Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What's in a Name?

Once upon a time, when I was writing press releases for New World Pictures, a sexy young thing who had just played the title role in a Roger Corman action flick asked me a jaw-dropping question. She wanted to know how to spell her name.

It was a stage name, of course, a little bit fancier than her plain-vanilla birth moniker. She knew how she wanted it pronounced, but the spelling part had her stumped. (No, I won’t identify her, but her performance as a topless kickboxer was really dynamite!)

Hollywood has always had a thing about names. In the old days, you couldn’t be groomed for stardom without being given a brand-new identity. Fox even auditioned cowboy actors to embody the heroic name they’d already chosen: Rex Bell. (It went to George Beldam, a hunky stuntman who later married Clara Bow.) Sometimes the studios were right. Frances Gumm just doesn’t have the ring of Judy Garland. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. is a mouthful: much better to become Fred Astaire. Still, I’ve never understood why Lucille LeSueur emerged as Joan Crawford. (Doesn’t the former name sound much more exotic and interesting?)

Some name changes, alas, were the studios’ way of concealing their stars’ ethnicity. Though most of the big moguls were themselves Jewish, they believed that the moviegoing public wouldn’t buy identifiably Jewish leading men and ladies. So Emanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson and Julius Garfinkle emerged as John Garfield. In a later generation, Betty Joan Perske was transformed into Lauren Bacall, and David Daniel Kaminski was shortened to Danny Kaye. The studio bosses can’t entirely be blamed; many Jewish actors instinctively changed their names in order win acceptance on American stages. But it’s quite true that Hollywood demanded that its stars come off as WASPs. When Danny Kaye was newly arrived in Hollywood, he was required to dye his red hair blonde for a more Anglo-Saxon look. And an attractive Spanish dancer, Margarita Carmen Cansino, was forced to change both her name and her hair color when Columbia Pictures decided to promote her from Latin spitfire to leading lady. She emerged as Rita Hayworth, and a star was born.

Norma Jeane Baker might have achieved stardom no matter what, but the yummy alliteration of the name Marilyn Monroe seems ever so much sexier. When I was growing up, male sex symbols, by contrast, were given hard, abrupt names. Remember Rock, and Troy, and Rick, and Tab? Brevity was supposed to sound macho, I guess. (Oh well . . .)

It was probably in the late Sixties when the Hollywood name game started to change. Gradually, it became acceptable to be more ethnic, and more of an individual. Barbra Streisand, who refused to change either her name or her nose, was part of an evolving pattern. How exciting when a lead actress could find success under the name Mary Steenburgen, or even Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. (Imagine that on the marquees of yore!)

Today I’m glad to say that (almost) anything goes. Actors can and do keep the names they were born with, and still have success in their careers. Look at Oscar nominees Jesse Eisenberg and Sacha Baron Cohen. Look at best supporting actress nominee Shohreh Agdashloo. And busy British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. (How you pronounce that is anyone’s guess.) A former classmate of my son, a lovely and talented young lady, is doing just fine in TV and film with the complicated name Megalyn Echikunwoke. Makes me feel a bit sorry for Michelle Williams, who had to rise above her all-too-generic name to be recognized for her talent alone.


  1. What a terrific post! Starting with that amazing story about _____ _______ (soul of discretion here) - and taking us through those halcyon days of Hollywood name changing! I did really enjoy the hard and abrupt names on those guys - as well as spoofs of them like Dash Riprock on The Beverly Hillbillies. Heck, even AIP got in on the act, making Peter Lupus use the name Rock Stevens for Muscle Beach Party - a moniker he used for some TV appearances and four more movies!

    I'm glad people get to keep their names these days - no matter how much trouble I have pronouncing them!

    And thanks for the shout out for my Dawson's Creek buddy Michelle Williams - who has enough talent to kick that plain jane name into the stratosphere - or onto the base of an Academy Award...

  2. Actually, I've always loved Peter Lupus' name. Seems as though he were born to play the lead in werewolf movies!