What Forbes’ Highest Paid Actresses List Tells Us About Hollywood in 2015


It’s the most wonderful time of the year: when a handful of raw data about the movie industry’s A-list gives us a peek into the current state of moving pictures. After dropping its list of the world’s highest-paid actors earlier this month, Forbes has released its corresponding ranking of actresses. Jennifer Lawrence unsurprisingly tops the list at $52 million, but beyond that, what do the hard numbers tell us about a year that’s seen more discussion of sexism in Hollywood than ever? Here are the major takeaways:

1. The highest-paid women still make less than the highest-paid men, but the glass ceiling is rising. Lawrence may have outstripped #2 earner Scarlet Johansson ($35.5 million) by more than $16 million, but Robert Downey Jr., now in his third year atop Forbes’ list, raked in a whopping $80 million — and Johansson brought in less than not just Downey Jr., but also male peers like Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Tom Cruise, and Adam Sandler. (Adam Sandler!) In addition, the mean earnings for the ten highest-paid women work out to $20.8 million each; for the men, it’s $43.1 million.

The silver lining? Female stars at the very, very top are earning noticeably more than in previous years. Last year, Sandra Bullock led the pack with $51 million, slightly less than Lawrence in 2015 but noticeably more than Angelina Jolie in 2013 ($33 million), Kristen Stewart in 2012 ($34.5 million), or Angelina Jolie once again in 2011 ($30 million). It’s a rising tide that’s not quite lifting all boats — the floor for the top ten has remained steady at about $10-$12 million for the last four years — but peak pay for actresses is still increasing much more quickly than that for actors, which has remained steady at about $75-$80 million in the last half decade. So, why is this?

2. Franchises rule (and so does Paul Feig). It’s tempting to attribute Lawrence’s noticeable pay upgrade to the transparency surrounding gendered differences in pay enabled by this year’s Sony hacks, The Daily Beast’s Teo Bugbee pointed out in June that her attachment to the massively profitable Hunger Games gives her far more negotiating power. As for Johansson, she’s part of the same Marvel mega-franchise that launched Downey to the top, though she has yet to star in a standalone film. And then there’s Stewart, who’s been a list regular since her Twilight days. Combined with strong showings from Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man), Natalie Portman (Thor) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron-Man) in recent years, the action franchise is slowly supplanting the romantic comedy as a bankable source of big paychecks — though maybe not for long, if the superhero bubble bursts.

But while franchises as a whole have had the biggest impact on actress pay, there’s no single director with an influence as obvious as Paul Feig. Melissa McCarthy took the #3 spot this year thanks to early summer hit Spy, earning $23 million; between Kristin Wiig in 2012 (for Bridesmaids) and Sandra Bullock in both 2013 and 2014 (for The Heat, a late-summer release that would have factored in to both years’ rankings including back-end points), Feig has directly contributed to the Forbes list for four years running. Wiig and/or McCarthy will presumably make another appearance in 2016 for Ghostbusters.

3. The actresses list is much less international — and much whiter — than the actors list. China’s Fan Bingbing came it at #4 this year with $21 million in earnings, but she’s the only international actress in the top 18. Depressingly, she’s also the only actress of color. Compare that to the actors’ top 18, which includes four international stars — Jackie Chan, Salman Khan, and Amitabh Bachcan, and Akshay Kumar — plus Dwayne Johnson. The actors’ list is also longer, allowing for the inclusion of Will Smith, Chow Yun-Fat, Ranbir Kapoor, and Andy Lau. (Looping back to takeaway #1, Lau, the 33rd-highest-paid actor in the world, out-earns ninth-highest-paid actress Anne Hathaway, at $13 million vs. $12 million).

Unfortunately, even Fan’s placement represents an improvement for the actresses list. In 2014, none of the ten highest-paid actresses in the industry were women of color; ditto 2013, 2012, and — you guessed it! — 2011. In 2014, both Johnson and Smith made the actors’ top ten; 2013 saw Johnson and Denzel Washington on the list, 2012 Johnson and Smith again, 2011 just Smith. NB: 2015 is the first year Forbes has factored actors and actresses working primarily in international markets into their rankings, so previous years solely include those working in the domestic film industry.

4. Age matters. Like pay differentials and the unbearable whiteness of the A-list, this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Remember that Vulture infographic from a couple years ago? But it’s worth reiterating that top-earning actresses remain significantly younger than their male counterparts. 2015’s top ten leading ladies have an average age of 36; this year’s top ten men? 51. (To be fair, this is a year when 66-year-old Meryl Streep just barely missed the cutoff; at $8 million, she’s #13.) Last year, the actors were a tad younger, at 43, and the actresses older, at 37, but the difference was still noticeable.

So, there you have it: yet another rundown of how the movie industry is ageist, franchise-dominated, and overwhelmingly white. Happy summer viewing!