Call me by my name: Thandiwe Newton and the whitewashing of film stars’ names

As Thandiwe Newton reclaims her name, we explore the history of changing actors’ names, and how the tide is starting to turn.

Thandiwe Newton in Westworld (2016-)
That’s my name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.Thandiwe Newton

In a Vogue interview in April, a major Hollywood star revealed that she had never appeared on screen under her real name. When Thandiwe Newton made her debut in Flirting in 1991, she was credited as ‘Thandie’ – an Anglicised nickname – without her say-so. She ended up sticking to it, but times have begun to change, and she has said she wants to take back what is hers and always has been: her name.

A contest in Movie Weekly to select Lucille LeSueur’s professional name chose Joan Crawford as the winning entry

Movie-star name changes are hardly an uncommon practice in Hollywood. There are the most famous ones, like Cary Grant being born Archibald Leach, or Judy Garland the unprepossessing Frances Ethel Gumm. Studio press departments were so keen to change names of newly contracted actors that in 1925 Movie Weekly magazine ran a contest to name Lucille LeSueur, a blue-collar Texan girl who would become a quintessential movie star: Joan Crawford.

What soon becomes clear is the racial motivation behind many of these changes. Smooth-syllabled, homogenous Wasp names ruled in Golden Age Hollywood, despite a talent-pool born with Italian, Jewish and Spanish surnames, thanks to the vast wave of immigration to the US at the start of the 20th century.

The early careers of three Brooklyn-born stars illustrate the point. Issur Danielovitch, born to Russian-Jewish parents, went by Kirk Douglas because, he later said, his real name was “too unwieldy and too Semitic” for Hollywood.

Margarita Cansino in 1935, before she became Rita Hayworth

Columbia’s Harry Cohn ordered a change of name for starlet Margarita Cansino. Using her mother’s maiden name and dying her hair auburn made Rita Hayworth appear all-American, despite her Spanish father.

The studios gave makeovers to white-bread sounding names, too. Hollywood producer Arthur Hornblow Jr gave starlet Constance Keane the sleek new name of Veronica Lake, which emphasised her blue eyes. As she described it, “Veronica was supposed to stand for what was classic in my features, and the Lake was supposed to suggest the coolness you got when you looked at them.”

Name changes had once been intended to exoticise an actor, as when nice Ohio girl Theodosia Goodman became the first ‘vamp’ sex symbol of silent film, Theda Bara. Her heritage was completely invented by publicity agents, who claimed she was the daughter of an Egyptian and a Frenchwoman, born in the Sahara. However, once the Hays Production Code came into effect, banning interracial romance of any kind, it became impossible for a star to play a romantic lead if they weren’t white. So while Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson worked under the glamorously ambiguous name of Merle Oberon, she suppressed her South Asian and Maori heritage, and bleached her skin throughout her career.

As a rule, studios were inclined to remake the majority of their stars in the image of the all-American Wasp, because the moguls who ran Hollywood generally believed this was the typical moviegoer. That powerful, illusory idea – the typical moviegoer – is one that has allowed decision-makers and gatekeepers to lean into their biases for decades, under the assumption that Joe Public simply will not accept anything outside their experience.

Studios remade their stars in the image of the all-American Wasp, because they generally believed this was the typical moviegoer.

In mid-century America, those prejudices were blatant, even among Jewish emigré businessmen who had made good despite facing violent anti-Semitism for most of their lives. Perhaps because many of them had come from immigrant families themselves, and had seen their names mangled on Ellis Island or otherwise, (Sam Goldwyn was originally ‘Goldfish’) they felt inured to identity-shifting attempts at assimilation. Jack Warner had no qualms about renaming stage actor Julius Garfinkle as John Garfield.

Elliott Gould and Barbara Streisand

By the 1970s, Jewish stars such as Barbra Streisand and Elliott Gould were keeping their real names, but racism and typecasting in Hollywood continued. Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez became Martin Sheen after he couldn’t find any roles for Hispanic people in Hollywood, and as late as 1986 a teenage Winona Horowitz suggested the surname Ryder for her movie debut.

In Thandiwe Newton’s case, there are colonialist and anti-Black implications at play. Misspelling, shortening or otherwise anglicising actors’ names is increasingly unacceptable, further whitewashing film and diminishing representation, and assuming that white Western audiences are unable or unwilling to remember or pronounce people’s real names. Award-winning actors such as Lupita Nyong’o, Riz Ahmed, Saoirse Ronan and Rami Malek have helped to reshape what counts as a ‘billable’ name by holding firm to their language and heritage. In 2021, Thandiwe Newton’s confident reclamation of her name is one more nail in the coffin of the anglicised screen name, and the industry is better for it.

Further reading

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