Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 29–54

The democratic elite: America's movie stars

  • Emanuel Levy

DOI: 10.1007/BF00989243

Cite this article as:
Levy, E. Qual Sociol (1989) 12: 29. doi:10.1007/BF00989243


This study presents a collective portrait of movie stars, an American artistic elite. It examines the social backgrounds and recruitment patterns of top movie stars in the United States from 1932 to 1984.

Screen acting has involved an inherent conflict between its democratic populist ideology and its elitist practice. While the social base of the film elite is relatively open and democratic, few film players achieve stardom at any given time.

The screen elite has been more democratic in composition and recruitment than other institutional elites. Movie stardom has regularly functioned as a channel of upward mobility for individuals of lower socioeconomic and ethnic minority background. And movie stars are selected by the public, as well as promoted by studios. However, more men than women achieve star status in Hollywood and ethnic minorities, such as Jews, have oftne had to change names and disguise ethnic characteristics to succeed. Nonetheless, movie stardom remains an important symbol of dominant American values, such as the “rags to riches” myth.

Horray for Hollywood Where every office boy or young mechanic Can be a panic With just a good-looking pan And any shop girl Can be a top girl If she pleases the tired businessman

(Hollywood Hotel, 1937)

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Emanuel Levy
    • 1
  1. 1.Dept. of SociologyWellesley CollegeWellesley