Kathy Griffin was an unknown comedic actress when she landed her breakout role on NBC’s 1996 sitcom “Suddenly Susan.” But three seasons in, she discovered a sobering truth after grilling her co-stars about their wages. “I had the second-lowest salary on the cast,” she says. “Judd Nelson made four times what I made, and he ended up getting fired.” When her agents balked at securing her a pay hike, she marched up to the office of Warner Bros. TV chief Peter Roth to demand a raise. “It was an all-out brawl,” says Griffin, who wrote down a number on a napkin and slid it over to Roth, channeling a used-car salesman. “I got a raise,” she says. “I still didn’t make equal to what the guys were making.”

Photograph by Adam Voorhes; Prop Styling by Robin Finlay

A decade later, she stormed up to another executive suite: this time with her two Emmys in tow, as proof of her credentials, in a meeting with former NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman. “Can I have a raise now?” she recalls asking, for her starring part on the hit Bravo reality series “My Life on the D-List.” “I’ve been doing this shit on my own forever,” says Griffin, 55. “I’ve never been paid what the guys get. Ever. It’s not getting better for me.”

Pay disparity for actresses in both TV and film has become a hot-button issue in the entertainment business. Although a familiar tale in Hollywood, dating back to Bette Davis’ clashes with Jack Warner over her contract at Warner Bros., a code of silence had long kept actresses from venting publicly. That all changed this year. Patricia Arquette used her Oscar speech to stump for equal pay for women everywhere. Jennifer Lawrence recently set the blogosphere ablaze with an essay indicting a system that allowed her male co-stars on Sony Pictures’ comedy “American Hustle” to earn more for their work on the film than she did.

At the American Cinematheque Awards in late October, Reese Witherspoon delivered a political speech aimed at Hollywood. “Women make up 50% of the population, and we should be playing 50% of the roles on the screen,” she said. And Jessica Chastain has said in interviews she made “less than a quarter” of what the press reported as her salary on “The Martian.”

According to the latest list by Forbes, the 10 highest-paid movie actors in 2015, led by Robert Downey Jr. ($80 million), made $431 million. But the 10 highest-paid movie actresses, led by Lawrence ($52 million), mustered only about half that sum — $218 million. For top stars, TV is somewhat more equitable. Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco of “The Big Bang Theory,” along with Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family,” each made in the $28 to $29 million range this year, as the top earners in their field.

“It’s ridiculous in 2015 that we’re still having to have these conversations,” says Paul Feig, the director of “Bridesmaids” and “Spy,” who believes women will start to receive equal paychecks if there’s a supply of better roles for them. “I don’t know how we got so behind-the-times in a town that fancies itself on being so liberal and forward thinking.”

“Once we start shifting how we perceive women, the pay disparity will take care of itself. I’m glad Hollywood got caught.”
Sandra Bullock
Photograph by Adam Voorhes; Prop Styling by Robin Finlay

For those who aren’t celebrities, the scarcity of jobs in the industry drives women in Hollywood to take whatever offers come their way. Female directors in television worked on only 16% of the 3,900 episodes produced last season, according to the Directors Guild of America. That’s still an improvement over the movies, where women made just 7% of the top-grossing 250 films last year, prompting New York magazine to stitch together a list of the 100 female directors the studios should be hiring — including Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand, neither of whom have made a film in the past decade.

“People with more experience are paid more,” says Nancy Dubuc, president-CEO of A+E Networks. “The problem is that the industry continues to give a disproportionate number of men the opportunity to gain that experience, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that men earn more than women.”

Many are starting to gripe that there is no economic justification for the pay gap, given the box office successes this year of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Spy,” “Trainwreck,” “Cinderella” and “Pitch Perfect 2,” all buoyed by female audiences. “There’s a long held-belief that movies with male stars perform better at the box office,” says Cathy Schulman, the president of Women in Film. “I don’t believe that’s true.”

Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, has taken notice. “Audiences have proven that there’s an appetite and a market for dynamic female leads and female-driven stories, and as an industry, we have a responsibility to create those roles for women and compensate them accordingly,” he says. In the past few years, Disney has bolstered its lineup of films headlined by women, offering Angelina Jolie one of the biggest paychecks of her career for “Maleficent” (which grossed $758 million worldwide), and casting Cate Blanchett as the evil stepmother in “Cinderella” and Emma Watson in the upcoming “Beauty and the Beast.” On “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Scarlett Johansson’s deal landed her pay equal to that of male co-stars Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.

The battle for wage equality is emblematic of a larger problem in the workforce. Across the country last year, women with full-time jobs made 79¢ for every dollar men were paid, a statistic that has steadily risen since 1974, when it was at 59¢.

WIDE APPEAL: Female-led films like the “Hunger Games” franchise, far left, “Pitch Perfect 2,” left, and “Maleficent,” below middle, have minted big box office; Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow is among the few female characters in megabudget series “The Avengers.”

“It’s a bigger issue than money; that’s just a byproduct,” says Sandra Bullock, who argues that the media has long held a bias against actresses. “Down the red carpet, I’m going to be asked about my dress and my hair, while the man standing next to me will be asked about his performance and political issues,” Bullock says. “Once we start shifting how we perceive women, the pay disparity will take care of itself. I’m glad that Hollywood got caught,” she adds, alluding to the Sony hack that brought the truth of Lawrence’s salary into the spotlight.

But the situation is complicated, because some say this isn’t the ideal moment to be knocking on Hollywood’s door with salary demands. The calls for better pay for women come at a time when the studios are tightening their belts across the board as a result of the crash of the DVD market and fewer star-driven vehicles. “We make the best deals we can based on quotes and their market value,” says Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley, echoing a sentiment from Sony Pictures former co-chair Amy Pascal following the leak of Lawrence’s salary. Said Pascal: “The truth is, what women have to do is not work for less money. They have to walk away.”

As a result of a newly energized feminist movement, top actresses have now joined a metaphorical picket line, taking the industry to task for treating women as second-class citizens. Rooney Mara, the star of “Carol” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” revealed to the Guardian that she’d sometimes earned half the salary of the men in her films. Amanda Seyfried told the Sunday Times that she learned her pay was much lower — only a 10th of what male actors had pocketed on a recent studio film. Sienna Miller dished to Vogue that even for a Broadway play, a producer tried to get her to settle for less than half the salary of a male lead, which prompted her to bail on the production.

Recalling the wages she’s received throughout her career, Jacqueline Bisset says: “Oh, I was paid much, much less,” but adds: “I didn’t think about it. There’s just enormous inequality in the world. I think the business resents paying actors from the start. They resent paying women even more.”

Patricia Clarkson, who has headlined dozens of indies, says that income disparity isn’t just a problem on tentpoles. “It is a rare moment for women to be the highest paid in any level film,” she says. “There have been a few occasions that I’ve been the highest earner on a film. Seriously, I called my mother and we danced around the room. More often than not, it’s women who give up their salary or their points or make a compromise on small films.”

Toni Collette, who headlines the drama “Miss You Already,” puts it more bluntly: “It’s a fucking sexist industry,” she says. “I don’t understand why genitalia makes a difference. Creativity is creativity.”

In Diane Keaton’s memoir “Then Again,” the Oscar-winning actress reveals she didn’t get a back-end for Nancy Meyers’ 2003 comedy “Something’s Gotta Give,” a shocking revelation since she was the star. But Jack Nicholson did receive one, despite a smaller role, and sent her part of his check — to tip the scales back to where they belonged. Indeed, attitudes are changing, against the backdrop of Hillary Clinton as the presidential front-runner, and Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” campaign of female collaboration and empowerment. “Oftentimes women are so conditioned to undersell ourselves,” says producer Stacey Sher. “Sheryl’s research shows that the more successful women become, the less liked they become.”

“Down the red carpet, I’m going to be asked about my dress and my hair, while the man standing next to me will be asked about his performance and political issues.”

The pay gap in Hollywood is part of a bigger problem that exists within the studio machine, and there’s no easy fix, according to insiders. Agents from WME, CAA and UTA declined to be interviewed on the record on the issue. Other experts who spoke to Variety described the common practice in the movie world of negotiating an actor’s salary based on their previous pay stubs. “We place a lot of attention on what the actor made on their last movie,” says John Logigian, who has worked on deals for 25 years for several studios and ICM Partners. “If female actors are not getting the high salaries of their male counterparts, they are handicapped in negotiations.”

By contrast, male actors are able to quickly build on their incomes, because blockbusters like “The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man” and “Superman” offer more opportunities for them as heroes and villains in megabudget movies. Women are less commonly hired for such tentpoles (for example, the lone female star in “The Avengers” is Johansson). As a result, female salaries remain stagnant, while their male counterparts see paychecks continue to climb. The studios don’t have an incentive to correct the disparity, sources say, because their No. 1 priority is to keep budgets down.

The system presents a Catch-22. Agents prioritize male clients because they rake in bigger bucks. The overseas box office also gives men priority status, where stars like Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Vin Diesel carry name recognition throughout Asia and Europe. “A lot of it is driven by the foreign market,” says Celine Rattray, who runs New York-based Maven Pictures, which develops projects headlined by female characters. “We have foreign sales agents saying to us, can we make three of the five lead roles male? They think the numbers will go up. Actors have more value than actresses.” On the indie drama “The Kids Are All Right,” where it was impossible to ask that the characters be changed to men, financiers had a different request. “We had a quite a few people saying, ‘What if you made it a bunch of lesbians in their 20s, not in their 40s?’ ” Rattray recalls.

Over time, actresses have been conditioned to ask for less. Though Lawrence became a global superstar, she didn’t demand compensation similar to that of her male colleagues on “American Hustle” because she was worried about how others would view it. “If I’m honest with myself,” Lawrence wrote in her essay, “I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ ”

BLOCK-BUSTED: After megahit “Twilight,” Catherine Hardwicke took a pay cut on her next pic.

There are similar stories throughout Hollywood. After directing the 2008 worldwide blockbuster “Twilight,” Catherine Hardwicke agreed to a 57% pay cut on her next film, Warner Bros.’ 2011 “Red Riding Hood,” to get the project off the ground after the studio downsized the budget to $40 million from $75 million, the director revealed to Variety. “There were possibly other ways the problem could have been solved,” Hardwicke says. “They will tell you other people cut their salaries. I don’t know. I don’t have the paychecks of the other guys working for Warner Bros. at the time.”

Geena Davis, the Oscar-winning actress who runs an institute on gender in media, hopes Lawrence’s essay props open a door for other young actresses — and women everywhere — to ask for more with no apologies. She recalls the first time she saw the value of being direct, when she met with Susan Sarandon and Ridley Scott for 1991’s “Thelma and Louise.” “I came into the meeting thinking I could ask for only a certain number of things,” Davis says. “I didn’t want to seem pushy. And then I met Susan, and I’m pretty sure on page one she had a line she wanted to cut, and she just said it. I was like, ‘Wow, people can really talk like that? Women can really talk like that?’ It was a window being thrown open. It was a different way to live.”

Now, more and more women are starting to take that approach — and finding that settling for less settles nothing.

Brent Lang and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.