Star wars: actors' strike divides Hollywood

A dispute over pay has brought the movie business to a standstill, and has pitted celebrities against one another

Jack Nicholson feels betrayed by Tom Hanks; Ben Stiller has fallen out with Sally Field; James Cromwell can't believe what Viggo Mortensen has been saying – and George Clooney wishes everyone could just be friends.

A mooted Hollywood actors' strike, which has already virtually shut down the film industry, is sparking civil war between stars of stage and screen, who are being forced to take sides in an increasingly-bitter conflict between their two rival trade unions.

On one side stands the 70,000-member American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), which boasts Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Morgan Fair-child and James Cromwell among its most vociferous supporters. On the other is the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which has been able to mobilise the likes of Jack Nicholson, Joely Fisher, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen and Ben Stiller from its 120,000-strong membership list.

The two organisations have fallen-out in a dispute over contract negotiations with the owners of the major film and television studios. AFTRA has already struck a deal in its pay talks, and is asking members to endorse the agreement next week. But SAG has called for AFTRA members to reject the package.

The dispute went public last week when both unions persuaded supporters to put their names to newspaper adverts criticising their rival organisation. Some of Hollywood's most famous faces are now on opposite sides of a personal and highly charged row.

"To have people at the level of Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson on opposite sides, one versus another, is a deplorable spectacle," Oscar nominee James Cromwell told The Independent on Sunday yesterday. "Two unions going at each other is never a pretty sight. And in a climate in this country which is already profoundly anti-union, it's also dangerous."

AFTRA supporter Cromwell is upset by what he sees as the underhand tactics of the opposition, criticising SAG's leadership for its "politicisation" of the pay negotiations. "You have, for example, Viggo Mort-ensen being persuaded to come out and criticise AFTRA. But h has been misinformed about the nature of our deal."

The row is causing a "virtual strike," as major Hollywood shoots are put on hold to avoid disruption until the threat of industrial action is lifted.

SAG's supporters want to secure rises in so-called "residual" payments for DVD sales and clips of films screened online. Anne-Marie Johnson, an actress and SAG negotiator, said: "In 2000, my mother became very ill. I had to stop work to spend eight months in hospital. And I relied on residuals to pay my bills. That's why these talks matter."

George Clooney is tackling the role of peacemaker. Last week, he released an open letter, urging both unions to settle their differences. "What we can't do is pit artist against artist. Because the one thing you can be sure of is that stories about Jack Nicholson versus Tom Hanks only strengthens the negotiating power of the major studios," it concluded.