Posted by: judyweightman | May 10, 2015

Which women sell movie tickets?

I’m currently working on a piece about Shirley Temple, who is famous for her box-office dominance in the 1930s: she was the top-earning star in Hollywood for four years running, 1935 through 1938. This, naturally, got me wondering about top-earning stars. The full list, with the top ten earners for each year 1932 through 2013, can be found here. Instead of scrolling up and down that list, I pulled out just the #1s:

box office

2013: Jennifer Lawrence

2012: Denzel Washington

Jennifer Lawrence in

Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (Photo by Murray Close – © 2013 – Lionsgate)

2011: Brad Pitt

2010: Johnny Depp

2009: Sandra Bullock

2008: Will Smith

2007: Johnny Depp

2006: Johnny Depp

2005: Tom Cruise

2004: Tom Hanks

2003: Jim Carrey

2002: Tom Hanks

2001: Tom Cruise

Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in

Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in “The Blind Side.”

2000: Tom Cruise

1999: Julia Roberts

1998: Tom Hanks

1997: Harrison Ford

1996: Tom Cruise/Mel Gibson (tie)

1995: Tom Hanks

1994: Tom Hanks

1993: Clint Eastwood

1992: Tom Cruise

1991: Kevin Costner

1990: Arnold Schwarzenegger

1989: Jack Nicholson

1988: Tom Cruise

1987: Eddie Murphy

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in “Runaway Bride.” (© 1999 Touchstone Pictures)

1986: Tom Cruise

1985: Sylvester Stallone

1984: Clint Eastwood

1983: Clint Eastwood

1982: Burt Reynolds

1981: Burt Reynolds

1980: Burt Reynolds

1979: Burt Reynolds

1978: Burt Reynolds

1977: Sylvester Stallone

1976: Robert Redford

1975: Robert Redford

1974: Robert Redford

1973: Clint Eastwood

1972: Clint Eastwood

1971: John Wayne

1970: Paul Newman

1969: Paul Newman

1968: Sidney Poitier

1967: Julie Andrews

1966: Julie Andrews

1965: Sean Connery


Doris Day in a 1960 publicity shot.

1964: Doris Day

1963: Doris Day

1962: Doris Day

1961: Elizabeth Taylor

1960: Doris Day

1959: Rock Hudson

1958: Glenn Ford

1957: Rock Hudson

1956: William Holden

1955: James Stewart

1954: John Wayne

1953: Gary Cooper

1952: Martin and Lewis

1951: John Wayne

1950: John Wayne

1949: Bob Hope

1948: Bing Crosby

1947: Bing Crosby

1946: Bing Crosby

1945: Bing Crosby

Shirley Temple in

Shirley Temple in “Glad Rags to Riches.”

1944: Bing Crosby

1943: Betty Grable

1942: Abbott and Costello

1941: Mickey Rooney

1940: Mickey Rooney

1939: Mickey Rooney

1938: Shirley Temple

1937: Shirley Temple

1936: Shirley Temple

1935: Shirley Temple

1934: Will Rogers

1933: Marie Dressler

1932: Marie Dressler

As a lifelong movie-lover of the boomer persuasion, I was intrigued by how evocative the list is, imparting a sense of traveling backward through pop cultural time. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise — Jack Nicholson? Oh right, Batman — and yup, Burt Reynolds owned the late ’70s and early ’80s.

One surprise: William Holden, an actor I like but don’t think of as a money-making star. His spot in 1956 is apparently due to Picnic, which grossed $6.3 million, though it doesn’t appear on top-grossing film lists for either 1955 (its official release year) or 1956 (when it went into general release).

Specifically, though, I was looking for context and comparisons for Shirley’s late ’30s run. She dropped to #5 in 1939, and was off the list in 1940. She was succeeded by another kid, Mickey Rooney, for a three-year reign from 1939 to 1941. (His costar, my namesake Judy Garland, was #10 on the list in 1940 and 1941 — taking Shirley’s place?) No minor has taken the top spot since.

Women are not exactly over-represented either. Let’s look at the women on the list:

2013: Jennifer Lawrence

2009: Sandra Bullock

1999: Julia Roberts

1967: Julie Andrews

1966: Julie Andrews

1964: Doris Day

Marie Dressler in 1909.

Marie Dressler in 1909.

1963: Doris Day

1962: Doris Day

1961: Elizabeth Taylor

1960: Doris Day

1943: Betty Grable

1938: Shirley Temple

1937: Shirley Temple

1936: Shirley Temple

1935: Shirley Temple

1933: Marie Dressler

1932: Marie Dressler

Doris Day is the only woman to match Shirley’s four-year record, but hers weren’t consecutive, since Elizabeth Taylor broke in in 1961. The two of them, plus Julie Andrews, ruled the early ’60s, taking every year but one (1965, when Thunderball gave Sean Connery the top spot) between 1960 and 1967.

Of course, that did it for women for more than 30 years — the next to top the list was Julia Roberts in 1999.

And of course the women who topped the list were, with the exception of Taylor, wholesome as hell. From oldest to most recent:

Marie Dressler played comic dowagers (most famously as counterpoint to Jean Harlow in 1933’s Dinner at Eight): Wikipedia describes her as a “robust, full-bodied woman of very plain features.” Shirley Temple was underage, so let’s just accept her as asexual, as she was perceived in those days. (To the postmodern eye, of course, her penchant for showing off her undies and smooching grown men is a little more troubling.)

Betty Grable in her trademark pose.

Betty Grable, with her million-dollar legs, was the most famous pinup of World War II, but her film roles emphasized her girl-next-door persona — she was the woman GIs hoped might be waiting for them at home, not some floozy.

Doris Day, of course, made a career of playing virginal women, dominating the last few years before the sexual revolution by teasing wolfish roués, most famously those played by Rock Hudson. (Given that he turned out to be gay, it’s clear that her virtue was never in any danger.) Times and movies changed, but Day didn’t: she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate as “vulgar and offensive.”

Julie Andrews goes risque in “Darling Lili.”

Julie Andrews, by contrast, struggled to ditch her wholesome persona. The first effort came in 1970’s Darling Lili, in which she played a German spy; that unsuccessful effort was satirized in 1981’s S.O.B.. Both movies were directed by Andrews’s then-husband, Blake Edwards. Neither film was particularly successful.

Julia Roberts played a hooker, albeit a very wholesome hooker, in Pretty Woman, but her box office clout was due to her rom coms. Notting Hill, which paired her with Hugh Grant, and Runaway Bride, which paired her with Richard Gere, both came out in 1999, sending her to the top of the box office list that year.

Sandra Bullock took the top spot in 2009, when she played the ultimate Good Mother in The Blind Side, and Jennifer Lawrence in 2013 for her role as the kick-ass Katniss in the second Hunger Games film — two different warrior women characters.

Which leaves us with butterfield 8Elizabeth Taylor, who played the highly sexual Gloria in BUtterfield 8 to take the top spot in 1961. She wasn’t actually a call girl (despite the phone number of the film’s title), but a woman whose ex-lovers are numerous enough to meet in Yankee Stadium, as one of them says. (Needless to say, given that the Hays Code was still in effect when the movie was made, Gloria got her just desserts, dying at the end of the movie.)

Women, even in Hollywood, are paid less than men, and the American public doesn’t want to see women owning their sexuality on the big screen? Imagine my astonishment.

Note: My review of John F. Kasson’s Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America, which is the book that sparked my preoccupation with Temple, can be found here.


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