Movie Stars: National and Racial Origins

Part Two of a Series of Four Articles

The extraordinary preeminence and persistence of film stardom in American society call for a sociological analysis of two interrelated issues: the social origins of movie stars and their recruitment patterns into the screen elite. Recruitment is one of the most crucial issues faced by every profession, fulfilling twofold goals: bringing potential members into the profession and providing them the necessary socialization and training (Federico 1974).

However, recruitment and training systems have varied among the professions in their length, importance, and formality (Griffith 1968; Strauss 1970). For example, because screen acting has been highly visible, enjoying extensive media coverage, and because supply has always surpassed the demand for screen players, it has needed lesser advertisement and publicity than other professions in recruiting potential members. However, the scant size of the screen elite and its highly desirable status stress the importance of understanding the processes of self and social selection of its membership.

This study presents a collective portrait of America's movie stars as members of an extremely privileged elite. For this purpose, it thoroughly examines the social backgrounds and recruitment patterns of movie stars in the United States over the last half a century, from 1932 to 1984. This period roughly parallels the duration of the sound era, which began in 1927 with the release of Warner's The Jazz Singer, but became prevalent a few years later. The historical era, 52 years, is long enough to permit identification of patterns in the origins and socialization of movie stars.

More specifically, the study addresses itself to four issues:

1. The gender of American movie stars.
2. National, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds.
3. Socio-economic and occupational origins.
4. Formal education and professional training.

Methods and Data: How to Study Movie Stars

The screen elite under examination consists of the 129 players who have been the top box-office attractions in the American cinema over the last half a century. The names of these stars were taken from “the Motion Picture Herald Poll,” known in the film industry as “the Poll,” because it has been the oldest (beginning in 1932), the most comprehensive, and the most accurate survey. Every year theater owners and film distributors are asked to select the 10 players who have attracted the largest number of moviegoers to the theaters. The poll is based on the box-office receipts that these stars have made for their companies through their pictures, not on their personal incomes. Film stardom is thus empirically measured by the commercial appeal of these players, not by the artistic quality of their films or by the quality of their individual performances.

The identification of movie stars is based on both reputational and statistical methods, two prevalent techniques in the sociological study of elites. Pareto (1935, volume 3, p. 1423) defines elite statistically, composed of those who have “the highest indices in their branch of activity.” The statistical method also relies on the domestic rentals of films released in the United States in a calendar year.

The reputational method draws on the competent response of hundreds of film exhibitors and theater owners across the nation. The category of 129 film stars constitutes the entire population, not a sample, of America's screen elite from 1932 to 1984.

National Origins

The vast majority (83 percent) of stars were born in the U.S., but there are differences between the genders: more women (25 percent) than men (12 percent) were foreign-born, mostly in English-speaking countries, such as Great Britain, Scotland, and Australia. More importantly, close to one third of all stars were born in two cities: New York (21 percent) and Los Angeles (10 percent). However, more women (15 percent) than men (7 percent) were born in Los Angeles, but more men (24 percent) than women (17 percent) came from New York City.

There are significant differences between the stars' place of birth and their place of growing up. For example, about half of the foreign-born players came to the U.S. in their childhood. Only a scant minority (2 percent) of the stars had established themselves as actors in their native countries. These were: French actress Brigitte Bardot, the only foreign actress to become a major star in America, as a result of her sensational film, And God Created the Woman in 1956, though she was popular for one year only.

Two men, Sean Connery, born in Scotland, and Roger Moore, born in England, who became stars in the U.S. with their James Bond movies. Thus, most of the foreign-born and foreign-reared players became movie stars after they settled in Hollywood and began to make American films.

There is a difference between the American star system and that of other countries. Most states with established film industries have their own film stars, though their appeal is usually confined to that country or, at best, to several countries. By contrast, the greatest stars in American film have also been stars all over the world. So far it has been impossible for players of other nationalities to become major stars in America without the backing of Hollywood. To be a star of international caliber, one first has to “make it” in America.

The appeal of most American stars has crossed national and linguistic boundaries faster and easier than the appeal of their foreign counterparts. For example, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and at present Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds have been popular all over the world, whereas the appeal of French stars Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, and Gerard Depardieu has been confined to Europe or, at best, big cities in the U.S. Similar observations can be made about the appeal of American movies abroad, compared with the appeal of foreign movies in America, which some sociologists have interpreted as American cultural dominance (Read 1977; Tunstall 1977).

Movie Stars: Urban Backgrounds

Using the location of upbringing, instead of birth, as a criterion shows that over two fifths of the stars grew up in two cities: New York (23 percent) and Los Angeles (20 percent). The large number of stars reared in New York and Los Angeles has been disproportionate to the percentage of stars reared in other big cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago) as well as to the proportion of the American population residing in these two cities. But while the proportion of male and female stars reared in New York City is the same, there is a huge difference between the proportion of men (11 percent) and women (33 percent) reared in Los Angeles.

The heavy concentration of stars from these cities and the overrepresentation of women from Los Angeles call for an explanation. First, the two cities have provided a disproportionate number of stars because cultural life in the U.S. has been concentrated: legitimate theater in New York City, and film and television in Los Angeles. Second, over one tenth of all stars had parents working in the film industry or in show business, which means that at one time or another their families lived in these cities. Third, the overrepresentation of New Yorkers among the stars has also been a by-product of the disproportionate number of Jewish players (12 percent), most of whom were born in New York City, which contains the largest concentration of Jews in America.

As for the large number of women from Los Angeles, many started to perform at a very young age, often under the initiative of their families, which moved to California specifically for the purpose of pursuing their daughters' acting careers.

There has been a wider representation of urban centers in the men's geographic backgrounds: two fifths of the men, but one fourth of the women, came from cities other than New York or Los Angeles. Furthermore, more men (16 percent) than women (only one) came from small towns or other rural regions.

These differential geographic origins have been strongly connected with the stars' respective screen images. The vast majority of women projected urban, sophisticated screen images, whereas many of the men have embodied the values of small-town and rural America. Four of the greatest male stars in American film, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and John Wayne, have all been associated with the values of small-towns, most notably integrity, decency, and honesty. And they were often cast in films, which contrasted small-town values with the corruption of the Big City.

Those neither born nor reared in New York or Los Angeles, arrived in these cities in their late teens and early twenties. And because half of the stars began their performing careers in the legitimate theater, their geographical mobility has followed one dominant pattern: they first moved to New York City, then to Los Angeles. By comparison, the stars of foreign origins were either born or reared in large metropolitan centers, usually the capitals of their countries. In most European countries, cultural life (theater, film, television) are concentrated in the capital, Paris, London, Rome, etc.

Film stardom has been a distinctly urban phenomenon. Most stars, American and foreign, have been disproportionately drawn from urban surroundings. In this respect, the screen elite differs from other occupational elites, such as the military (Janowitz l960), whose members have been drawn from urban as well as rural origins.

Movie Stars: Racial Composition

The close connection between the geographic and ethnic backgrounds of the Jewish players raises the issue of ethnic composition of all movie stars, particularly in the U.S., an extremely pluralistic and heterogeneous society.

Over half of the movie stars have been drawn from three ethnic groups: English-American (25 percent), Irish-American (20 percent), and Jewish-American (12 percent). These groups have been overrepresentated in comparison with their proportion in the American population. It is noteworthy that one tenth of all male, but no female stars, have been of Italian-American descent. And black players have been underrepresented (2 percent), considering the fact that they amount to 11 percent of the population. There have been three black male, but no female stars. There have also been more Jewish male than female stars, though both genders are overrepresented.
A larger proportion of women than men have come from Scandinavian, German, and French origins. These differential ethnic backgrounds have also meant that each gender has been associated with different physical presence, a major ingredient of stars' screen presence. For example, one third of the women, but only a minority (2 percent) of the men, have been blond and fair-skinned–the predominant look of people of Northern and Central European descent. By contrast, most male stars have been dark-haired and dark-skinned. These physical attributes have signified different cultural definitions of male and female beauty in the American cinema. Blond men have been considered “effeminate,” which is one reason why the two representatives of this type, Alan Ladd and Robert Redford, have gone out of their way to project a “macho” image by appearing in action-adventure films.

The specific ethnic composition of movie stars has also been related to their specialized film genres. Most of the black and Jewish stars have specialized in comedies, demonstrating the notion that ethnic minorities, particularly if they are oppressed, tend to find creative outlet in ethnic-oriented humor (Monaco 1979, pp. 216-7), though to become national stars their humor must have appealed to larger audiences than their ethnic constituencies. The major difference between the black and the Jewish stars is that the former have been underrepresented and have become major stars only in the last 15 years. The first black actor to become a film star was Sidney Poitier in l968, followed by Richard Pryor in l982, and Eddie Murphy in l983. By contrast, there have always been Jewish players among the nation's stars.

However, the degree to which players of ethnic minorities have wanted–and have been allowed–to use their indigenous subcultures has greatly differed over the years. During the heyday of the studio system, players of Jewish descent, for example, concealed their ethnic identity by changing their names and modifying their accents. Few people knew that Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Judy Holliday and Lauren Bacall were Jewish. But for obvious reasons, these methods were not open to black players, who were not only underemployed but also stereotypically cast as maids, servants, or cooks. Furthermore, any deviation from dominant white middle-class culture was not tolerated. The recent revelation that Rock Hudson was homosexual shocked many moviegoers, not only because it was kept in utmost secrecy, but also because for decades Hudson was “sold” to the public as the ideal male lover-husband.

The relatively open, explicit use of specific ethnic cultures (Jewish, black, Hispanic) by movie stars has been a recent phenomenon, beginning in the late l960s. This is further substantiated by the fact that most players of Italian-American backgrounds have become major stars in the 1970s: Al Pacino in 1974, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone in 1977, and John Travolta in 1978.

Still, women have always been more restricted than men in their screen roles and images. Most female stars, regardless of their particular ethnic and social class origins, have projected a WASP screen image, in congruence with dominant culture. Only one of the 48 women, Barbra Streisand, has explicitly used her Jewish background in her screen persona, beginning with her debut, Funny Girl in l968, in which she portrayed Jewish performer Fanny Brice.

In conclusion, American movie stars have always come disproportionately from ethnic minority groups. The acting profession, including the screen elite, has provided important avenues for upward mobility in American society. In this respect too, the film elite has been more democratic than other elites, being open to players of various ethnic origins.

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