Movie Stars and the American Dream
The origins and recruitment of movie stars as members of the American screen elite stresses three important dimensions of comparison in the understanding of how elites come to exist and then operate in society's social structure.
First, a comparison between the rewards of elites and the rank and file members.
Second, a comparison between male and female members of occupational elites.
Third, a comparison among elites of various institutional spheres.
Most sociological studies have examined the social origins of elites in one domain (science, politics, business), but there have been few comparative studies of male and female members of various elites, which is one contribution of this series of articles.
Movie stars represent the elite of screen acting, which is probably one of the most sharply stratified professions, one marked by a tremendous gap between the rewards of movie stars and the rank and file members.
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, but at any given time, only few can achieve these elite positions. There is therefore discrepancy between acting's egalitarian orientations; anybody can become a movie star, and its highly stratified structure, only few players actually become stars.
Movie Stars: Male-Dominated Elite
The screen elite as a whole is characterized by some collective attributes, but there are significant differences between its male and female members. American film stardom has been male dominated: there have always been more male than female stars. And men have been drawn from wider ethnic, socio-economic, and occupational backgrounds than women. By contrast, direct occupational inheritance has not only 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's careers, which is the reason why women start their careers earlier and are less formally educated and trained than men.
By contrast, the duration of stardom and screen careers in general, is much shorter for women. Thus, only three women have been popular star for a decade, Betty Grable, Doris Day, and Barbra Streisand. This trend stands in sharp contrast to no less than 13 men who have been top attractions for over a decade. And the median duration of screen careers is 17 years for the women but 25 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 comedy and sports have been two distinct avenues for men. In recent years, black stars Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have come from stage comedy, and Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson have been recruited from sports. White male stars have also 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.
The screen elite as a group shares some similarities with other performance elites, mostly dancers. 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 rather than social selection. Anyone who has the drive, time, and some money can attempt a career, and few applicants are refused admission.
Furthermore, because certification is not a prerequisite for entry into the profession, it is difficult to develop standardized programs or to prove that one training program is more effective than another. As a result, in both acting and dancing, schools don't function as sorting out devices, and professional socialization occurs in informal 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.
Movie Stars: Democratic Elite
The screen elite has been more democratic in its composition and recruitment that other institutional elites, such as business or science. 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 a 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.
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 other elites 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 a 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. By contrast, 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 a strategic elite through the transformation of their power within the film industry to other areas of social life, such as fashion, consumerism, and lifestyle.
Unlike other elites, movie stars 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 project of the United Nations) issues.
Movies Stars: Politics and Rules of the Game
Even so, to become and remain popular stars, performers have to abide by the political rules of the game, that is, to operate within the parameters of dominant and legitimate political culture.
Jane Fonda, for example, became a top box-office star as late as 1978, only after her previous image, as a politically radical actress, mellowed. Fonda was not only unpopular during the Vietnam War, but also unofficially blacklisted by the industry, thus unable to work as an actress in America for a number of years.
Indeed, because stars are constantly in the public eye, there is a price to be paid for radical, unconventional politics, as Vanessa Redgrave's career has demonstrated. Redgrave is considered by many critics to be the best actress in the English-speaking world, with six Oscar nominations to her credit, yet because of her politics she has never become a commercial star and household word in the United States.
Movie stars have been members of America's most democratic elite by virtue of their wide social class base and their relative lack of formal education and professional training. Movie stardom is available to few players at any given time, but these few may begin their careers with no credentials and little psychological, financial, or educational investment. This function of stardom, as one symbol of the American Dream, has been stressed by the film industry and popular culture. One of the perennial topics of American films has been the rise of individuals (including actors) from poverty and obscurity to national celebrity and power.
The extraordinary preeminence of movie stardom in the United States, as an ideological symbol and practice in the film industry, suggests that it has performed multiple functions for various segments in society. The star system, as Cantor and Peters (1980) observed, has been supported by every element of the film industry: the production companies, labor unions, and individual players.
However, each of these elements has supported it for its own reasons and interests. The studios have continued to support it because it provides them with an oversupply of talented players, a large pool of qualified actors from which few are chosen, and it is also good business at the box-office; many people select movies according to their star performers. The organizations representing players (SAG, Equity) have supported stardom because they would lose income from dues, if there were not many players competing for a small number of jobs.
But perhaps most important of all has been the support of the star system by the large public, which explains its initial emergence against the wish of the studios, and its persistence long after the demise of the studio system. Movie stardom has continued to serve as a powerful symbol of the traditional version of the American Way of Life, underlying such 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 oppressed 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.
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