Over the next month or so, we will examine the phenomenon of movie stardom, its socio-cultural nature, composition, politics, significance, impact on the film industry, interaction with various groups of spectators, and many other dimensions.
It’s easily the most ambitious project we have undertaken in the site’s seven-year history. Alongside general articles about various dimensions of movie stars, we will run profiles of the 100 or so top stars of the sound era, from 1927 to the present. Our team of writers is very excited to conduct such an extensive research and to share this invaluable knowledge with you, our readers.
Movie Stars: Privileged Elite
Movie stars represent small privileged elite of screen actors. Acting is probably one of the most sharply stratified professions, marked by a tremendous gap between the rewards of movie stars at the very top and the rank and file members.
The origins and recruitment of movie stars as members of the American screen elite stresses three important dimensions of comparison. These dimensions help us understand how movie elites come to exist in the first place and then continue to operate in society’s dominant culture…
Rank and file–First, a comparison between the rewards of the screen elite and those of the rank and file members.
Gender–Second, a comparison between male and female members of occupational elite.
Third, a comparison among elites of various institutional spheres, such as film, music, politics, and business.
Ever wonder why so many movie stars are married to other movie stars, or to members of other elites. The late Liz Taylor was married to a U.S. Senator.
Most sociological studies have examined the social origins of elites in one domain (science, politics, business), but there have been few comparative studies of male and female members of various elites. I consider this to be a major contribution of our series of well-researched articles.
Screen acting has been characterized by an inherent conflict, between its democratic-populist ideology and its elitist practices.
The social base of the film elite is rather open and democratic—in theory, any actor could be or become a star. However, in reality, at any given time, only a few actors can achieve these elite positions.
But who are those few and what’s the process and mechanism that have made then into stars.
There is discrepancy between the egalitarian orientation of the acting profession (many actors come from poor backgrounds and lack formal education) and its highly stratified structure, which assumes the shape of a pyramid.
Movie Stars: Male-Dominated Elite
The screen elite as a whole is characterized by some collective attributes.
Nonetheless, there are significant differences between its male and female members. American film stardom has been male dominated: there have always been more male than female stars.
Moreover, male stars have been drawn from wider ethnic, socio-economic, and occupational backgrounds than female stars.
By contrast, direct occupational inheritance has not only been more prevalent among women, but women have also enjoyed greater support from their families for pursuing acting careers.
Moreover, while the recruitment of both men and women has been informal, the recruitment networks start to operate much earlier in the case of the women. This may be the reason why women start their careers earlier than men, and they tend to be less formally educated and professionally trained than men.
That said, female stars are inferior to male stars in other ways. The duration of stardom and screen careers in general, is much shorter for women.
For example, only a few women have been popular and bankable stars for a decade, Betty Grable, Doris Day, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand.
This trend stands in sharp contrast to many men who have been top attractions for over a decade. Take Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy.
The median duration of screen careers is about 17 years for the women but 30 years for the men.
Movie Stars: Physical Attractiveness
The differential avenues of recruitment of men and women bear cultural significance that goes beyond the study of elites. The fact that modeling has been a major route for female stars indicates the importance of attractiveness in the women’s, but not in the men’s careers.
By contrast, stage comedy and sports have been two distinct avenues for men. In recent years, black stars Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have come from stage comedy, and Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson have been recruited from sports. White male stars have also been drawn from sports, like Chuck Norris, a karate champion, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a bodybuilding champion. The prevalence of sports indicates the significance of physical strength and fitness for men’s images and screen roles in action-adventure films, the most popular genre in the American cinema.
Movie Stars and Dancers
The screen elite as a group shares some similarities with other performance elites, such as dancers. Both acting and dancing draw their potential members from diverse socio-economic and occupational strata and in both informal recruitment is poorly integrated into the profession.
The absence of control over admission, selection, and training in both professions results in excessive recruitment and in diversity of training programs. And in both areas, initial recruitment is based on self choice rather than social selection. Anyone who has the drive, time, energy, talent, and some money can attempt a career, and few applicants are refused admission.
As formal certification (diplomas, degrees) is not a prerequisite for entry into the profession, it is difficult to develop standardized programs or to prove that one training program is more effective than another. Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and its famous Method have been widely recognized for their prestige and effectiveness, but as we shall see, they are not the only way to train actors.
As a result, in both acting and dancing, schools don’t function as sorting out devices, and professional socialization occurs in informal contexts. But despite the flexibility and variability of socialization, training is more important and more formal in dancing than in acting, because it relies more heavily on technical skills.
Movie Stars: Democratic Elite
The screen elite has been more democratic in its composition and recruitment that other institutional elites, such as business or science. Movie stardom, and screen acting in general, have functioned as legitimate channel of upward mobility for individuals of lower socio-economic and from ethnic minorities. Movie stars are members of genuinely democratic elite because they are ultimately chosen by the lay, large public, not by peers or professional sponsors, as in science. The sponsorship of film studios has been helpful, though not a requirement, for becoming a star. In fact, there have been numerous attempts by producers to make movie stars out of their contract players, but they failed to impose them on the public.
Movie stars are genuinely “the people’s choice,” because by attending the movies of particular players, and not others, the lay moviegoers determine the composition of the screen elite at any historical time.
The screen elite also differs from other elites in its access to and use of political power. Because of their nature of work (actual role-playing) and the immense media coverage of their lives, on and off screen, movie stars have the potential of functioning as strategic rather than segmental elite. The influence of segmental elites is confined to the specialized domain in which they have expertise and in which they make their mark.
By contrast, the influence of movie stars can go beyond their specialized domain (the film industry) and beyond the work of filmmaking. Movie stars can become members of strategic elite through the transformation of their power within the film industry to other areas of social life, such as fashion, consumerism, and lifestyle.
Movie Stars and the Political Process
Unlike other elites, movie stars participate in the political process directly as well as indirectly. First, they function as role models whose influence can be pervasive, particularly on the younger generation, which is the most frequent movie-going element. Second, the political involvement of the screen elite has surpassed that of other elites because of their impact on the power elite and on the political process, through their active participation in election campaigns, social movement (anti-nuclear, for example), and other national (the Vietnam war) and international (the hunger project of the United Nations) issues.