Mary Pickford was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s silent era, and rose to become one of the most powerful women in America’s film industry.
Born plain old Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto in 1892, Pickford became a child actress at the age of eight. After touring in theatres, she broke into films in 1909, and in that year alone, she appeared in over 50 films.
Her portrayal of innocent but feisty young women made her ‘America’s Sweetheart’. But there was nothing naive about Pickford’s business nous – she was a very smart businesswoman.
In 1914, she became America’s highest-paid actress when her salary hit $1,000 a week. And on this day in 1916, she signed a contract which guaranteed her an income of at least $1,040,000 over two years. In return for making six films, she would receive 50% of the profits, with a guaranteed minimum salary of $10,000, paid every Monday.
That’s the equivalent of $200,000 a week today, or $23m over the two years. But that still doesn’t stack up particularly well when compared with today’s stars. According to Forbes, Hollywood’s highest-paid actress in 2014 was Sandra Bullock, who earned £51m. The highest-paid actor was Robert Downey Jr, who bagged $75m.
Pickford’s new contract made her not only an actress, but a producer, too. And in 1919, she teamed up with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith to form the independent distribution company United Artists.
Like so many other silent film stars, she didn’t successfully make the move to talkies. But she carried on producing, and became the most powerful woman in Hollywood.
She was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and received two Oscars herself – for Best Actress in 1929, and an Honorary Award in 1975 “in recognition of her unique contributions to the film industry and the development of film as an artistic medium”.