When I was growing up I thought I had a very unusual and difficult to pronounce last name: Bommarito. As a child it was even more difficult to spell. In second grade, my father was helping me with my homework one night and he noticed that at the top of the paper I wrote my name as “Terry B.” “What the hell is this?” he asked. “Don’t you know how to spell your last name?” I sheepishly replied, “No,” and for the next half hour my father drilled the correct spelling into my head. It was at that exact moment when his impromptu spelling lesson caused me to miss “Gilligan’s Island,” that I had decided to marry someone with an easy last name.
It was very common in my grandparent’s generation for people to change their last names. Many families emigrated from Europe and shortened or altered their last names to sound more American. Adamczak morphed into Adams, Bogdanowicz dropped the unnecessary “owicz,” which no one could pronounce properly anyway, and simply ended up with Bogdan. And the powerful surname of Petrov hung its proud Russian head in shame and became bland old Peters. I don’t think the Americanizing of names happened so much with Italian families. Certainly none of my relatives ever changed their names. Unless you consider that three of my aunts were all enrolled in school with the first name “Margaret.” Apparently, their Italian names of Saveria, Michina and Macolata would have been too foreign sounding. Of course, my grandparents never thought that having three Margarets in the same school might cause some confusion too.
However, if I thought that Bommarito was too difficult to spell, and sounded too Sicilian, the one thing it always afforded me was an abundance of nicknames. In elementary school two boys christened me “B52 Bomber.” That followed me all through junior high until high school where everyone just called me “Bomber.” Believe me that was not the shortened name I was hoping for.
All of this back-story about names brings me to the issue that is really forefront in my mind: who the hell is Chiwetel Ejiofor? I don’t know what is happening in Hollywood lately but I miss the old days when I thought Sigourney Weaver was an odd name. Whenever I flip through television listings or check movie reviews, I am taken aback by the number of actor names that I can’t pronounce. In the old days of Hollywood actors signed contracts with a movie studio where they were put through the rigorous makeover machine, which stripped them of any unique identity they may have come through the gates with. Hair was colored, noses were fixed, pounds were shed and accents lost. But, the biggest change was usually their name. Would moviegoers flock to the theater to see a tough cowboy riding roughshod through the old west named Marion Morrison? No! That’s why Marion Morrison became John Wayne. How many teenaged boys in the 1960s would scribble in their school notebooks the name Natalia Nikolgevna Zakharenko? None! Natalie Wood was much easier to remember not to mention spell. And what lovesick, bored housewife in the 1950s would pine away over Archibald Leach when she could cuddle up to her husband in bed at night and dream of making love to a man with the sexy name of Cary Grant?
Archibald Leach may not have been the worst name to be stuck with. But at least it was pronounceable. Which brings me to the recent Hollywood onslaught of Celtic names. When the movie “The Lovely Bones” came out in 2009 audiences were introduced to the lovely young actress, Saoirse Ronan. Six years later I still don’t know what her first name is. I simply refer to her as “Suzy.” A Celtic name may sound easy to spell but it’s never spelled the way it sounds. I think in Ireland Ann is spelled Kcoarzvie. How long did it take people to stop calling Sinead O’Connor – Sine-Aid? Years. She disappeared from the public eye long before anyone could pronounce her name. I think from now on any actress that comes from Ireland should be named Fiona O’Brien. It still sounds Irish but it’s pronounceable. They can put numbers behind the name to tell themselves apart: Fiona O’Brien I, II, III and so on.
So, as we head into the award nomination season, please keep in mind that there will be nominated actors with names you have never heard before. Try not to confuse Chiwetel Ejiofor with Ioan Gruffudd or Idris Elba. And if Quvenzhane Wallis and Saoirse Ronan ever make a movie together just refer to them as Suzy Q. The more I think about it, the more I think Prince had the right idea when he just changed his name to a symbol.