If you’ve ever seen A Star is Born, either the 1954 or 1937 editions, you may remember the scene where a studio executive hears the name of young actress Esther Blodgett and says that the studio will “do something about that.”
In the real-world Hollywood, the stars and their handlers have had a similar attitude. So Bernard Schwartz and Issur Danielovitch became Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. Young Latina Margarita Cansino became Rita Hayworth. Lucille Le Sueur became Joan Crawford (can’t have a star named “le sewer,” after all), Archibald Leach became Cary Grant, and Frances Gumm became Judy Garland.
Occasionally an odd name would gain fame. One young actor grew into stardom only after years struggling in small roles that didn’t require a glitzy name. By the time he became a leading man, he had established himself in the public’s mind too firmly to change his name, which was the stuffy-sounding Humphrey Bogart.
And in recent decades, Hollywood has allowed more room for names that would have made the old moguls clutch their chests in horror. “Arnold Schwarzenegger”? Too long, too complicated, too ethnic. “Whoopi Goldberg”? Change it back to Caryn Johnson.
Nevertheless, some performers still change their names to something mass-friendly. Thomas Mapother IV became Tom Cruise, Natalie Hershlag is now Natalie Portman, and Carlos Estevez is Charlie Sheen.
Most of the top show-business professionals know all of the above. So you’d think that the entertainment industry — which focus-tests everything from movie endings to release dates — would have this naming business down to a science.
But despite a century of movie stars and more centuries of famous performers in live media, curiosities still pop up — not so much among the names that the stars have but the names that they don’t.
Movie stars generally have common names. For instance:
John (Travolta, Wayne, Barrymore, Belushi, Cusack)
Michael (Caine, Douglas, Keaton, J. Fox)
James (Franco, Cagney, Stewart, Dean)
Jennifer (Aniston, Lawrence, Lopez)
Jessica (Chastain, Alba, Lange)
Anna (Faris, Kendrick, Magnani)
Kate (Hudson, Winslet, Beckinsale).
But try to find stars named the equally common Joseph or Joe. You can find only a few — Joseph Cotten, comedian Joe E. Brown, indie star Joseph Gordon-Levitt — and none of them on the superstar level of the Johns or Jameses.
And what about Linda? It’s the fifth most common name among females over the last century, says the Social Security Administration. But the only female star with that name is Linda Hamilton, whose big-screen fame is more or less restricted to a couple of Terminator movies. Is the movie-going public boycotting Lindas for some reason?
And then there are last names.
Jones — #5 on the Census Bureau’s list of most common surnames — is understandably common among stars (Felicity, Tommy Lee, James Earl). Davis, #8 on the list, has also graced multiple leading performers (Bette, Geena, Viola).
But the top star surname may be Moore (Julianne, Demi, Dudley, Roger), even though it’s at only #19 on the list. And Keaton (Michael, Diane, Buster), nearly as popular, ranks at a lowly #3,657.
Most striking is the scarcity of Latino names among stars.
Nearly half of the 15 most common last names in America are Latino: Garcia (#6) and Rodriguez, Martinez, Hernandez, Lopez, and Gonzalez (#9 through #13). Hollywood has given Jennifer Lopez and a few (but only a few) other Latin stars the chance to see themselves billed first on screen. It seems likely that a big audience — of all colors — is ready to accept more.
So when we finally do get a superstar named Joe or Linda, don’t be surprised if the star’s last name is Garcia or Rodriguez.