Movie Stars: Hollywood Forever Young

How Crucial is Age for Becoming a Star

Using a sociological-historical perspective, my study of American movie stars differs from others in approach, methods, and data. My main goal is to explain the important attributes of actors who have achieved commercial stardom.

Measuring Movie Stardom

Many screen players became recognizable names before establishing box-office stardom. For example, the turning point in Humphrey Bogart's career occurred in 1936, with the release of the film The Petrified Forest,” but he established himself as a box-office star five years later, in 1941, with the release of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon.”

Actors achieve commercial stardom when their names become drawing powers in attracting audiences to their films. The film industry has always distinguished between “bankable” players, whose names could provide assurance that the film will be made and that it will get distribution, and players who lack this power.

The study examines the relative importance of youth for achieving and maintaining stardom, based on the popular notion that movie stars have been–and ought to be– young. This factor is used to understand the essence and longevity of America's movie stars.

However, instead of starting with a priori assumptions about the social functions of movie stars, my point of departure is empirical and inductive. The conclusions reached at the end are based on a systematic examination of America's most popular stars over half a century.

The identification of movie stars in the American cinema is based on reputational and statistical methods, two prevalent techniques in the sociological study of elites. In his pioneering study of elites, Pareto used a statistical approach, defining members of elites as those who have “the highest indices in their branch of activity.” The reputational method, which has been used in many community studies, relies on the opinions or rankings of “experts” as to who possesses power or prestige in a particular group or community.

In my study, the reputational technique is based on the competent response of film exhibitors and theater owners who have identified the nation's top stars. Movie stars are accordingly defined as actors who occupy the top positions in the stratification system of their profession in terms of income, they are the highest-paid, and reputation, they are the most popular players.

The category of screen stars consists of 129 actors (81 men and 48 women) who have been the top box office attractions in the American cinema of the last half a century. Their names are taken from the Motion Picture Herald Poll, known in the film industry as “the Poll” because it has been the oldest (beginning in 1932), most comprehensive, and most accurate survey. Each and every year theater owners and film distributors across the nation are asked to single out the screen players whose names have drawn the largest audiences to movie theaters. The poll is based on the contribution of these stars to the commerciality of their movies.

Variety, the industry's leading trade publication, compiles the top-grossing movies in the United States in terms of their domestic rentals. These rentals represent the amount of money that theater owners have paid to distributor for showing their films, and should not be confused with the films' gross profits. Movie stardom is therefore measured by the commercial appeal of players, not by the artistic merits of their films or the quality of their individual performances.

This category of stars constitutes the entire population, not a sample, of the American screen elite, from 1932 to 1984. The historical era, 52 years, is long enough to permit identification of patterns of continuity and change in the social attributes of movie stardom. This historical dimension has been neglected by scholars who, attempting to construct a general theory of stardom, have failed to take into account the variability of stars' images and their connections with specific historical and political conditions.

Relative Importance of Youth

One persistent notion of stardom has been that movie stars ought to be young because their work, screen acting, depends on their youthful appearances. American culture has emphasized youth, youthfulness, and youth-related values, that is, the importance of being young, looking young, possessing youthful energy and spirit, and behaving in a youthful manner. Old age has been regarded as a cultural liability, which is one reason why elderly people have been ignored by the mass media.

Male and Female Stars

The notion of movie stardom as a youthful phenomenon is shattered by the findings in the case of male stars but is supported in the case of the female stars.

The age at which American players achieved stardom is measured by the age at which they first appeared on the popularity poll.

My study shows that a paucity (5 percent) of actors have became major stars in their teens, one fourth (25 percent) in their twenties, two fifths (43 percent) in their thirties, one fifth (21 percent) in their forties, and a minority (5 percent) in their fifties.

However, there are major differences between the genders: women have been much younger when they achieved stardom: 13 percent of the women but only one percent of the men have been younger than 20 when they became stars.

Child Stars

There have been six child or adolescent stars among the women, but only one among the men. These were: Shirley Temple and Jane Withers in the l930s, Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien in the 1940s, Sandra Dee in the 1960s, and Tatum O'Neal in the 1970s.

By contrast, the youngest male star in the survey, Mickey Rooney, was an adolescent, not a child, when he became a box-office star, and he has been the exception among the men.

About half (46 percent) of the women became box office attractions in their twenties, compared with one tenth (12 percent) of the men. And conversely, 37 percent of the men, but only 8 percent of the women, have been older than 40 when they became stars. This gender-related difference is expressed in the median age at achieving commercial stardom: 27 for the women, but 36 for the men, a difference of almost a decade.

Middle-aged Men

Youth has been a consistent feature of female stardom: the nation's female stars have been young. Many male performers were middle-aged when they accomplished stardom: Cary Grant and Glenn Ford were each 40, John Wayne and James Stewart each 42, Lee Marvin 43, Humphrey Bogart 44, Chuck Norris 45, and Charles Bronson 52.

The biological age of movie stars is related to the kinds of screen roles allotted to them. The American screen heroine has been young and attractive, the screen hero middle-aged and preferably, but not necessarily, handsome. One could expect the nation's stars of the last decade to be younger, due to the declining age of the frequent moviegoers in the United States, estimated at present between 15 and 25.

However, only three actors in the last decade were under 25 when they became national stars. These are: Tom Cruise at 21, and Eddie Murphy at 23. Michael J. Fox became a star at the age of 24.

These career patterns are based on differences between male and female stars in the respective age at which they made their film debuts. About one tenth (12 percent) of the stars made their film debuts in their teens, two thirds (64 percent) in their twenties, one fourth (24 percent) in their thirties, and a small minority (4 percent) in their forties.

Age and Film Career

But once again these generalizations conceal important differences between the genders: women have been much younger than men when they began their screen careers. One fourth (25 percent) of the women, but only a minority (4 percent) of the men, started their film careers prior to the age of 19.

Over half (54 percent) of the women gave their first film performances in their early twenties, compared with one fourth (25 percent) of the men. Moreover, less than one tenth (8 percent) of the women, but one third (33 percent) of the men, were older than 30 at the start of their careers. The median age at film debut is 21 for the women, but 26 for the men.

These career differences between male and female stars prevail from the age at which they make their professional debuts, not just in film, but in other media (theater, music, television) as well. Many stars begin their performing careers on stage or in television prior to pursuing screen careers. An examination of the age at which movie stars began their careers (in any medium) shows that women start to perform professionally at the median age of 17, and men at the age of 21. Related to this is the fact that acting is the product of a conscious choice made by women (and/or their families) at an earlier age of their lives, whereas for many men acting is a second career.

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