Oscar Actors: Best Actress Winners–Origins, Social Backgrounds, Early Interest in Acting

May 8, 2021 (Research in Progress, includes 2021 winners)

Occupational Inheritance in the Acting Profession (Best Actress Winners)

Occupational inheritance refers to the phenomenon where sons and daughters follow in the career paths of their parents.

This trend has been documented in the professions of engineering, medicine, military, and education.

Our essay examines the extent of occupational inheritance in the acting profession by focusing on Oscar winning actors.

Over the past 93 years of the Academy Awards (first given in 1929), 77 women have won the Best Actress Oscar (some women more than once).

Occupational Inheritance: 17 (of 77)

Our study shows that about one fifth of the actresses have had one or two parents in the acting profession.

Specifically, of the 77 winners, 17 (about 22 percent) followed in the footsteps of their parents who were in showbusiness; often it was the mother rather than father.

They are (in chronological order):

Mary Pickford, mother actress

Helen Hayes, mother actress

Joan Fontaine (De Havilland’s younger sister), mother actress

Olivia de Havilland (Fontaine’s elder sister), mother actress

Jennifer Jones, mother actress

Elizabeth Taylor, mother actress

Sophia Loren, mother bit actress

Julie Andrews, both parents showbusiness

Jane Fonda, father actor

Liza Minnelli, mother actress

Shirley MacLaine, mother drama teacher

Emma Thompson, mother actress

Helen Hunt, father voice and acting coach; mother photographer

Gwyneth Paltrow, both parents actors

Julia Roberts, both parents actors and playwrights

Kate Winslet, father struggling actor; grandmother actress

Sandra Bullock, mother opera singer

 

Some women had parents who were in the literary and artistic worlds as teachers or managers or executives.

For example, Marie Dressler’s father was a music teacher, and Ginger Rogers’ mother was a columnist and writer in the film industry and thus instrumental in launching her daughter’s career.

There’s also no evidence that the lead actresses have come from one predominant social class.

That said, for women who hailed back from lower or working class, acting (and for some becoming movie stars) has served as an avenue for upward social mobility, especially when measured by socio-economic status.

Working (Lower) Class: 5

Mary Pickford, father laborer

Joan Crawford, poor family

Sophia Loren, poor working class

Glenda Jackson. father brick-layer

Kate Winslet, poor; mother nanny and waitress

 

Middle Class: 14 (not final)

Janet Gaynor, father interior decorator, theatrical painter; stepfather engineer

Helen Hayes, father salesman, manager; mother actress

Marie Dressler

Ginger Rogers

Greer Garson

Barbra Streisand

Kathy Bates, father mechanical engineer

Holly Hunter

Jessica Lange

Susan Sarandon, advertising executive, TV producer, one-time nightclub singer.

Halle Berry

Charlize Theron

Helen Mirren, Russian origins; cab driver

Jennifer Lawrence, construction company owner; mother summer camp manager

Brie Larson, parents chiropractors

 

Upper-Middle Class: 10

Norma Shearer, father businessman (then loss and downward mobility)

Katharine Hepburn, father surgeon

Claudette Colbert

Luise Rainer, father business

Audrey Hepburn, mother baroness

Joanne Woodward, father publishing exec

Shirley MacLaine, father professor of psychology

Louise Fletcher

Geraldine Pate, father surgeon

Nicole Kidman, father psychologist

Reese Witherspoon

Sandra Bullock

Natalie Portman, Israeli gynecologist

 

No Data: 2

Loretta Young

Shirley Booth


Best Actress Winners (in chronological order)

Janet Gaynor

Mary Pickford

Norma Shearer

Marie Dressler

Helen Hayes

Katharine Hepburn

Claudette Colbert

Bette Davis

Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer

Bette Davis

Vivien Leigh

Ginger Rogers

Joan Fontaine

Greer Garson

Jennifer Jones

Ingrid Bergman

Joan Crawford

Olivia De Havilland

Loretta Young, ND; child actress; parents separated

Jane Wyman

Olivia De Havilland

Judy Holliday

Vivien Leigh

Shirley Booth, No Data

Detailed

Audrey Hepburn

Grace Kelly

Anna Magnani

Joanne Woodward

Susan Hayward

Simone Signoret

Elizabeth Taylor

Sophia Loren

Anne Bancroft

Patricia Neal

Julie Andrews

Julie Christie

Elizabeth Taylor

Barbra Streisand

Maggie Smith

Glenda Jackson

Jane Fonda

Liza Minnelli

Glenda Jackson

Ellen Burstyn

Louise Fletcher

Faye Dunaway

Diane Keaton

Jane Fonda

Sally Field

Sissy Spacek

Meryl Streep

Shirley MacLaine

Sally Field

Geraldine Page

Mary Matlin

Cher

Jodie Foster

Jessica Tandy

Kathy Bates

Jodie Foster

Emma Thompson

Holly Hunter

Jessica Lange

Susan Sarandon, advertising executive, television producer, nightclub singer.

Frances McDormand

Helen Hunt

Gwyneth Paltrow

Hilary Swank

Julia Roberts

Hallie Berry

Nicole Kidman

Charlize Theron

Hilary Swank

Reese Witherspoon

Helen Mirren

Marion Cottillard

Kate Winslet

Sandra Bullock

Natalie Portman

Meryl Streep

Jennifer Lawrence

Cate Blanchette

Julianne Moore

Brie Larson

Emma Stone

Frances McDormand

Olivia Colman

Renee Zellweger

Frances McDormand


Blanchette, Cate father US Navy officer, ad exec; mother property developer-teacher

Catherine Elise Blanchett was born on 14 May 1969 in the Melbourne suburb of Ivanhoe. Her Australian mother, June Gamble, worked as a property developer and teacher, and her American father, Robert DeWitt Blanchett Jr., a Texas native, was a US Navy Chief Petty Officer who later worked as advertising executive. When Blanchett was 10, her father died of heart attack, leaving her mother to raise the family on her own. Blanchett is the middle of three children, she has older brother Bob Blanchett, and a younger sister Genevieve Blanchett.

Booth, Shirley 

Booth was born in New York City to Albert James and Virginia M. (née Wright) Ford. She had a younger sister, Jean. Her early childhood was spent in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she attended Public School 152. When she was 7, Booth’s family moved to Philadelphia where she first became interested in acting after seeing a stage performance. When Booth was a teenager, her family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where she became involved in summer stock. She made her stage debut in a production of Mother Carey’s Chickens. Against her father’s protests, she dropped out of school and traveled to New York to pursue a career. She initially used the name “Thelma Booth” when her father forbade her to use the family name; then changed her name to Shirley Booth.

Booth began her career onstage as teenager, acting in stock companies. She was a prominent actress in Pittsburgh theatre, performing with the Sharp Company. Her debut on Broadway was in Hell’s Bells, opposite Humphrey Bogart on January 26, 1925. Booth attracted notice as the female lead in the comedy hit Three Men on a Horse, which ran two years from 1935 to 1937. During the 1930s and 1940s, she achieved popularity in dramas, comedies and musicals. She acted with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1939), originated the role of Ruth Sherwood in the 1940 Broadway production of My Sister Eileen, and performed with Ralph Bellamy in Tomorrow the World (1943).

Gaynor, Janet
Gaynor was born Oct 6, 1906 Laura Augusta Gainor (some Gainer) in Germantown, Philadelphia. Nicknamed “Lolly” as a child, she was the younger of two daughters born to Laura (Buhl) and Frank De Witt Gainor. Frank Gainor worked as a theatrical painter and paperhanger. When Gaynor was a toddler, her father began teaching her how to sing, dance, and perform acrobatics. As a child in Philadelphia, she began acting in school plays.  After her parents divorced in 1914, Gaynor (age 8), her sister, and mother moved to Chicago.  Her mother married electrician Harry C. Jones, and the family later moved west to San Francisco.

Hunt, Helen

Hunt was born in 1963 in Culver City, California. Her mother, Jane Elizabeth (née Novis), worked as a photographer, and her father, Gordon Hunt, was a film, voice and stage director and acting coach. Her uncle, Peter H. Hunt, is also a director. Her maternal grandmother, Dorothy (Anderson) Fries, was a voice coach. Hunt’s paternal grandmother was from a German-Jewish family, while Hunt’s other grandparents were of English descent.

When she was 3, Hunt’s family moved to New York City, where her father directed theatre and Hunt attended plays as a child several times a week. Hunt studied ballet, and briefly attended the University of California, Los Angeles. Hunt began working as a child actress in the 1970s. Her early roles included an appearance as Murray Slaughter’s daughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, alongside Lindsay Wagner in an episode of The Bionic Woman, an appearance in an episode of Ark II called “Omega”, and a regular role in the TV series The Swiss Family Robinson.

Jackson, Glenda
Glenda May Jackson was born on May 9, 1936 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, where her father was a builder and her mother worked in shops and as a cleaner. She was educated at West Kirby County Grammar School for Girls in nearby West Kirby, and performed at the Townswomen’s Guild drama group during her teens. She worked for two years in Boots before taking up a scholarship in 1954 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Jackson made her professional stage debut in Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables in 1957 while at RADA and appeared in repertory for the next six years. Her film debut was a bit part in This Sporting Life (1963), which starred Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris in Oscar-nominated performances. A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) for four years from 1964, she originally joined for director Peter Brook’s Theatre of Cruelty season, which included Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade (1965), in which she played an inmate of an insane asylum portraying Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat. The production ran on Broadway in 1965 and in Paris; Jackson also appeared in the 1967 film version. Jackson also appeared as Ophelia in Peter Hall’s production of Hamlet in the same year.

The RSC’s staging at the Aldwych Theatre of US (1966), a protest play against the Vietnam War, also featured Jackson, and she appeared in its film version, Tell Me Lies. Later that year, she starred in the psychological drama Negatives (1968), which was not a success, but won her good reviews.

 

Larson, Brie

Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers was born on October 1, 1989, in Sacramento, California, to Heather (Edwards) and Sylvain Desaulniers. Her parents were homeopathic chiropractors who ran a practice together, and they have another daughter, Milaine. Her father is Franco-Manitoban, and in her childhood, Larson spoke French as first language.

She was mostly homeschooled, which allowed her to explore innovative and abstract experiences. Larson was “straight-laced and square,” and that she shared a close bond with her mother but was shy and suffered from social anxiety. During the summer, she would write and direct her own home movies in which she cast her cousins and filmed in her garage.

At age 6, she expressed interest in becoming an actress, remarking that the “creative arts was just something that was always in me.” That year, she auditioned for training program at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where she became the youngest student admitted.

Larson experienced trauma when her parents divorced when she was 7. She had  dysfunctional relationship with her father. Heather relocated to Los Angeles with her two daughters to fulfill Larson’s acting ambition. They had limited financial means and lived in a small apartment near Hollywood studio lots at Burbank. Larson said they had “a crappy one-room apartment where the bed came out of the wall and we each had three articles of clothing.” But she has fond memories of that period and credits her mother for doing the best she could for them.

As her last name was difficult to pronounce, she adopted the stage name Larson from her Swedish great-grandmother as well as an American Girl doll named Kirsten Larson that she received as a child.

Larson’s first job was performing a commercial parody for Barbie, named “Malibu Mudslide Barbie,” in a 1998 episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She subsequently took on guest roles in several television series, including Touched by an Angel and Popular. In 2000, she was cast in the Fox sitcom Schimmel, which was canceled before airing when its star, Robert Schimmel, was diagnosed with cancer.

Lawrence, Jennifer

Jennifer Shrader Lawrence was born on August 15, 1990, in Indian Hills, Kentucky, to Gary, a construction company owner, and Karen (née Koch), a summer camp manager. She has two older brothers, Ben and Blaine. Karen raised Jennifer to be “tough” like her brothers and would not allow her to play with other girls in preschool–she was “too rough” with them. Lawrence was educated at the Kammerer Middle School in Louisville. She did not enjoy her childhood due to hyperactivity and anxiety–she considered herself misfit among peers. Lawrence’s anxieties vanished when she performed on stage, and acting gave her sense of accomplishment.

Lawrence’s school activities included cheerleading, softball, field hockey, and basketball; she played on boys’ team coached by her father. She was fond of horseback riding and visited local horse farm. She has an injured tailbone of being thrown from a horse. When her father worked from home, she performed for him, often dressing up as clown or ballerina.

She had her first acting assignment at age 9, when she played a prostitute in a church play based on the Book of Jonah. For the next few years, she continued to take parts in church plays and school musicals.

Lawrence was 14 and on a family vacation in New York, when she was spotted on the street by a talent scout, who arranged audition for talent agents. Karen was not keen on allowing her daughter to pursue acting, but she briefly moved her family to New York to let her read for roles. After Lawrence’s first cold reading, the agents said that hers was the best; Lawrence’s mother convinced her that they were lying. Lawrence said her early experiences were difficult because she felt lonely and friendless. She signed with CESD Talent Agency, which convinced her parents to let her audition for roles in Los Angeles. While her mother encouraged her to go into modeling, Lawrence insisted on pursuing acting. She considered acting to be natural fit for her abilities, and turned down offers for modeling. Lawrence dropped out of school at age 14 without receiving a GED or a diploma. She was “self-educated” and her career was her priority. Between acting jobs, she made visits to Louisville, where she served as assistant nurse at her mother’s camp.

MacLaine, Shirley

Named after actress Shirley Temple (who was 6), Shirley MacLean Beaty was born on April 24, 1934, in Richmond, Virginia. Her father, Ira Owens Beaty, was a professor of psychology, public school administrator, and real estate agent, and her mother, Kathlyn Corinne (née MacLean), was a drama teacher, originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. MacLaine’s younger brother is the actor, writer, and director Warren Beatty; he changed the spelling of surname when he became actor.

Her uncle (mother’s brother-in-law) was A. A. MacLeod, a Communist member of the Ontario legislature in the 1940s. While MacLaine was still a child, Ira Beaty moved his family from Richmond to Norfolk, and then to Arlington and Waverly, then back to Arlington, taking a position at Arlington’s Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in 1945. MacLaine played baseball on all-boys team, holding the record for most home runs, which earned her the nickname “Powerhouse.” During the 1950s, the family resided in the Dominion Hills section of Arlington.

Page, Geraldine

Page was born November 22, 1924 in Kirksville, Missouri, the second child of Edna Pearl (née Maize) and Leon Elwin Page, who worked at Andrew Taylor Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery (combined with the American School of Osteopathy, eventually to form A.T. Still University). He was an author whose works included Practical Anatomy (1925), Osteopathic Fundamentals (1926), and The Old Doctor (1932). She had one older brother, Donald.

Pickford, Mary

Pickford was born Gladys Marie Smith in 1892 (she later claimed 1893 or 1894 as her year of birth) at 211 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. Her father, John Charles Smith, was the son of English Methodist immigrants, and worked a variety of odd jobs. Her mother, Charlotte Hennessey, was of Irish Catholic descent and worked for a time as a seamstress. She had two younger siblings, Charlotte, called “Lottie” (born 1893), and John Charles, called “Jack” (born 1896), who also became actors. To please her husband’s relatives, Pickford’s mother baptized her children as Methodists, the religion of their father. John Charles Smith was an alcoholic; he abandoned the family, when she was 6, and died on February 11, 1898, from a fatal blood clot caused by a workplace accident when he was a purser with Niagara Steamship. When Gladys was 4, her household was under infectious quarantine as a public health measure.

Child Actress: After being widowed in 1899, Charlotte Smith began taking in boarders, one of whom was a Mr. Murphy, the theatrical stage manager for Cummings Stock Company, who soon suggested that Gladys, then age 7, and Lottie, then age 6, be given two small theatrical roles – Gladys portrayed a girl and a boy, while Lottie was cast in a silent part in the company’s production of The Silver King at Toronto’s Princess Theatre (destroyed by fire in 1915, rebuilt, demolished in 1931), while their mother played the organ. Pickford acted in many melodramas with Toronto’s Valentine Stock Company, finally playing the major child role in its version of The Silver King. She capped her short career in Toronto with the starring role of Little Eva in the Valentine production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, adapted from the 1852 novel.

By the early 1900s, theatre had become a family enterprise. Gladys, her mother and two younger siblings toured the US by rail, performing in third-rate companies and plays. After 6 impoverished years, Pickford allowed one more summer to land a leading role on Broadway, planning to quit acting if she failed. In 1906 Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith supported singer Chauncey Olcott on Broadway in Edmund Burke. Gladys finally landed a supporting role in a 1907 Broadway play, The Warrens of Virginia. The play was written by William C. DeMille, whose brother, Cecil, appeared in the cast. David Belasco, the producer of the play, insisted that Gladys Smith assume the stage name Mary Pickford. After completing the Broadway run and touring the play, however, Pickford was again out of work.

Portman, Natalie

Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem, to parents of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. She is the only child of Shelley (née Stevens), an American homemaker who works as Portman’s agent, and Avner Hershlag, an Israeli gynecologist. Her maternal grandparents were American Jews and her paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants to Israel.

Portman and her family lived in Washington, D.C., but relocated to Connecticut in 1988 and then moved to Long Island in 1990. While living in Washington, Portman attended Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. She learned to speak Hebrew while living on Long Island and attended a Jewish elementary school, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County. She studied ballet and modern dance at the American Theater Dance Workshop, and regularly attended the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Portman has said she was “different from the other kids. I was more ambitious. I knew what I liked and what I wanted, and I worked very hard. I was a very serious kid.” Portman has professed an interest in foreign languages since childhood and has studied French, Japanese, German, and Arabic.

When Portman was 10, a Revlon agent spotted her at a pizza restaurant and asked her to become a child model.  She turned down the offer but used the opportunity to get an acting agent. She auditioned for the 1992 off-Broadway musical Ruthless! about a girl who is prepared to commit murder to get the lead in a school play. Portman and Britney Spears were chosen as the understudies for star Laura Bell Bundy.

Roberts, Julia

Roberts was born on October 28, 1967, in Smyrna, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, to Betty Lou Bredemus (1934–2015) and Walter Grady Roberts (1933–1977). She is of English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, and Swedish descent. Her father was a Baptist, her mother a Catholic, and she was raised Catholic. Her older brother Eric Roberts (b. 1956), from whom she was estranged for several years until 2004, older sister Lisa Roberts Gillan (b. 1965), and niece Emma Roberts, are also actors. She also had a younger half-sister named Nancy Motes (1976–2014).

Roberts’ parents, one-time actors and playwrights, met while performing in theatrical productions for the armed forces. They later co-founded the Atlanta Actors and Writers Workshop in Atlanta, off Juniper Street in Midtown. They ran a children’s acting school in Decatur, Georgia, while they were expecting Julia. The children of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. attended the school; Walter Roberts served as acting coach for their daughter, Yolanda. As a thank-you for his service, Mrs. King paid Mrs. Roberts’s hospital bill when Julia was born.

Her parents married in 1955. Her mother filed for divorce in 1971; the divorce was finalized in early 1972. From 1972, Roberts lived in Smyrna, Georgia, where she attended Fitzhugh Lee Elementary School, Griffin Middle School, and Campbell High School. In 1972, her mother married Michael Motes, who was abusive and often unemployed; Roberts despised him. The couple had Nancy, who died at 37 on February 9, 2014, of an drug overdose. The marriage ended in 1983, with Betty Lou divorcing Motes on cruelty grounds; she had stated that marrying him was the biggest mistake of her life.

Roberts’s own father died of cancer when she was ten.

Roberts wanted to be a veterinarian as a child. She also played the clarinet in her school band.

Drop-out: After graduating from Smyrna’s Campbell High School, she attended Georgia State University but did not graduate. She later headed to New York to pursue a career in acting. Once there, she signed with the Click Modeling Agency and enrolled in acting classes.

Sarandon, Susan

Sarandon was born in New York City, Oct 4, 1946. She is the eldest of 9 children of Lenora Marie (née Criscione) and Phillip Leslie Tomalin, an advertising executive, television producer, and one-time nightclub singer.

She has four brothers, Philip Jr., Terry (an accomplished outdoorsman, journalist, and community leader), Tim, and O’Brian, and four sisters, Meredith, Bonnie, Amanda, and Missy. Her father was of English, Irish, and Welsh ancestry. His English ancestors came from Hackney in London and his Welsh ancestors being from Bridgend. On her mother’s side, she is of Italian descent, with ancestors from the regions of Tuscany and Sicily.

Sarandon was raised Roman Catholic and attended Roman Catholic schools. She grew up in Edison, New Jersey, where she graduated from Edison High School in 1964.

She then attended The Catholic University of America, from 1964 to 1968, and earned a BA in drama and worked with noted drama coach and master teacher, Father Gilbert V. Hartke. During and slightly after college, she supported herself by cutting hair, cleaning houses and working as a switchboard operator.

Shearer, Norma

Edith Norma Shearer (August 10, 1902 – June 12, 1983) was a Canadian-American actress who was active on film from 1919 through 1942. Shearer often played spunky, sexually liberated ingénues. She appeared in adaptations of Noël Coward, Eugene O’Neill, and William Shakespeare, and was the first five-time Oscar Award nominee, winning Best Actress for The Divorcee (1930).

Shearer was of Scottish, English, and Irish descent. Her childhood was spent in Montreal, where she was educated at Montreal High School for Girls and Westmount High School. Her life was of privilege, due to the success of her father’s construction business. However, the marriage between her parents was unhappy. Andrew Shearer was prone to manic depression and “moved like a shadow or a ghost around the house”, while her mother Edith Fisher Shearer was attractive, flamboyant, and stylish. Norma was interested in music, but after seeing a vaudeville show for her 9th birthday, she announced her intention to become an actress. Edith became secretly fearful that her daughter’s physical flaws would jeopardize her chances. Shearer herself “had no illusions about the image I saw in the mirror.” She acknowledged her “dumpy figure, with shoulders too broad, legs too sturdy, hands too blunt,” and was also acutely aware of her small eyes that appeared crossed due to a cast in her right eye. She was “ferociously ambitious, even as a young girl,” and planned to overcome her deficiencies through careful camouflage, sheer determination, and charm.

Theron, Charlize

Theron was born in Benoni, in Transvaal Province (Gauteng Province since 1994) of South Africa, the only child of road constructionists Gerda (born Maritz) and Charles Theron (27 November 1947 – 21 June 1991). She is from an Afrikaner family, and her ancestry includes Dutch as well as French and German; her father is French and her mother is African and Dutch. Her French forebears were early Huguenot colonizers in South Africa.

She grew up on her parents’ farm in Benoni, near Johannesburg. On June 21, 1991, Theron’s father, an alcoholic, threatened both teenaged Charlize and her mother while drunk, physically attacking her mother and firing a gun at both of them. Theron’s mother retrieved her own handgun, shot back and killed him. The shooting was legally adjudged to have been self-defense, and her mother faced no charges.

Theron attended Putfontein Primary School (Laerskool Putfontein), a period during which she was not “fitting in.” She was frequently unwell with jaundice throughout childhood and the antibiotics she was administered made her upper incisor milk teeth rot (they had to be surgically removed) and teeth did not grow until she was roughly ten years old.

At 13, Theron was sent to boarding school and began her studies at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg. Although Theron is fluent in English, her first language is Afrikaans.

Although seeing herself as a dancer, at age 16 Theron won a one-year modeling contract at a local competition in Salerno, and moved with her mother to Milan, Italy. After Theron spent a year modelling throughout Europe, she and her mother moved to the US, both New York City and Miami. In New York, she attended the Joffrey Ballet School, where she trained as a ballet dancer until a knee injury closed this career path.

As Theron recalled in 2008: “I went to New York for three days to model, and then I spent a winter in New York in a friend’s windowless basement apartment. I was broke, I was taking class at the Joffrey Ballet, and my knees gave out. I realized I couldn’t dance anymore, and I went into a major depression. My mom came over from South Africa and said, “Either you figure out what to do next or you come home, because you can sulk in South Africa.”

In 1994, Theron flew to Los Angeles, on a one-way ticket her mother bought for her, intending to work in the film industry. During the initial months there, she lived in a motel with the $300 budget that her mother had given her; she lived “from paycheck to paycheck” to the point of stealing bread from a basket in a restaurant to survive.

Spotting/Accident: One day, she went to a Hollywood Boulevard bank to cash a few cheques, including one her mother had sent to help with the rent, but it was rejected because it was out-of-state and she was not an American citizen. Theron argued and pleaded with the bank teller until talent agent John Crosby, who was the next customer behind her, cashed it for her and gave her his business card. Crosby introduced Theron to acting school, and in 1995 she played her first non-speaking role in the horror film Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest.

Her first speaking role was Helga Svelgen the hitwoman in 2 Days in the Valley (1996), but despite the movie’s mixed reviews, attention drew to Theron due to her beauty and the scene where she fought Teri Hatcher’s character. Theron feared being typecast as characters similar to Helga and recalled being asked to repeat her performance in the movie during auditions: “A lot of people were saying, ‘You should just hit while the iron’s hot'[…] But playing the same part over and over doesn’t leave you with any longevity. And I knew it was going to be harder for me, because of what I look like, to branch out to different kinds of roles.”

When auditioning for Showgirls, Theron was introduced to talent agent J. J. Harris by the co-casting director Johanna Ray. She was surprised at how much faith Harris had in her potential and referred to Harris as her mentor. Harris found scripts and movies for Theron in a variety of genres and encouraged her to become producer. She would be Theron’s agent for over 15 years until Harris’s death.

In the horror drama The Devil’s Advocate (1997), which is credited to be her break-out film, Theron starred alongside Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino as the haunted wife of an unusually successful lawyer.

Winslet, Kate

Kate Elizabeth Winslet was born on October 5, 1975 in Reading, Berkshire, to Sally Anne (née Bridges) and Roger John Winslet. She is of British descent, and also has Irish ancestry on her father’s side and Swedish ancestry on her mother’s side. Her mother worked as nanny and waitress, and her father, a struggling actor, took labor jobs to support the family. Her maternal grandparents were both actors and ran the Reading Repertory Theatre Company. Winslet’s two sisters, Anna and Beth, are actresses; she has a younger brother, Joss. The family had limited financial means, forced to live on free meal benefits, and supported by the Actor’s Charitable Trust.

When Winslet was 10, her father injured his foot in a boating accident and found it harder to work, leading to more financial hardships.

Witherspoon, Reese

Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon was born on March 22, 1976, at Southern Baptist Hospital, in New Orleans, Louisiana, while her father, John Draper Witherspoon, was a student at Tulane University medical school. Her father was born in Georgia and served as a lieutenant in the US Army Reserve. He was in private practice as an otolaryngologist until 2012.

Her mother, Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Witherspoon (née Reese), is from Harriman, Tennessee. Betty Witherspoon earned 3 degrees, including a PhD in pediatric nursing. She became a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University.

At the age of 7, Witherspoon was selected as a model for a florist’s TV ad, which motivated her to take acting lessons. At age 11, she took first place in the Ten-State Talent Fair. Witherspoon received high grades in school, loved reading, and considered herself “a big dork who read loads of books”. On mentioning her love for books, she said, “I get crazy in a bookstore. It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy everything.” She has been described as a “multi-achiever” and was given the nickname “Little Type A” by her parents. Witherspoon attended middle school at Harding Academy and graduated from the all-girls’ Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, during which time she was a cheerleader.

Drop-out: She later attended Stanford University as an English literature major, but left the school prior to completing her studies to pursue an acting career.

Witherspoon attended open casting call in 1991 for The Man in the Moon, intending to audition for a bit part; but instead was cast for the lead role of Dani Trant, a 14-year-old country girl who falls in love for the first time with her 17-year-old neighbor. For her role, Witherspoon was nominated for a Young Artist Award, in the category of Best Young Actress. Later that year, she made her TV debut role in Wildflower with Patricia Arquette. In 1992, Witherspoon appeared in the television film Desperate Choices: To Save My Child, portraying a critically ill young girl.

 

Young, Loretta 
Young was born Gretchen Young in Salt Lake City, Utah, the daughter of Gladys (née Royal) and John Earle Young. She was of Luxembourgish descent. At confirmation, she took the name Michaela. When she was 2, her parents separated, and when she was 3, her mother moved the family to Hollywood. She and her sisters Polly Ann and Elizabeth Jane (known as Sally Blane) all worked as child actresses, but of the three, Gretchen was the most successful.

Young’s first role was at the age of two or three in the silent film Sweet Kitty Bellairs.  She was educated at Ramona Convent Secondary School. She was signed to a contract by John McCormick, husband and manager of actress Colleen Moore, who saw her  potential. Moore gave her the name Loretta–it was the name of her favorite doll.

Young was billed as Gretchen Young in the silent film Sirens of the Sea (1917). She was first billed as Loretta Young in 1928, in The Whip Woman. She co-starred with Lon Chaney in the MGM film Laugh, Clown, Laugh. The next year, she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars.

In 1930, when Loretta Young was 17, she eloped with 26-year-old actor Grant Withers; they were married in Yuma, Arizona. The marriage was annulled the next year, just as their second movie together (iToo Young to Marry) was released. In 1934 she co-starred with Cary Grant in Born to be Bad, and in 1935 was billed with Clark Gable and Jack Oakie in the version of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, directed by William Wellman.

During World War II, Young made Ladies Courageous (1944; re-issued as Fury in the Sky), the fictionalized story of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. It depicted a unit of female pilots who flew bomber planes from the factories to their final destinations. Young made as many as eight movies a year.

 

Mirren, Helen

Mirren was born Helen Lydia Mironoff on 26 July 1945 in Hammersmith, London, to Kathleen “Kitty” Alexandrina Eva Matilda (née Rogers) and Vasily Petrovich Mironoff, a member of an exiled family of the Russian nobility. Kathleen was a working-class Englishwoman from West Ham, East London, the 13th of 14 children born to a butcher whose own father had been the butcher to Queen Victoria. Vasily was Russian, taken to Britain at age two by his father, Pyotr Vasilievich Mironov. Pyotr, who owned a family estate near Gzhatsk (now Gagarin, Smolensk Oblast), was part of the Russian aristocracy. His mother was Countess Lydia Andreevna Kamenskaya, aristocrat and a descendant of Count Mikhail Fedotovich Kamensky, a prominent Russian general in the Napoleonic Wars. The former diplomat settled down in England, and became a London cab driver to support his family.

Vasily was also a cab driver, and during the war worked as an ambulance driver and served in the East End of London during the Blitz. After the birth of Helen, Basil left the orchestra and returned to cab driving in order to support the family. He later worked as a driving-test examiner, before becoming a civil servant with the Ministry of Transport. In 1951, Basil changed the family name to Mirren by deed poll.

Mirren considers her upbringing to have been “very anti-monarchist”. She was the second of three children; she has an older sister, Katherine, and had a younger brother, Peter. Her paternal cousin was Tania Mallet, a model and Bond girl. Mirren was brought up in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

Mirren attended Hamlet Court primary school in Westcliff-on-Sea, where she had the lead role in a school production of Hansel and Gretel, and St Bernard’s High School for Girls in Southend-on-Sea, where she acted in school productions. She attended a teaching college, the New College of Speech and Drama in London, “housed within Anna Pavlova’s old home, Ivy House” on North End Road.