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Hollywood Style

Settembre 2009
Con i loro nomi anagrafici, Virginia McMath e Frederic Austerlitz non sarebbero andati molto lontano. E così come Ginger e Fred, tanti miti di Hollywood hanno dovuto camuffare nomi strambi o poco orecchiabili.

di William Sutton

File audio:

Marilyn Monroe's handprints
Marilyn Monroe's handprints

Speaker: Chuck Rolando (Standard American accent)

In the golden age of Hollywood studios created personas for their stars. They chose names that sounded sexier, more American or simply memorable. These days actors are not owned by studios, but still make adjustments to the names they were born with. Why?


Frances Gumm sounds ordinary and boring, but Judy Garland is adorable. Virginia McMath doesn’t sound like a dancing sensation, but Ginger Rogers does (a child’s mispronunciation of Virginia, plus her stepfather’s surname). Lauren Bacall was a wonderful femme fatale, but would she have won Humphrey Bogart’s heart if she was still Betty Joan Perske? The sexiest improvement was surely from Norma Jeane Baker to Marilyn Monroe.
It works for men, too. Archibald Leach sounds like a tired old shopkeeper: Cary Grant is much more sophisticated. Thomas Cruise Mapother IV makes little impression, but we all know Tom Cruise.


Simplicity is crucial for all actors, from comedians to romantic stars. Stan Laurel, of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, sounds funnier than Arthur Stanley Jefferson. Maurice Micklewhite might be a great actor, but his iconic status is helped by the name Michael Caine. Camille Javal sounds interesting, but surely not as memorable as Brigitte Bardot.
Sometimes a small change does wonders. Jodie Foster, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep have a movie magic about them that Alicia Foster, Susan Weaver and Mary Louise Streep do not. Frank Cooper could not be the western hero that Gary Cooper became.
The stars of My Fair Lady both simplified their names: Reginald Harrison became the archetypal English gentleman, Rex Harrison; Edda van Heemstra Ruston disguised her European origins with the name Audrey Hepburn.


Many stars hope to hide ethnic origins – or just want their names to be easier to pronounce. The Graduate’s Anne Bancroft had to change from Anne Italiano. Alan Alda, from M*A*S*H, created his surname from the initial letters of his real name, Alphonso D’Abruzzo. Would comedy partners Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin have been as popular as Joseph Levitch and Dino Crocetti?
Al Jolson sounds more American than Asa Yoelson. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks are easier to recognise than Allen Konigsberg and Mel Kaminsky. Walter Matthau is memorable, but would you remember Walter Matasschanskayasky? Doris Kappelhoff lacks the girl-next-door magic of Doris Day.
Frederic Austerlitz hid his German roots by becoming Fred Astaire. Issur Demsky’s Russian family turned him into heroic Kirk Douglas. Charles Buchinsky sounds tougher as Charles Bronson, while Martin Sheen won star roles by changing from Ramón Estevez. English actor William Pratt is the exception. He became screen legend Boris Karloff: a middle European name, perfect for horror movies.


Some try to avoid accusations of nepotism. Emilio Estevez chose his father’s real surname, while brother Charlie Sheen kept the screen name. Would Nicolas Cage have succeeded sooner if he had still been Nicholas Coppola, nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola?
Others changed embarrassing names: Marion Morrison, a woman’s name, was no good for the epitome of masculinity, John Wayne.
The strangest story is that of Yul Brynner. He often claimed he was Taidje Khan, of Mongolian-Japanese origins, but his name was really Yul Brynner and his parents Russian.

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personas - personaggi.

are not owned - non sono proprietà.

make adjustments - modificano.

her stepfather’s surname - il cognome del suo patrigno.

improvement - miglioramento.

sounds like a tired old shopkeeper - sembra un vecchio negoziante stanco.

comedians - comici.

does wonders - fa meraviglie.

disguised - camuffò.

lacks the girl-next-door magic - non ha il fascino della ragazza della porta accanto.

hid his German roots - nascose le sue origni tedesche.

tougher - più aggressivo.

won star roles - si è aggiudicato ruoli da star.

screen legend - leggenda del cinema.