When Hollywood’s best and brightest gather this Sunday at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, four actors will be crowned kings and queens for a day, cementing their place in Hollywood history. The men and women who take home the coveted Academy Award will undoubtedly enjoy (or endure) an elevated profile – but will the extra attention also elevate their earning power?
From a distance, it would seem like winning a Best Actor or Best Actress Oscar could only help an actor’s career – but perhaps more so if the actor is a man. As emblemized by the demographics of the Academy voting pool – Academy voters are overwhelmingly male and white, with an average age of 63 – Hollywood is exceedingly patriarchal, and there is some evidence to suggest that male actors benefit far more, financially speaking, from an Oscar win than their female peers do.
Because individual salaries are not always reported – and are not guaranteed to be accurate even when they are – it’s challenging to make an empirical case for gender disparity in post-Oscar salary boosts. Still, a broad view of top-tier actors’ and actresses’ earnings, gender differences in the ages of Oscar winners, and the types of films that are most likely to win Best Picture reflect a pervasive, endemic gender bias in Hollywood that naturally extends to the Academy Awards.
“In Hollywood, there is always going to be a difference between what men earn and what women earn,” said Dorothy Pomerantz, who reports on Hollywood economics for Forbes magazine. But does winning an Oscar close or expand that gender gap?
An economics honors thesis from a master’s student at Colgate University examined gender differences in the effects of an acting Oscar win, and has been previously cited in a Forbes article. Kevin Sweeney’s data found that male actors enjoy a dramatically higher salary increase after winning an Oscar than females do. According to Sweeney’s report, the average salary increase after winning an Oscar for men is close to $3.9 million; but for women, it’s less than half a million. (We should note that there appears to be some manipulation of the data that calls into question its reliability; but even without it, there would be a very significant gender difference in post-Oscar salary raises.)
In addition to gender differences, there is some evidence to suggest that an Oscar nomination might be more fiscally valuable in the long run than a win. Among the top 10 highest-paid actors on Forbes’ 2013 list, 80 percent are male, 20 percent are past Oscar winners (Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, who are tied for last place), and 80 percent (including Washington and Jolie) are past Oscar nominees. Based on this small sample set alone, being a man and being an Oscar nominee appear to be the two strongest predictors for determining whether an actor will become a top Hollywood earner.
Still, a spot on the highest-paid list isn’t determined exclusively by an actor’s salary. Denzel Washington and Channing Tatum are two among last year’s highest earners who made more on the back end of successful films (“Flight” and “Magic Mike,” respectively) than they earned in salary. Tatum and “Magic Mike” director Steven Soderbergh self-financed the film, and Washington reportedly took a dramatic salary cut in exchange for a bigger percentage of the movie’s profits – a pretty safe bet if you’re Denzel Washington, whose films are overwhelmingly box-office success stories.
Washington is a “go-to guy for certain kinds of projects that tend to do really, really well at the box office, both here and overseas,” Gary Susman, a veteran Hollywood reporter, said. “The Oscar is just gravy for him, I think, at this point… Once you get to a certain level, it doesn’t really matter anymore, because you’re going to get the big bucks no matter what. “
While an Oscar might be gravy for someone like Washington, Hollywood lore would tell us that it can be a curse for others, whose careers take a nosedive after winning the award. “There certainly are people who have not managed to capitalize on their Oscar wins the way that you think they might,” Susman said. “Part of it is if you win an Oscar for a particular part, you will very likely get typecast in those kinds of roles.”
This would definitely seem to be a factor in the case of Hillary Swank’s career and earning power. Swank has won a Best Actress Oscar twice now: first for “Boys Don’t Cry” in 2000 and later for the Clint Eastwood-directed “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004. In 2010, New York magazine examined Swank’s value in Hollywood, pointing out that she “owns the hell out of” a niche of “fact-based dramas about downmarket outsiders overcoming long odds” (as “Boys Don’t Cry” and Million Dollar Baby” are). But it’s an ownership that hasn’t translated to major box-office dollars for Swank or most of her post-Oscar films. At the time of publication, New York magazine reported that most of Swank’s films since “Million Dollar Baby” had relatively low earnings of somewhere between $20 million and $60 million at the box office; “Amelia” – arguably her most prestigious role since winning her second Oscar – was a big-budget flop.
Reese Witherspoon is another name that frequently comes up in discussions of this so-called Oscar curse: Witherspoon was once one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, but since her 2006 Best Actress Oscar win for “Walk the Line,” she hasn’t had a really big critical or commercial hit.
Pomerantz thinks Witherspoon’s age and gender are more to blame than her Oscar or any associated curse.
“Once an actress hits 35, there just aren’t that many good roles anymore,” Pomerantz said. “I think that is the reality that Reese Witherspoon is dealing with.
“Could she play the lead role in 'Blue Jasmine’? No, she’s too young. Could she play Katniss Everdeen? No, she’s too old. She’s in this rough space because of her age,” Pomerantz continued. “Either you get older and you become Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock, or you don’t.”
Pomerantz shared some insight that Witherspoon as a producer appears to be working very hard to change the gender bias status quo in Hollywood. “She’s someone who has reached a certain age and she sees what is going on and she sees that the way she can affect it is by buying properties that star women and getting those films produced with big budgets. And because she’s Reese Witherspoon, she can push them through.”
Speaking of age, there is a dramatic difference in the ages of Best Actor vs. Best Actress winners. Adrian Brody is the youngest actor to win the top lead actor prize, for “The Pianist” when he was 29. But there are more than a dozen actresses who have won the award before they were 30, sometimes (like in Swank’s case) more than once. According to Sweeney’s examination, the average age of a male Best Actor winner is 43, and the average age of a Best Actress winner is 31 – a difference that appears to show how closely ageism and sexism are intertwined in Hollywood.
There are some exceptions to the narrative that female actors don’t often command higher earnings after an Oscar win. Jennifer Lawrence, a three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner – for last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” – ranked behind Angelina Jolie (also an Oscar winner) as the second-highest-paid actress in Hollywood on Forbes’ 2013 list. Still, her earnings are lower than any of the top 10 highest-paid male actors on Forbes’ list.
And Pomerantz argues that Lawrence’s leverage and power as an actor have less to do with her Oscar success than with her box-office success.
“Jennifer Lawrence isn’t in demand because of ‘Winter’s Bone’ or ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ or ‘American Hustle,’ as great as she was in all of those films. She’s in demand because of ‘The Hunger Games,’” which is a hugely successful movie franchise, Pomertanz said. “That’s Hollywood’s bottom line, that’s what they are looking for. Can you bring in an audience; can you be the magical formula that makes my movie make a lot of money?”
Susman concurred that it’s more about the green than the gold. “Getting nominated for an Oscar and even winning an Oscar are not any kind of guarantees of box-office success… That’s what really drives salaries.”
Salaries aside, analytics consultant Amelia Showalter found a significant gender disparity among Best Picture nominees and winners when she mined the historical data of the Academy Awards. Comparing the proportion of actor vs. actress nominees each year who were nominated for performances in films that also received a Best Picture nomination, Showalter’s data exposed a much higher proportion of male-dominated films (measured by the proportion of the film’s male vs. female actors who were also nominated for the top prize) that were nominated for or won Best Picture throughout Academy history -- suggesting, Showalter wrote for Newsweek, that “our whole definition of great film is [perhaps] itself gender-biased.
“Out of all the Best Picture nominees with multiple nominated actors (but zero nominated actresses), 44 percent ended up winning the big prize,” Showalter wrote. “Only 7 percent of the Best Picture nominees with multiple nominated actresses (but no nominated actors) went on to win. That is worse than the 9 percent win rate for films with no acting nominations at all.”
Showalter conceded that the devaluation of female-driven stories is hardly the Academy’s problem alone, and the Academy’s problem may lie beyond its predominant composition of older white men. “It could be entirely possible that even if there were more women [in the Academy] that you could still have the same bias,” Showalter said in a phone interview. “Little girls grow up learning to devalue girly things, and little girls are more often asked to identify with male protagonists than boys are asked to identify with female protagonists.”
Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Best Picture and Best Director wins are sometimes offered as evidence that the Academy is ready to honor the work of female directors. But Showalter’s data puts that victory in a less celebratory light. “The Hurt Locker” is about a male-centric as they come, with only one, minor female character – William James’ put-upon wife, whom he leaves to join a second tour of duty after finding family life unstimulating. Bigelow’s follow-up wartime drama, “Zero Dark Thirty,” featured a female lead. It was nominated for five Academy Awards – Best Director not among them – and was awarded only one, in a tie for Best Sound Editing.
By this alone, we can’t conclude with any certainty that “The Hurt Locker” was awarded Academy accolades because of its characters’ masculinity and “Zero Dark Thirty” was nearly shut out because its protagonist was a woman; especially since Bigelow and “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter Mark Boal were criticized for appearing to endorse torture, and for what many saw as overprivileged access to government agencies. Still, it’s difficult not to suspect sexism as partially responsible when you compare the gender makeup of the two, equally critically acclaimed movies.
Similarly to Bigelow’s case, high-earning female actors are frequently referenced in arguments that Hollywood’s gender disparity in actor’s salaries might be overblown.
“People always like to point out that Julia Roberts makes a lot of money, or Angelina Jolie makes a lot of money,” Showalter said. “But it’s not about how much she is making; it’s about how much more she could have made.
On the one hand it may seem trivial to complain that Hollywood is shortchanging actresses who make millions of dollars a year. But given how much power and influence the film industry has, it makes sense to hold accountable those people who determine its worthiest cultural products.
“The Academy members aren’t the only sexist people out there; they just seem to be a bit more sexist than average,” Showalter said. “If being in an Oscar-winning film makes a difference” to an actor’s earning power, “then that benefit is predominantly going to men.”