Movie Stars: Need Stars? Love Them? Hate Them?

This is the first of a series of articles about movie stardom.

Is movie stardom a uniquely American phenomenon?

What are the socio-cultural foundations and demographic composition of  movie stars as members of Hollywood elite?

Movie Stars: Privileged Elite

Movie stars are members of a small, highly privileged elite of actors.

Screen acting is arguably one of the most sharply stratified professions in American society.  This occupation is marked by a tremendous gap between the rewards of movie stars at the very top and those of the rank and file members.

Three Comparisons

Comparison between the screen elite of movie stars and the rank-and-file members of the profession.

Comparison between male and female members of this occupational elite

Comparison among elites of various spheres, such as film, music, politics, and business.

Ever wonder why so many movie stars are married to other movie stars (or movie artists), or to members of other elites, such as the power elite (top politicians)?

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 stars and what are the social processes that have made them 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

American film stardom has been male dominated: there have always been more male than female stars. Moreover, there are significant differences between its male and female members. Male stars have been drawn from wider ethnic, socio-economic, and occupational backgrounds than female stars.

Direct occupational inheritance has 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 why they tend to be less formally educated and professionally trained than men.

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, Julia Roberts, and at present, Sandra Bullock.

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 vital screen careers is about 17 years for the women, but twice as long (over 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 and stand-up comedy and sports have been two distinct avenues for men. Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have come from stage comedy.

Some white male stars have 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 shares some similarities with other performance elites such, as dancing elite.  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.

Actor Studio

Formal certification (diplomas, degrees) is not a prerequisite for entry into the acting 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 rather than formal 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 and the possibilities allowed by human anatomy.

Movie Stars: Democratic Elite

The screen elite has been more democratic in its composition and recruitment that other institutional elites, such as business or politics. 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.

People’s Choice

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 others 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.

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 can 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 and refugees projects of the U.N) issues.