Film Theory: Cumulative Advantage in Acting Profession–Oscar Winners and Nominees

Research in Progress: Oct 9, 2021

I was a student of Robert K. Merton and Harriet Zuckerman at Columbia University, taking their classes and seminars in the sociology of science.

Among many other issues, they had dealt with cumulative advantage in science.

Matthew Effect

As a term, the Matthew Effect was coined by the late sociologist Robert K. Merton, circa 1968, and further refined and polished in later years.  Its name is derived from the Parable of the talents or minas in the biblical Gospel of Matthew.

Merton later credited his collaborator and wife, the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, as co-author of the concept of the Matthew Effect.

The Matthew effect, or the Matthew principle, can be observed in many fields of activity. It is sometimes summarized by the adage “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

The concept is applicable to issues of fame, reputation, achievement, and status, and it may also apply to cumulative advantage of wealth and economic and other capitals.

It has always been my wish to use and apply the Matthew Effect to the sociology of art in general, and sociology of film in particular.

The concept is named according to two of the Parables of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels. The concept concludes both synoptic versions of the parable of the talents: For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
— Matthew 25:29, RSV.

I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
— Luke 19:26, RSV.

The concept concludes two of the three synoptic versions of the parable of the lamp under a bushel:
For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away
— Mark 4:25, RSV.

Take heed then how you hear; for to him who has will more be given, and from him who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.
— Luke 8:18, RSV.

The concept is presented again in Matthew outside of a parable during Christ’s explanation to his disciples of the purpose of parables. And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

In the sociology of science, the “Matthew Effect” was coined by Merton to describe how eminent scientists will often get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher, even if their work is similar.

It may also mean that credit will usually be given–and given faster–to researchers who are already famous.  Peer recognition and prizes (both symbolic and financial) are often awarded to the most senior researcher involved in a project, even if some (or most or all) of the work was done by their students or assistants.

This was later formulated by Stephen Stigler as Stigler’s law of  eponymy: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.”  Stigler named Merton as the original discoverer, making his “law” an example of itself.

Merton argued that in the scientific community the Matthew effect reaches beyond the issue of simple reputation to one that concerns influencing the wider interaction and communication systems.  It plays significant role in social selection and allocation processes, often resulting in the concentration of resources and talents among a small group of scientists.

Thus, disproportionate visibility is given to articles from acknowledged authors, at the expense of equally valid or superior articles written by unknown authors. The concentration of attention on eminent individuals can lead to the increase in self-assurance, pushing them to conduct research in important but new and risky problem areas.

In the arts, the Matthew Effect is manifest in the small group of film artists who have gained fame and status.


The EGOT is the designation for the accomplishment of winning all four major American entertainment awards in a competitive category of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (EGOT) awards. These awards honor outstanding achievements in television, recording, film, and theater. Winning all four awards has been referred to as winning the “grand slam” of American showbiz.

As of 2019 , only 15 individuals have achieved that record.  The EGOT acronym was coined by actor Philip Michael Thomas in 1984, when his role on the new hit show Miami Vice brought instant fame, stating a desire to complete his own EGOT-winning collection. When coining the acronym, Thomas stated that it also means “energy, growth, opportunity and talent.” However, he also intended that the “E” should only stand for the Primetime Emmy Award, and not a Daytime Emmy. Nevertheless, two of the 15 people listed as EGOT winners have won the Daytime Emmy.

None of the 15 EGOT winners have actually won the awards in the acronym’s order (first an Emmy, then a Grammy, then an Oscar, and finally a Tony).

The closest person has been Robert Lopez, who won the “grand slam” in TEGO order.

Richard Rodgers

American composer Richard Rodgers became the first person of EGOT, when he won an Emmy for the TV documentary Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years. His Oscar came in 1945, when his “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair was named Best Song. He earned Grammys in both 1960 and 1962, for the original cast recordings of The Sound of Music and No Strings, respectively. Between 1950 and 1962, he won six Tony Awards, three of them in that first year for South Pacific. The same year, South Pacific also earned Rodgers a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (making him a PEGOT?)

Helen Hayes
Hayes, an American actress born on October 10, 1900, in Washington, D.C., acted for eight decades, from age 5 to 85. 
Helen Hayes was an American actress best known for being one of two women to have received all four entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
She appeared on Broadway at age 8, and over the next several years, she received acclaim for her performances. Hayes moved to California to pursue films, and in 1931, she won the Best Actress Oscar Award for The Sin of Madelon Claudet.  Hayes also received accolades for her Broadway performances in Mary of Scotland (1933) and Victoria Regina (1935). She is the first woman to receive all four entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award. Hayes died in 1993.
John Gielgud
Gielgud, an English actor and theatre director who appeared on stage, television and radio and in film in a career that spanned eight decades.   A member of the theatrical dynasty the Terry family, he began working on stage in 1921 before attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  He worked in repertory theatre and in the West End before establishing himself at the Old Vic in the 1930s. Although he made some films early in his career, he did not start working regularly in the medium until he was in his sixties; in the course of just over thirty years between 1964 and 1998 he appeared in over 60 films. He was active on TV and radio, appearing in numerous plays and interviews, and was also a narrator.

Gielgud is one of the few people who have won all four major annual American entertainment award: an Oscar (for Arthur, 1981); an Emmy, (for Summer’s Lease, 1991); a Grammy (for Ages of Man, 1979); and Tony Awards (for The Importance of Being Earnest, 1948; Ages of Man, 1959; Big Fish, Little Fish, 1961).  He also won BAFTAs, (for Julius Caesar, 1953; Murder on the Orient Express, 1975); Golden Globes, (for Arthur and War and Remembrance, 1988); and Laurence Olivier Special Award, 1985. He died in 2000, at the age of 96.

Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno (born December 11, 1931) is a Puerto Rican actress, dancer and singer, whose career has spanned over 70 years.  Among her notable acting work are supporting roles in the musical films The King and I and West Side Story, as well as a 1971–77 stint on the children’s television series The Electric Company, and a supporting role on the 1997–2003 TV drama Oz.

Moreno is one of the few artists to have won all four major annual American entertainment awards: an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony.  She is also one of the artists who have achieved what is called the Triple Crown of Acting, with individual competitive Academy, Emmy and Tony awards for acting.  She and Helen Hayes are the only two who have achieved both distinctions.

Moreno has won numerous other awards, including various lifetime achievement awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.