Movie Stars: Stratified Profession–Dimensions of Inequality

Sociologists have studied elites in various institutional areas: politics (Bottomore 1964; Keller 1963; Matthews 1960; Mills 1956), religion (Donovan 1958; George and George 1955), business (Warner and Abegglen 1955), and science (Cole and Cole 1973; Zuckerman 1977).

However, there have been few sociological studies of elites in the visual and performance arts.  My study examines in great detail one artistic elite, the elite of movie stars, composed of actors that occupy the top positions in the Hollywood film industry.

Every profession is stratified, though some are more sharply stratified than others. The criteria according to which individuals are placed in the stratification system differ from one profession to another. In his seminal study of elites, Pareto (1935) stresses the importance of outstanding performance and capacity for membership in the elite. His model of stratification is based on an efficient process of social selection among unequally capable individuals. Yet, as Zuckerman (1977, p.7) noted, Pareto’s model also recognizes that there might be errors in the process of selection, that elite membership might not invariably be based on outstanding capacity.

The importance of capacity and talent for placing individuals in the stratification structure of their professions has varied from one field to another. In science, for example, the location is usually influenced by the universalistic criterion of innate scientific ability, and identified talent is rewarded on the basis of performance (Cole and Cole 1973, p. 68). But in the performing arts, the very nature of acting talent and skills and how crucial they are in locating performers in the stratification system have been less clearly defined. Indeed, the very definition of acting talent has been controversial.

Burns (1972, pp. 144-71), for example, claims that acting is rather a natural, inherent talent and that the difference between professional players and laymen is that the former develop their talents and regard their acting skills as specialized domains. Moreover, while there is firm consensus that screen acting is highly stratified, that is dominated by a relatively small elite, there is sharp disagreement over the specific criteria for distributing rewards.

Movie Stardom: Stratification of Acting

Movie stars are not necessarily the most talented or the most esteemed players in their profession (Levy 1983). Rather, they are the most popular and highest-paid performers, who embody in their screen roles and public images relevant values that are supported by current moviegoers. Film stars have functioned as icons in American popular culture, defining and symbolizing for the rest of society roles and behaviors that are normatively appropriate at a given historical time. As Dyer (1982, p. 6) observed, movie stars are “a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself.”

Movie Actors Versus Movie Stars

The distinction between film actors and film stars is important because it is based on both subjective and objective validity. Not every film player is or becomes a movie star, and not every movie star is necessarily a gifted player, respected by his or her peers. Moreover, actors themselves make a clear distinction between being actors and being stars.

The specific criteria and relevant audiences (significant others), which determine these two statuses, are different since they involve different status sets (Merton 1968). The significant role partner of movie stars is the large, lay public of moviegoers, whereas for players who don’t aspire to be and do not become box-office stars, peer recognition and critics’ esteem are far more important (Levy 1987). Movie stars are therefore players with strong appeal and drawing power at the box-office, who can attract large audiences to the theater independently or beyond the quality of their film.

Screen Acting: Employment and Income

Screen acting is probably one of the most stratified professions. No matter what criterion of ranking is used (employment, prestige, income, popularity), there is a sharp gap between the status of the screen elite and that of the rank and file members.

To begin with, acting 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, l984). Some conservative reports (Cantor and Peters 1980, p. 213) estimate that as many as half of SAG’s members who are active dues-payers have not had a screen, or any acting, role in years.

Using income as a stratification measure, the gap between the successful stars and the rank and file members is all the more striking. In 1983, 81.9 percent of the SAG members earned less than 5,000 dollars from screen acting. By contrast, the pay of popular stars is at least $2-3million per movie and it amounts to much more if they are the producers and share in the profits of their films. Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Sylvester Stallone receive at least 5 million dollars for a movie plus a percentage of the profits. There has always been sharp inequality among screen players, 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.

Beginings of Movie Stardom

Movie stardom has been a consistent and dominant feature of the Hollywood film industry over the last 70 years. Historians estimate (Dyer, 1982, pp. 9-10, Walker, 1970) that stardom began around l9l0 and, more importantly, evolved against the initial interests and wishes of the production companies, which did not advertise their individual players fearing of the latter’s financial demands once they acquire popularity. And some of the film players themselves did not want to be introduced by name because of their embarrassment for working in the mass medium of film, which was then much less prestigious than the theater, the noble art (Schickel 1974).

Indeed, it was the movie-going public that singled out individual performers out of the many which appeared in a film, demanding to see them again and to know more about their activities, on and off screen. The studios’ heads soon learned how to exploit the star system to their advantage and to the profitability of their films.

However, stardom has neither been exclusive nor confined to film. The entertainment world in the United States (theater, ballet, opera) has always been centralized and star-oriented. Nonetheless, because film is a mass production medium, on a bigger and more standardized scale than the live, performing arts, it has magnified the star phenomenon to a system with outstanding proportions.

Achieved Versus Ascribed Status

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.” This 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 racial origins, and reality, showing that at any given historical era, few screen players can and have become popular stars.

Still, the diverse rewards that movie stars have enjoyed (high income, international popularity, power in and outside the film industry) has made it a desirable goal for most players. Clearly, if movie stardom has persisted for so long a time, despite political, economic, and cultural changes, in both the film industry and society at large, it must have been supported by powerful groups, for which it has fulfilled some important functions, as is shown in my study.