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The Latest Hollywood Pay-Disparity Story Is Just Ridiculous

Natalie Portman is saying Ashton Kutcher was paid three times more than she was on 2011’s No Strings Attached. No, you have not been Punk’d.
Natalie Portman did not find Ashton Kutcher’s higher pay on their 2011 film No Strings Attached very charming in real life.

Natalie Portman did not find Ashton Kutcher’s higher pay on their 2011 film No Strings Attached very charming in real life.

In the last few years, several of the film industry’s most lucrative, popular, and laureled female stars have gone public with stories of being paid less than their male colleagues—Jennifer Lawrence, Viola Davis, and Meryl Streep among them. But even as the film industry’s failure on equal pay has become a popular media talking point, a new claim from Natalie Portman in the latest issue of Marie Claire U.K. takes the pattern beyond the point of absurdity: According to Portman, Kutcher was paid three times as much as she was on 2011’s No Strings Attached, one year after she appeared in a movie that won her a Best Actress Oscar, Black Swan,and he did… Valentine’s Day.

It’s like an episode of Punk’d where Ashton Kutcher isn’t in on the joke: According to Portman, the pay disparity can be chalked up to Kutcher’s higher initial asking price. “I knew and I went along with it because there’s this thing with ‘quotes’ in Hollywood,” she said. “His [quote] was three times higher than mine, so they said he should get three times more.” That quote must not have been based on box office results: According to Box Office Mojo, the most lucrative movie Kutcher has ever starred in was 2003’s Cheaper By the Dozen ($190 million), followed by 2010’s Valentine’s Day ($118 million), and 2006’s Open Season ($110 million). Portman, as you may recall, had starring roles in immensely lucrative 1999–2005 Star Wars prequels and 2011’s first Thor movie: Her top three films grossed $768 million, $504 million, and $455 million, respectively.

Researchers have pointed out that the arts’ reputation for being a socially conscious, liberal industry does not extend to equal pay: Last year, researchers surveying nearly 34,000 arts professionals found that wage inequality was, in their words, “comparable for artists and non-artists.”

But Portman’s claims, if substantiated, also highlight that, in Hollywood, seniority—a rarer descriptor for an actress in a blockbuster than for an actor, and a mark of true stardom—comes with a special penalty for women. In 2014, researchers from universities in the United States and Singapore found that, although male and female movies stars begin their careers with similar salaries, women’s salaries fell dramatically after they were 34; for men, average earnings per film were highest when they were 51, and did not decrease after that point.

In the Marie Claire U.K. interview, Portman, like Jennifer Lawrence before her, in part blamed herself for not making a bigger deal out of the disparity. “I wasn’t as pissed as I should have been. I mean, we get paid a lot, so it’s hard to complain, but the disparity is crazy.” Now, though, it’s the studio—Paramount Pictures—that should be kicking itself, if her words turn out to be true. This year, Portman is again gaining Oscar attention for her starring role in Jackie—a melancholy, woman-centered biopic that, to quote Forbes’ Scott Mendelson, has been doing “superb” at the box office.