Movie Stars: America’s Democratic Elite–Theory and Research

Using a socio-historical perspective, The Democratic Elite: America’s Movie Stars 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 a priori 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 1910s) to the present.

The book will show that screen acting has always 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 any given year, over 80 percent of SAG’s members earned less than $5,000 from screen acting.  By contrast, the pay of popular stars is at least $5 million per movie, and it amounts to much more if they are the producers and share in the profits of their films.  In the past, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise were each getting $25 million for their next feature, plus a percentage of the profits.  Their position in the 1980s and 1990s is now occupied by a new generation of male stars, such as Bradley Cooper.

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 and strain between democratic values, that stardom is a quality determined by the public and unbased on social class or ethnic origins, and reality, showing that at any given historical era, few screen players can and have become popular stars.

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

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 200 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 US 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 200 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 employs 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.

Scholars have studied elites in various institutional areas: politics religion, business, and science, but there have been few studies of elites in the arts.  The 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.