It is a truth universally acknowledged that a male actor in Hollywood in the ripe stages of mid-life, is paid significantly better than his female colleagues.
This was vividly illustrated by the Wahlberg/Williams controversy last year. The entire cast of All The Money In The World had to participate in a reshoot following the urgent need to replace Kevin Spacey. Michelle Williams was paid $1000, whilst Mark Wahlberg was receiving an extra $1.5 million, a fact unknown to Williams. The backlash ensuing from the expose forced Wahlberg to donate his extra earnings but failed to get Williams better pay.
The story is only one example of the gender pay gap in Hollywood. Spectators tried to attribute many reasons to the mind-blowing disparity. Although both actors were represented by the same agency, they had different agents. Wahlberg’s agents were well-known for being tough negotiators that pushed for higher pay, whereas Williams’ agent seemed to have taken a much softer approach in anticipation of an awards show nomination.
There are wider trends that permeate the entire industry. Between 2016 and 2017, Wahlberg was the highest paid actor in the world, with earnings of $68 million. Whereas the top female earner, Emma Stone, only made less than half of that, $26 million. Nineteen male stars earned $15 million or more whereas only five women managed to do so. The pay gap can be attributed to the dominance of blockbusters and paucity of opportunities for older women. Wahlberg topped the list thanks to soaring fees for films including Daddy’s Home 2 and Transformers: The Last Knight, according to Forbes. Natalie Robehmed, Forbes associate editor, said: “This pay disparity comes down to roles: in release schedules dominated by superhero movies and brawny blockbusters, there are simply fewer parts for women that pay the sizeable backend profits that result in leading men’s large paydays, or the franchise sequels that permit aggressive negotiation for favourable deals”.
According to a 2016 study, women comprise just 28.7% of all speaking roles in movies and only a quarter of roles for characters are over the age of 40 – an example of ageism and lack of opportunity that Hollywood’s leading men simply do not face. “Until there are an equal number of high-paying roles, there will continue to be an inequality in the pay checks of Tinseltown’s very richest.”
A study by Time magazine revealed that earlier in their careers, women receive more roles than men. That trend reverses sharply after age 30 as men continue to receive an increasing number of roles while women receive fewer and fewer. It seems that women are rather like exotic sports cars which depreciate the moment they are first sold; whereas men are more like vintage cars whose value appreciates as time goes by.
However the situation is not so bleak. The push for gender pay equality gained momentum following the aforementioned Wahlberg/Williams scandal, and industry leaders are making increased efforts to treat actors fairly.
Most relevant to this article, there are an increased amount of complex roles available for older women as evident in recent films. The acclaimed film, The Favourite, which took home several BAFTAs, featured three women in its leading roles, two of them over 40, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman. Colman has just won Best Actress at the Oscars. She is an example of someone beating this trend as her career has only been on an upward trajectory since she entered her 30s. Glenn Close and Meryl Streep are further examples of female actors continuing to deliver stunning performances for very complex roles. However, the abundance of offers for roles has not necessarily translated into higher pay. This is mostly due to the fact these films often have mid-level budgets.
It is in the nature of blockbusters to have strong male leads. This in turn, means that these blockbusters are the same films that can afford to pay actors millions. The two issues are intertwined at their very foundations.
However, within these confines, female actors can still negotiate for more screen time and equal pay with their male colleagues. A push for transparency can also greatly aid this process as Hollywood is notorious for backdoor negotiations and actresses tend to find out about the scale of inequalities from the paper rather than from their producers.
Pushing for more dominant roles for women and roles in blockbuster franchises is vital if we seek to close the gender pay gap. It is only when women dominate the screen that they can tilt the balance of power.