1 Democratic Elite: America’s Movie Stars–Book Proposal


Book Proposal

Dr. Emanuel Levy

You have to drag your weight at the box-office and be recognized wherever you go.

The star’s sincerity is a denial of a discrepancy between appearance and reality in the sphere of human relationships.

The star seems to be a guarantee of community in a world where it is lost.



Hooray for Hollywood

Where every office boy or young mechanic

Can be a panic

With just a good-looking pan

And any shop girl

Can be a top girl

If she pleases the tired businessman

Hollywood Hotel (1937)

Stardom as a social phenomenon is neither exclusive to American society nor confined to the medium of film.  Showbusiness, the world of entertainment (theater, opera, ballet), has always been dominated by a small number of artists who assumed the best roles, commanded the public’s attention, and received astronomical fees for their services.  What is striking, however, about American film stardom is its extraordinary visibility and power.

Movie stardom, as an ideology and practice, has prevailed in Hollywood for over a century.  Indeed, despite structural changes in the film industry, most notably the demise of the studio system in the 1960s, and the decline in film production, the appeal and power of a few movie stars has remained one of the few permanent attributes of the American cinema.

Movie stardom, as it prevailed during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood (roughly from the 1920s to the late 1950s), no longer exists as a system created and manipulated by the studios, but individual stars continue to exercise influence, in and outside the film industry.

One of the most prevalent perspectives in studying popular culture and film is the reflection theory.  French sociologist Edgar Morin (1960), for example, in his “embourgeoisement theory,” describes a process of change in the social functions of movie stars which, in his view, occurred in the beginning of the sound era, transforming them from gods and goddesses, embodying society’s ideals, to identification figures, embodying society’s typical or ordinary behavior.

Orin Klapp (1962) has constructed a typology of stars in terms of their relationships with society’s norms, distinguishing among stars who reinforce social norms, stars who seduce, and those who transcend them.

Film theorist Parker Tyler (1970) claims that movie stars are the gods and goddesses of Hollywood, vestiges of the old Greek divinities, whose main function is to gratify the public’s deepest sexual and psychic needs in ways that modern religions fail to do.

Feminist film critic Molly Haskell (1974) describes stars as “the vessels of men’s and women’s fantasies,” and “the barometers of changing fashions.”  Female stars, according to Haskell, have “reflected, perpetuated, and in some respects offered innovations on the roles of women in society.”

British film critic Alexander Walker (1970) holds that “stars are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives, and dreams of American society.”

Film historian Raymond Durgnat (1967) asserts that “the social history of a nation can be written in terms of its film stars,” because they are “a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts to its own image of itself.”

The problems in using the reflection perspective are theoretical as well as methodological.  The propositions of this theory have been stated in such general terms that it’s hard to answer such empirical questions as the functions of movie stars at specific historical times (the role of movie stars during the Depression, compared with their functions during the Second World War, or at present).

The theory’s assertions have been of speculative nature, describing the functions of some individual stars while excluding others.  Moreover, the few available typologies of movie stars (Klapp 1962) have failed to state the criteria used in their constructions.  Nor have reflection theorists specified the social conditions under which film stars reflect, perpetuate, or innovate social norms–which are three completely different functions.  Some movie stars perform one function, whereas other perform all three functions, but at different phases of their careers or in different movies.

Book’s Goals

Using a socio-historical perspective, The Democratic Elite differs from other discussions of stardom in its orientation, methods, and data.  Its chief goal is to assess the significance of movie stardom as a persistent, long-enduring cultural phenomenon by analyzing the multiple functions and power of movie stars, in the film industry and outside, at the society at large.

However, instead of starting with apriori assumptions about movie stars, the book’s point of departure is empirical and historical.  The theoretical conclusions reached at the end will be based on concrete and systematic examination of American film stardom, from its beginning (in the l9l0s) to the present.

The book will show that screen acting has been one of the most sharply stratified professions.  No matter what criterion of ranking is used (employment, prestige, income, popularity), there has been a sharp gap between the status of the screen elite, composed of a small number of powerful and popular stars, and that of the rank and file members.  To begin with, it is a profession which has suffered from a chronic, built-in unemployment.  For example, in 1983, about 85 percent of the 54,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) were out of work (Survey, Cable Guide, 1984).

Some conservative reports (Cantor and Peters) estimate that as many as half of SAG’s active dues-payers have not had a screen, or any acting, role in years.  And using income as a stratification measure, the gap between the successful stars and the rank and file members is all the more striking.

In 1983, 81.9 percent of SAG’s members earned less than $5,000 from screen acting.  By contrast, the pay of popular stars is at least $3 million per movie, and it amounts to much more if they are the producers and share in the profits of their films.  Jim Carey, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise are each getting $20 million for their next feature, plus a percentage of the profits.  There has always been sharp inequality among screen actors, particularly in income.  These stratification figures not only shatter the myth of high income for screen acting, but also show that the very myth has been based on the income of a small minority of players.

The ideology of movie stardom has stressed that it is an achieved, not an ascribed, status, and that many performers have the potential for becoming stars, but only few will succeed in realizing this potential or “star quality.”  The ideology is therefore based on tension or strain between democratic values, that stardom is a quality determined by the public and not based on social class or ethnic origins, and factual reality. It shows that at any given historical era, only a few screen players can–and have– become popular stars.

Still, the diverse rewards that movie stars have enjoyed (high income, international popularity, power within the film industry, influence on moviegoers lifestyle) has made it a desirable goal for most screen players.  Clearly, if movie stardom has persisted for so long a time–despite political, economic, and cultural changes–in both the film industry and society at large, it must have been supported by powerful groups and fulfilled some necessary functions.

The Democratic Elite will demonstrate that the extraordinary preeminence of movie stardom in the United States, as an ideological symbol and actual practice, has performed multiple and vital functions for various segments: the production companies, labor unions and organizations representing actors (SAG, Equity), individual performers who achieved or strive to achieve stardom, and the large public of moviegoers.  However, each of these elements has supported film stardom for its own reasons and interests.  Perhaps most important of all has been the support of the star system by the public, which explains its initial emergence against the wish of the production companies, which feared that stars would acquire too much power and demand a lot of money, and its persistence long after the demise of the studio system.  The book will claim that film stardom has continued to be a powerful symbol of American culture, of the traditional version of the American Way of Life, underlying such national myths as “from rags to riches,” and “the overnight, sudden success.”  The operation of the star system, brought to the public’s attention whenever a player of ethnic minority, lower socio-economic status, or poor educational background becomes a national star, has served as a factual demonstration of such dominant American values as upward mobility, monetary success, competitiveness, and individual attainment.

The screen elite examined in this book consists of the 135 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, the most comprehensive, and the most accurate survey.  Every year theater owners and film distributors are asked to select the ten players who have attracted the largest number of movie-goers 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 performances.

The identification of movie stars is based on both reputational and statistical methods, two prevalent techniques in the study of elites.  In his pioneering study, Pareto (1935) has defined elites in statistical terms, composed of those who have “the highest indices in their branch of activity.”  The statistical method employed here relies on the domestic rentals of films released in the United States in a calendar year.  And the reputational method draws on the competent response of hundreds of film exhibitors and theater owners across the nation.  The category of 135 film stars constitutes the entire population, not a sample, of America’s screen elite.  Furthermore, the historical era, over half a century, is long enough to permit identification of patterns of continuity and change in the nature, structure, and functions of movie stardom.  This historical dimension has often been neglected by scholars who, attempting to construct a general theory of stardom, have failed to take into account the variability and specificity of historical conditions.

The Democratic Elite will use various research methods and will be based on primary and secondary sets of data: archival documents of the film industry, statistical analysis of career patterns (age at film debut, age at achieving stardom, career duration), analysis of hundreds of films and screen roles, particularly those which catapulted players to popularity and stardom, and in-depth interviews with current movie stars, male and female.

Students have studied elites in various institutional areas: politics, religion, business, and science, but there have been few studies of elites in the visual and performing arts.  The proposed book will examine in great detail one artistic elite, the elite of movie stars, stressing three important dimensions of comparisons: a comparison between the rewards of elites and the rank and file members; a comparison between male and female members; and a comparison among elites of various institutions.

Focusing on one strategic elite, The Democratic Elite: America’s Movie Stars is also meant as a contribution to the understanding of American film, politics, and culture.



Table of Contents


Chapter One: Stardom in the World of Entertainment

Chapter Two: Hollywood and Film Stardom: The Creation of Stars

Chapter Three: From Rags to Riches: Social Origins of Movie Stars

Chapter Four: The Role’s the Thing: Social Determinants of Movie Stardom

Chapter Five: Screen Images and the American Value System

Chapter Six: Self-Images of Movie Stars

Chapter Seven: Stars, the Film Industry, and the American Public

Chapter Eight: Movie Stars, Ideology, and Politics

Conclusion: Social and Cultural Significance of Movie Stardom















Chapter Two, Hollywood and Film Stardom: The Creation of Stars, will deal with the questions of: Is it possible to manufacture movie stars? and who creates movie stars?  The role of various elements in the production of film stars will be examined: the film companies (studios), individual producers and agents, film critics, the large public, and the players themselves.  Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn is quoted to have said: “God makes the stars, but it’s up to the producers to find them.”  But later he qualified his belief: “Producers don’t make stars.  God makes stars and the public recognizes his handwork.”

Chapter Two will show that some stars (Norma Shearer, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood) made it on their own, whereas others (Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable) needed and depended on the assistance of their studios; it is unlikely that they would have become stars at present, without the studios’ active support.  But while it is easier and faster to become stars with the companies’ publicity machines, it is by no means a sufficient condition.  Producers, executives, and agents have tried on numerous occasions to fabricate stars, but seldom succeeded without the cooperation of the large public.  Clearly, it is impossible to manufacture stars and force them on the public, for otherwise studio heads would have exploited it.  Moreover, many performers (James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Reynolds) became stars despite their studios and against their wishes.

The impact of technological forces on the development of movie stars, such as the advent of the close-up, which provided the opportunity to individualize screen players, or the coming of sound, which added vocal dimensions to the previous silent gestures, will also be described.  Many movie stars began their careers or first established themselves in other media (theater, radio, music, and recently television).  Clint Eastwood, the most dominant star at present, first became a star in Europe, in a series of “spaghetti” Westerns directed by Sergio Leone–not in the United States.  And he established himself in the popular TV Western series Rawhide.  “I never had any promotions or big studio built-up,” Eastwood boasts, “There are stars who are produced by the press.  I am not one of them.”

Chapter Three, From Rags to Riches: Social Origins of Movie Stars, will demonstrate that the screen elite has been more democratic in its composition and recruitment that other institutional elites, such as business, politics, or science.  Movie stardom, and screen acting in general, have functioned as legitimate channels of upward mobility for individuals of lower socio-economic strata and from ethnic minorities.  Chapter Three will show that movie stars are members of a genuinely democratic elite because they are ultimately chosen by the large public, not by peers or professional sponsors (as in science).  Movie stars are “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.

Screen acting has been one of the most sharply stratified professions, marked by a tremendous gap between the rewards of movie stars and those of the rank and file members.  As was mentioned, the conflict between its democratic-populist ideology and its elitist practices, inherent in acting, is at the center of this book and will be analyzed and illustrated.  The social base of this elite is rather open and democratic, but at any given time, only few can achieve elite positions.  There is therefore a discrepancy between acting’s egalitarian orientation, anybody can become a movie star, and its highly stratified structure, only few players actually become stars.

The screen elite as a whole is characterized by some collective attributes, but 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.  And men have been drawn from wider ethnic, socio-economic, and occupational backgrounds than women.  By contrast, direct occupational inheritance, that is children stepping into their parents’ occupations, has not only been more prevalent among women, but women have also enjoyed greater support from their families for pursuing acting careers.  And while the recruitment of both men and women has been informal, the recruitment networks start to operate much earlier in the women’s careers, which is the reason why women begin their careers earlier and are less formally educated and trained than men.  But the duration of stardom and screen careers has been much shorter for women than for men.  Moreover, the differential avenues of recruitment of men and women bear cultural significance which 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 careers.

By contrast, stage comedy and sports have been two distinct avenues for men, particularly for black players (Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy).  The most recent additions to the roster of stars have included Chuck Norris, a karate champion, and Arnold Schwartzenegger, a bodybuilding champion.  The implications of physical beauty for women, and excellence in sports for men will be analyzed in reference to American culture as a whole.


The Role’s the Thing: Social Determinants of Movie Stardom.

There are controversial views about the crucial determinants of stardom because the issue has not been studied systematically.  Chapter Four will distinguish analytically among four attributes: physical appearance, youth, acting talent, and screen image.  A number of specific questions will be answered:  Is it possible to characterize America’s movie stars in terms of their physical looks?  How important are attractive looks for male and female stars?  Do movie stars have to be young?  How important are acting talent and acting skills for movie stardom?

A distinction will be made between actors and stars, which are two different statuses involving different duties and privileges and different career patterns.

Professional longevity, particularly in such unstable industry as film, is considered to be the ultimate test of stardom because it indicates the continuity of stars’ appeal for large audiences.

Addressing itself to the question of why certain film players (and not others) have become popular stars, and why certain stars (and not others) have achieved commercial durability, Chapter Five, “Screen Images and the American Value System,” will situate the appeal of movie stars in the specificities of the historical conditions and ideology at the time.  It will show that the long-enduring stars, men and women, have possessed a relevant screen image, which consisted of specific screen roles played over a prolonged period of time.  Indeed, the most popular stars are no longer actors playing parts in movies, but folk heroes and heroines, functioning as role models for the moviegoing public.  Stars struck responsive chords in large audiences because they function as political, cultural, and psychological role models, embodying qualities which are collectively relevant and desirable.

The acting of these stars seldom shows and they succeed in convincing the public that there is no real distinction between their lives on screen and off.  These stars (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Clark Gable and, at present, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds) have integrated their film roles into their “real life” personalities to the point where the two seem to merge.  Chapter Five will demonstrate that the differential longevity of movie stars depends on the relevancy of the statements they make in their screen roles.  The most durable stars have made statements that go beyond their specific historical and ideological times.  For example, the fact that John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood have been the most durable stars in American film history means that what they have signified in their films was meaningful for several generations of filmgoers–despite changes in the country’s ideology and social structure.  By contrast, stars who survived for a short period of time, lost their appeal because their statements became irrelevant and out of date.  Thus, the shorter longevity of female stars, compared with that of men, indicates an important trend: there have been more significant changes in women’s positions in society than in men’s.  Indeed, the screen image of Clint Eastwood is not all that different from that of John Wayne or Gary Cooper, and Burt Reynolds is accepted by the public despite his conscious imitation of the screen persona of Clark Gable and Cary Grant.  By contrast, the female stars at present, Sally Field, Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange, differ radically in their screen images from their predecessors in the l930s, l940s, l950s, and l960s.

Chapter Six, “Attitudes and Self-Images of Movie Stars,” will describe the subjective attitudes of screen players toward their professions and status as stars.  These subjective definitions have not been unanimous, ranging from total ebmracement of success and popularity to ambivalence to cynicism and to downright rejection of stardom.  Many stars don’t trust their publics, claiming that their tastes are fickle.  For example, director-writer-actor Woody Allen observed, “The other day a man came up to me and kept saying, ‘you’re a star, you’re a star.’  I thought: ‘this year I’m a star, but what will I be next year–a black hole?’  Other stars are most ambivalent about their status and rewards as screen actors. Dustin Hoffman, for instance, prefers to work in the theater, where he can exercise more control over his performances than in movies.  “One of the main things about being successful,” Hoffman is reported to have said, “is that I stopped being afraid of dying….I couldn’t understand why that was for a long time, and finally I realized it’s because when you’re a movie star, you’re already dead, you’re embalmed.”

Steve McQueen, a big star in the l960s and l970s, also resented Hollywood: “I only come back and make a movie when I need the money.”   And Robert Redford said in similar vein, “I look upon going to Hollywood as a mission behind enemy lines.  You parachute in, set up the explosion, then fly out before it goes off.”  How genuine have these attitudes been?  What are their cultural sources?  Why have American male stars felt a need to defend (even apologize) for their career choice?

Based on interviews, Chapter Six will explain the subjective perceptions of their roles as actors and as stars?  Do they feel any obligation to their publics, without whose support they could not have become stars?  How do they perceive their duties as movie stars?  What is the price of achieving commercial popularity and success?

How powerful are movie stars in Hollywood at present?  Chapter Seven, “Movie Stars, the Film Industry, and the American Public,” will assess the bargaining power of stars within Hollywood, over film projects, salaries, casting, etc.  Film stars owning their production companies, thus exercising a greater control over their careers, has been a relatively recent phenomenon.  What are the implications of this trend for the kinds and quality of the films being made?  In the past, the popular stars used to make three or four movies a year, thus if one film failed, the next one was released within weeks.  Continuous exposure and extensive publicity, both supervised by the studios, were crucial practices in maintaining intimate contact between performers and their audiences.  At present, however, when fewer films are made, the successful stars appear at best in one movie every year. And more importantly, lacking studio sponsorship, they have to make it on their own, with every single film.  Chapter Seven will also deal systematically with the crucial issue of stars’ actual power at the box-office.  Under what conditions, for example, the sheer presence of stars can make average (or bad) films commercial hits with the public?  Phrased differently, which factors are most crucial in motivating moviegoers to see a particular film: its topic, genre, narrative, director, or performers?

Chapter Eight, Movie Stars, Ideology and Politics

This chapter will show that the screen elite 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 offscreen, movie stars have the potential of functioning as a strategic rather than segmental elite (Keller 1963).

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 may become members of a 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 function as role models whose influence can be pervasive, particularly on the impressionable younger generation, the most frequent element of movie-goers in America.

Is it an accident that Ronald Reagan, former President of the United States, has moved to politics after being a Hollywood actor?  How widespread has been the trend of players to become actual office holders?  Clint Eastwood is the most recent example, but he is preceded by many others, including Shirley Temple, George Murphy, Irene Dunne, Paul Newman, and Vanessa Redgrave.

Chapter Nine will show that, unlike other elites, stars have participated in the political process quite extensively, directly as well as indirectly.  Focusing on the complex relationship between movie stars and the power elite, it will explore three issues:

The political importance of movie stars and their use by political elites in modern industrial societies;

The nature and extent of stars’ political participation in local, national, and international politics;

The use and abuse of acting for political goals: the choice of screen roles according to political yardsticks (by John Wayne, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford) and the use of the Academy Awards (Oscar) Show for propagating political causes (Marlon Brando, for American Indians, Vanessa Redgrave for the Palestinians).



Summing up the major findings of the book, the Conclusion will stress the social factors accounting for the persistence of film stardom as a significant social phenomenon in American society and culture.  It will demonstrate the distinctive contribution of sociology to the study of stardom by analyzing the interplay between movie stars’ screen images, their multiple functions (cinematic, aesthetic, social and political), the film industry, and American society’s ideology and social structure.





















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