Movie Stars: Male-Dominated Profession

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 l974). However, recruitment and training systems have varied among the professions in their length, importance, and formality (Griffith l968; Strauss l970).

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.

My 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 l932 to l984. This period roughly parallels the duration of the sound era, which began in l927 with the release of Warners’ 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 l984.

Group Portrait of Movie Stars: Gender

The study shows a striking fact: the paucity of women among America’s movie stars. Of the 129 stars, 81 (63 percent) have been men and only 48 (37 percent) women. Male domination of stardom in the U.S. has been a consistent fact, though there have been fluctuations in the numbers and ratio of male to female stars. Table 1 shows the gender of America’s stars by decade. (Table 1).

Women have featured most prominently in the l930s, the only decade in which they constituted about half of the nation’s stars. In two years only, 1933 and 1934, there were more women (6 out of l0) than men on the poll.

There have also been two years, 1957 and 1983, in which no women were among the country’s top stars.

From the l940s on, the number of female stars began to decline, first gradually then sharply. For instance, in the l940s, l950s, and l960’s, about three tenths of the stars were women, but in the l970’s, their position reached an all-time low, amounting to only one fifth (20 percent) of the nation’s stars. The position of women began to improve in the late 1970s: between 1977 and 1979, 27 percent of the top stars were women, and between 1980 and 1984, 28 percent, which is the best position women have had since the 1930s.

The Structure of Hollywood as an Industry

The fluctuations in the ratio of male to female stars can be explained by structural features of the film industry. During the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, from the late 1920s to the early l950s, when the industry was governed by the studio system, the major studios attempted to create some balance between male and female stars. The studios’ publicity machines took an active part in creating and nurturing movie stars of both genders. From the l960’s on, however, a different system, the free-lance market, replaced the studio system. In free-lance systems, no artists work regularly or continuously. Rather, talent groups are assembled for a particular project and work so long as its takes to complete this project (Becker 1982, pp. 83-88).

It has become increasingly difficult for all artists, but particularly for women, to achieve some stability and continuity in their work. With no guidance and assistance from the production companies, individual artists have to make it on their own, to the point where a single movie can make or break a career. In the 1930s and 1940s, most film stars enjoyed continuous exposure, making at least 3 movies a year, whereas at present, they make at best one film a year because American film production has drastically declined over the last two decades.

Musiclas and Melodramas

A large number of women have specialized in the genre of musical film: one third of the women, compared with only one tenth of the men. Consequently, when the production of musicals began to decline, in the early l950s, women found it more difficult to become stars. The other “feminine” film genre has been the romantic melodrama, known as “the woman’s picture” (Haskell 1974, pp. 153-188).

About one fourth of the female, but only a minority (4 percent) of the male stars, have specialized in such films, which were at their peak in the l930’s and l940’s, but then began to decline. By contrast, the most popular and the most commercial genre in the American cinema has been the action-adventure film, particularly in the last two decades (Levy 1986). This distinctly “masculine” form has typically featured no, or very few, parts for women. Note that one fourth of the male, but no female stars, appeared in action-adventures.

Hollywood Lagging Behind the Zeitgeist

Significantly, in the 1970s, just when the women’s movement began to make some progress in the social structure, the positions of women in Hollywood deteriorated. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that there was an ideological backlash in the film industry, mainfest in three important ways. First, there was a paucity of screen roles for women, particularly leading roles (Monaco 1979, pp. 91-98). Second, men dominated Hollywood not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. The typical, big-budgeted, popular film of the era was the adventure film, focusing on male heroism, male courage, and male friendship. Third, the most popular male stars in the late l960s and early l970s were all actors with a tough, “macho” screen image, such as Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson.

A rather conservative production and ideological system, Hollywood has lagged behind the achievements made by women in other areas. The position of women began to improve in the late l970’s, a full decade after the women’s movement was established. Indeed, the number of female stars increased and the screen portrayal of women changed only after women started to hold powerful positions in the industry, as producers, writers, and directors.

Turning Point for Women

The turning point in the screen treatment of women occurred in l977 when, for the first time, four of the five movies nominated for an Oscar Award featured a least one strong female role: Annie Hall, Julia, The Goodbye Girl, and The Turning Point; the fifth nominee was Star Wars. Significantly, most female stars at present, like their male counterparts, either own their production companies, and/or have more of a say over their screen roles and thus greater control over their careers than women ever had.