Gender equality may be the hot topic at Hollywood red carpets and press conferences but Claire Foy’s pay on “The Crown” demonstrates that, beyond the rhetoric, progress remains painfully slow.
Producers admitted this week that Matt Smith, Prince Philip on the hit Netflix drama, had negotiated a better deal than Foy — the star of the show as Queen Elizabeth II — because of his perceived higher profile.
They did not reveal either salary but said Smith’s 2010-2013 starring role on the BBC’s “Doctor Who” had been the decisive factor.
Variety magazine last year put Foy’s pay at $40,000 an episode.
The revelation made headlines around the world but can hardly have been a surprise to anyone following the rankings of Hollywood’s highest paid actors, tabulated annually by Forbes magazine.
Emma Stone placed top of the female earnings list last year, but the inconvenient truth for progressive Hollywood is that she would have ranked a paltry 15th had the chart included men.
Treatment of women in show business has been in the spotlight since the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal last year touched off a deluge of allegations that brought down powerful men in public life.
Companies, government agencies and even the US federal court system have been forced to re-evaluate sexual harassment policies, while bosses have been confronted with the unfairness of actresses’ pay.
– ‘Change-making’ –
One corollary of a painful period of soul-searching has been the lifting of the taboo against discussing pay in public. Stories of unfairness have begun to surface with increasing regularity.
“You were not supposed to talk about salary, which is why all these conversations about pay equity in Hollywood are so refreshing, because it’s not something that was shared,” says Melissa Silverstein, founder of the Women and Hollywood website.
Oscar-nominated “All the Money in the World” hit the headlines in January when Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams were called back to reshoot scenes expunging Kevin Spacey, who was sacked over allegations of sexual abuse.
It emerged that Williams had been paid less than $1,000 for the extra work while Wahlberg got $1.5 million, a bonus he ended up giving away to the Time’s Up women’s movement as the furore blew up.
While Wahlberg’s gesture was considered noble and generous, pundits objected that it didn’t address the inherent unfairness.
Silverstein told AFP, however, that the simple fact that people were beginning to notice and talk about the issue was “change-making.”
“To understand why it’s so exciting and revolutionary that people are actually sharing salaries now is because it pierces the silence,” she said.
Television has traditionally boasted a more progressive approach to pay, in no small part thanks to the stars of hit 1990s sit-com “Friends,” who set the standard by negotiating as a team for the same salaries.
– ‘Game of chicken’ –
The lead cast of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Game of Thrones” followed suit and all earn the same — estimated at a shade under $1 million an episode for the sit-com and $500,000 for “Thrones.”
“Gray’s Anatomy” heroine Ellen Pompeo also got in on the act when she renegotiated her contract to boost her pay to $20 million a year, or $575,000 per episode.
A star’s value to Hollywood, says Silverstein, is determined not by his or her talent or even commercial potential but by what is known as their “quotes” — whatever amount of money they earned on their last project.
Foy, 33, was already making a name for herself in British costume drama, with roles in “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Wolf Hall,” when she was tapped to play the queen but her star profile was slightly lower than Smith’s.
Critics argued on Twitter that the pay discrepancy should only have shown up in the first season, before Foy was garlanded with awards and acclaim.
“This is how TV works. People who are getting a break and don’t have quotes make less than people who do,” Judd Apatow, the veteran filmmaker behind more than 40 movies, tweeted in reaction to the Foy story.
He described pay negotiations as “a scary game of chicken” and said Foy’s pay would have been determined by “her willingness to walk away if the rate offered is not acceptable to her.”
“It is usually not about gender. It is often illogical,” the veteran producer of “The Big Sick,” “Trainwreck” and “Bridesmaids” added.
“She should have gotten that raise for (the) second season, for sure. They always make you fight an ugly battle for it.”