Movie Stars: Recruitment and Training

Members of occupational elites differ not only in their social class origins, but also in their degree of formal education and professional training.

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 half a century, from 1932 to 1984.

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 reputation 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 reputation 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 1984.

By and large, movie stars have had little formal education: Only one third have attained education beyond high school. More specifically, about one third didn’t complete high school, about one third graduated from high school, one fifth began college but dropped out (usually after one year), and one tenth graduated from college. There has been only a slight increase in their educational attainment after the Second World War: movie stars of the last two decades have been more formally educated than their previous generations. However, formal schooling has never been a prerequisite for becoming an actor or a movie star. Of all occupational elites, the screen elites appears to be the least formally educated. In most professions, a college degree is a preliminary requirement for entry into the job market, let alone occupying an elite position.

Whereas the proportion of high school graduates has been the same for men and for women, male stars have attained a higher educational level than female stars. For instance, over two fifths of the men, compared with only one seventh of the women, have started and/or graduated from college. This difference in formal education stems from two interrelated processes. First, women choose acting as a career at an earlier age than men; for many men, acting is a second occupation or one into which they drift after trying other lines of work (Levy l984). Second, women also start their career at a younger age than men, usually in their adolescence or late teens, thus are unable to complete high school diploma.

Formal professional training, like education, appears to be less important for movie stars than for other elites. Less than half of the film stars have studied acting in a formal organizational setting. But once again, more men than women have studied acting. Consistent with the data on educational attainment, this difference in training probably derives from the same reason: women start to perform much earlier than men and subsequently tend to learn their necessary skills on the job, rather than in schools.

Unlike other professions, which not only require formal training but also have standardized programs, film stars acquired their training in a wide variety of programs, ranging from professional schools to academic training at college to drama workshops and private coaching. Of the various kinds of programs, training at professional schools, such as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) has been the most prevalent (21 percent), followed by college training, and coaches. There are no significant differences between the genders in the kinds of training that they get.

Compared with other academies of arts or sciences, acting academies or schools emerged rather late in the English-speaking world. The first official acting school in the U.S., the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was founded in New York City in l884. And its British equivalent, albeit more prestigious, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) was established in London in l904, after centuries of strong theatrical tradition.

The professional training of movie stars has increased in the last two decades; most contemporary stars have had some formal training. However, training as such has been neither a prerequisite for entry into the profession nor a condition for working and achieving success (Hoffman 1973). There has been an ongoing debate over the issues of whether or not it is possible to teach people how to act and what should be the nature of their training programs. Significantly, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), established in l933 to represent actors, neither requires that its members be formally trained, nor provides such training. Moreover, most film stars have studied acting after establishing themselves as players and after becoming movie stars.

Many stars began their careers by being cast in major screen roles, without having studied acting at all; they have literally learned their skills on the job, while working.

Others have used informal methods of studying, such as observing colleagues at work, self-teaching, and imitation of great players whose performances are watched on tape. But stars that lacked specifically acting training were nonetheless trained in other performance skills related to acting. A large number (35 percent) of the women took dancing, or dancing and singing, lessons in their childhood under the support (or pressure) of their mothers. Few of the men studied dancing or singing, but many (33 percent) came to acting through vaudeville, burlesque, and nightclub acts, particularly those specializing in film comedy.

The recruitment and training are connected with the medium in which they made their performance debut, showing that there have been various routes into screen acting.

Only a few (12 percent) of the movie stars began their acting careers in film. The chief source of recruitment has been the legitimate theater, with half of the stars beginning their careers on stage, and slightly more men than women. An equal proportion (one tenth) of men and women started their careers as radio singers or recording artists.

The initial performance medium of men and women differs in two respects. First, one fourth of the women, but no men, started their careers as fashion or advertisement models. These women were recruited by film producers or talent agents who spotted their photographs on the covers of popular magazines. But the fact that many of the female stars were first models also indicates the importance of physical appearance for their screen careers; a successful career in modeling is mostly based on good looks and homogeneity, no acting skills are required. The modeling background of many female stars also explains why they began their film careers with no formal acting training.

The second difference concerns television as a recruiting source, being much more prominent among the men than the women. Ironically, television, film’s greatest enemy in the 1950’s, has served as its most efficient training ground, particularly at present when, without the studio system and its facilities, television is the most viable way to groom film stars. During the studio system, each company had agents whose role was to discover “new faces” and “raw talent” as potential film stars. But in the last 15 years, Hollywood has ceased taking risks in casting unknowns in leading roles.

A rather prevalent trend has been to make film stars out of actors who have built some reputation and established a following in other medium, be it television or the recording industries.

For example, Barbra Streisand was a Broadway star, and Dolly Parton a popular country-and Western singer, before launching successful screen careers.

A large number of male stars have been popular on television prior to their film careers, including Ryan O’Neal (Peyton Place), Alan Alda (M.A.S.H.), and Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray (who all started at NBC’s Saturday Night Live).


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