In the Golden Years of Hollywood, it was almost essential for any movie star to change their name—unless they happened to be born with an instantly cool name like Errol Flynn or Clark Gable. Even Janet Cole, who had a perfectly good name, had it changed to Kim Hunter. (It’s less of an issue in the past few decades, when actresses usually don’t choose to change their name, even if their surname is Bullock.) So if you’re a movie star, how do you choose your new name? Here are some tips.
1. Name yourself after one of your characters.
Dawn Paris presumably wasn’t a good name for an actress, so 16-year-old Dawn renamed herself Dawn O’Day. Perhaps realizing that this was no great improvement, she re-renamed herself after her first big movie role in 1934: Anne of Green Gables. To be exact, she named herself Anne Shirley, the same name as the title character—and kept the name for the rest of her career. Gig Young also named himself after his character in The Gay Sisters (1942), and Donna Lee Hickey renamed herself May Wynn after her character in The Caine Mutiny (1954). Please don’t try this if you ever get cast in a Hobbit movie.
2. Don’t be too obvious.
When Australian actress Louise Carbasse came to Hollywood, she was renamed “Louise Lovely.” She hated the name, and as you’ve probably never heard of her, it didn’t do her much good. Sure, rock stars can have names like Johnny Rotten and Alvin Stardust, but it just looks ridiculous if a film star chooses a name like Doris Beautiful or Jimmy Terrific or (if you want to win an Oscar) Al Pretty-amazing-actor. Subtlety works better. Frances Gumm, for example, was renamed Judy Garland – a name connected with flowers, but not one that’s too blatant.
3. If your first name isn’t so good, just use your middle name.
Terence McQueen had a name that made him sound like a Latin scholar, but as he wanted to be known as an all-American hero, he used his middle name: Steve. Ernestine Russell wanted something sexier, so she took her middle name: Jane. Eldred Peck wanted a name that sounded less like “Eldred,” so he used his middle name: Gregory.
4. Or use your mother’s maiden name.
Joan Fontaine did this, so that nobody could confuse her with her older sister (and fierce rival) Olivia de Havilland. Shirley Maclaine did this to tell her apart from her brother, Warren Beatty. Rita Hayworth, Diane Keaton, and Simone Signoret also renamed themselves after their mothers.
5. Use the same name as a movie star from the past.
Bette Midler named herself after Bette Davis, without realizing that most people pronounced her idol’s name “Betty”, not “Bet.” Most people didn’t know, however, that Bette Davis herself pronounced her name “Bet.” So Bette Midler got it right, accidentally. (Bette Davis, for the record, took her name from Balzac’s Cousin Bette. I’m not sure how Balzac pronounced it.)
6. If you don’t like any past movie stars, name yourself after one of your heroes.
Nicolas Coppola obviously decided that nobody with his surname was going to get anywhere in the film business. Fortunately, he was a devoted comic book reader. Depending on whom you ask, he might have called himself Nicolas Cage after Luke Cage, alias Power Man, a tough superhero in 1970s Marvel Comics blacksploitation comics who would go around wearing an unbuttoned silk shirt and a silver bandanna, and beating up villains while calling them names like “You freakin’ mealymouth!” Always a comic-book geek, Cage was later tapped to play Superman (which never happened) and another 1970s Marvel Comics hero, Ghost Rider (which did happen, sadly).
7. If you still can’t think of anything, hold a contest.
MGM arranged one of these in 1925 for Billie Cassin, a promising 19-year-old actress whom they were grooming to be the next big thing. Billie Cassin didn’t sound special, so she had renamed herself… Lucille Le Sueur! Exactly how that was meant to be pronounced, it’s probably best not to know. Instead, MGM ran a contest in a fan magazine to give her a new name. The winning name was … Joan Arden! Unfortunately, the name was so good that an actress in Hollywood already had it. MGM settled on the name that was runner-up in the contest: Joan Crawford. The actress kept this name for another 50 years.
8. Avoid a name that will provoke embarrassing questions.
Well, you can if you like. Caryn Elaine Johnson got the name Whoopi Goldberg, after her long-standing nickname—but while she came up with stories in interviews, she didn’t admit the real reason for that first name for several years: “I get gassy.” If this is how you got your name, you might prefer to keep it to yourself. Up to you, of course.
9. Make it gender neutral.
At first glance, this question doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Obviously, if your name is “Miriam” or “Anthony,” the pundits know what they’re getting—or your gender, at least. Stars like Drew Barrymore, Daryl Hannah and Cameron Diaz, however, make it slightly more unpredictable—and perhaps that might help your career. Jamie Foxx (real name: Eric Marlon Bishop) tried for years to break into the entertainment business, going to open-mike nights in a standup comedy venue in Los Angeles. The thing is, every other aspiring comedian had the same idea, so he had to struggle for a space. After a while, it was obvious that most of the comics had one thing in common: testosterone. If a female comic was found on the list, she could jump the queue. While he could have changed his name to Penelope or Rosanna to make it clear, he decided to call himself Jamie just to provide a shadow of doubt. Soon, his acting career was well on its way—all because of the chance he might have been a woman.
10. Shorten your name.
Is your name Rudolpho Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla? Funnily enough, we’ve seen this problem before. The name was changed to Rudolph Valentino. Sorry, but it’s going to have to fit on the poster.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.