October 24, 2011

Greatest actors came of age in rising-crime times (data)

Having gone over the motivation last week, let's look at when great actors were born, and so what kind of world they came of age in. I'm using AFI's nominations for their 100 stars list, which includes 250 men and 250 women. I don't care who ranked where, just whether or not they made the nominations. They're all classical Hollywood stars, so no one is born after 1950. Perhaps they didn't want to take a stand on more recent actors, whose achievements may not be clear yet. It's also nice because it allows us to look at the pre-1950 history of America, something we're pretty blind to.

Here is the distribution of their birth years, smoothed using the average within a 5-year window around a particular year. The top shows men and women combined, the bottom with men in blue and women in red.

The production of future great actors takes off around 1880, peaking around 1918 after a 10-year plateau, and falls off after. There is however a brief upward blip around 1925.

In the last post, I'll discuss and interpret these patterns. For now, I'll just note the near absence of the Silent and Greatest Generations. Since roughly 60 years separates two similar points in the zeitgeist cycle, the actors born during the peak period in the early 20th C. correspond to Generation X from later on.


  1. By my rough estimate the Greatest Generation should be those born roughly from 1910 - 1925 which seems to overlap with a significant fraction of your peak. Especially when you throw in the fact that Greatest Generation members might well have missed out on a significant fraction of an acting career due to war efforts I'm not sure I can reach the same conclusion that you have.

    For that matter I wonder if the arbitrary cutoff in the sample hurts the Silent Generation.

  2. Greatest Generation I think of as the late 1910s through the mid-'20s, when the Silent Generation takes over.

    Kind of like Gen Y in recent times, too young to have spent more than a year or two of adolescence in the '80s / early '90s, but too old to have their memories restricted to falling-crime times like Millennials.

  3. The thing is that actors who came of age during "rising crime times" acted during "falling crime times." Cary Grant was born in 1904, but is famous for his films in the 30's, 40's and 50's. Ditto Henry Fonda (born 1904), Jimmy Stewart (1908), Spencer Tracy (1900), Katharine Hepburn (1907), and I suppose Humphrey Bogart would count too (1899). Sure, these actors probably sneaked in some movies in the 60's, maybe even 70's, but they became famous during the "falling crime times."

    Also, some of the best movies of the "rising crime times" had terrific leading men from the preceding era, such as Al Pacino (1940), Robert Duvall (1931), Jack Nicholson (1937) and Bill Murray (1950).

    So I don't see much of a relationship at work, for rising or falling crime rates in relation to acting in movies. Actors who came of age during supposedly "rising crime times" ended up acting in great movies in "falling crime times," whereas other actors who came of age during the more harmonious era acted in great movies during times of more criminality.

  4. You're leaving out the large number who were born before 1910 who starred in the silent and early sound era. Gary Cooper, Rudolph Valentino, basically all of the women. Hollywood was very young then.

    So, some from that generation became stars earlier and some later, but it was that cohort that dominated Hollywood more or less regardless of what period it was.

    And Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, etc. have little company. The Silent Generation didn't leave much of an impression during the '40s / '50s, when they were overshadowed by the Jimmy Stewarts and Cary Grants, nor during the '70s and '80s, when it was mostly Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers.

  5. agnostic, what do you think of this.

  6. Sounds like the result of our the trend toward super high-carb diets since circa 1980.

    Can't remember what the mechanism is, but I think I read that somewhere. Maybe it's the body needing a certain amount of calories before deciding that times are plentiful enough to start having kids. Or maybe it was specifically related to glucose and insulin... can't remember.

    But it's a general trend as we left hunter-gatherer living and adopted agriculture. Age at menarche for h-g's is just after 16, compared to 12 1/2 for Americans.


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