member of the Academy since 1987. “It’s not how the Academy works, and it’s not what happens,” she says of the Barbie brouhaha, which she thinks is reflective of how “a good deal of people” have lost their way under a spell of what she calls victim feminism. “People are looking for ways to feel insulted by the man. But the man was not out to get us this year. You shouldn’t expect nominations. They’re gifts. The kind of feminism I really extol is action feminism. Go out and make something someone else hasn’t done, empower yourself to do what you were afraid of doing. Don’t say you can’t because they’re trying to screw us over. The truth is, they’re not. It’s never been so good for women in the industry.”

She intends to ride the wave, with no plans of stopping anytime soon. “Being creative gives me energy,” she says. “I would be bored out of my wits if I didn’t work, and I’m still doing good work.” There’s one more thing she’s working hard on these days. The woman who advocates action feminism is trying to produce her way back to good health. “I am getting stem cell treatments, completely off the books,” she says of experimental infusions she’s receiving at a clinic in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley. “I’m past the point where there’s any official treatment, so I troll the edges and study everything. I’m a science geek, and now is a good time for that. I’m going to have two more treatments and see if it helps. I believe in putting in the effort.”

Two years ago, Obst got her first tattoo, the word “next” spelled out in Korean. It’s a nod to Diller, who issued a succinct statement when he lost a bid to acquire Paramount in 1994: “They won. We lost. Next.” It’s her personal mantra, and the tattoo is the first place she looks when feeling overwhelmed. Another option is a quick glance at her thumbs and big toes, which feature smiley faces on the nails, a recent signature she’s implemented during manicure and pedicure sessions. “If I need to be reminded,” she declares, “there it is.”

Obst sits in the living room while Queen Esther roams. “She’s very pretty, and she’ll pose too.”

Photographed by Maggie Shannon

This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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