Oscars 2014: Jennifer Lawrence and the name game

Oscars 2014: Jennifer Lawrence and the name game
Actress Jennifer Lawrence. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

When nominee names are called out at Sunday's Academy Awards, audiences will quickly recognize them--Jennifer Lawrence, Matthew McConaughey, Spike Jonze, to name three favorites. But what to actually call them?

In Hollywood, a name is just a name, until it's not. And a nickname is more than a nickname, unless it shouldn't be used all, in which case it's less than a nickname, or something US Weekly editors came up with because they were bored.


The act of identifying celebrities is a complex mix of semiotics and subtle Hollywood codes. Go too informal in referring to an Oscar nominee and you're presumptuous, gauche, a poseur

Keep it too formal and you may as well have just told the room you've come in on the hay truck from Topeka. It's all fun and games until someone uses the wrong diminutive.

Who among the Hollywood elite, for instance, hasn't been standing around chatting at a party when someone said, "I just loved how much weight Matt McConaughey lost to play that AIDS crusader"? There are small grimaces, followed by awkward excusals. Pretty soon the person who committed the nomenclatural faux pas is left standing by himself, the canape in his hand his only friend.

There is a debit, too, for not shortening enough. Sure, you can say you think Sandra Bullock should win best actress for her performance in "Gravity."

But you'd be giving yourself away as someone who doesn't know Sandra Bullock, because anyone who does know Sandra Bullock calls her Sandy Bullock. Call her Sandra among the Hollywood cognoscenti and people will instantly hang a mental sign over your head. "That guy. He was probably sneaking into 'The Net' instead of negotiating fees on it." While you were sleeping, someone else began representing her.

Ditto for that DiCaprio guy from "Wolf of Wall Street." Refer to him as Leonardo and people might think you've been watching too much "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." He's Leo, always Leo, as in Dr. Spaceman.

There is a similar dynamic at work for Gerard Butler, who to the Hollywood that knows, is Gerry Butler, though as he seems in no imminent danger of winning an Oscar, you can feel free not to remember that.

It's not always the first name that drops letters. Best director nominee David O. Russell picked up the O as a young filmmaker because without it some might have thought he was the other David Russell (that guy's probably adding an O. now). But those who've worked with the "American Hustle" helmer will just call him David Russell or even Dave Russell. Throw in the O--or worse, the O'--and you may as well have said you want an O'Henry candy bar to direct your movie.

Interestingly, people who already chose a nickname for themselves can make the path easier.

Take "Her" screenwriter Spike Jonze. There's no question about what to call the original screenplay nominee. It's a one-syllable weapon, a mix of consonants that's blunt, deadly, to the point. You can't mess it up. Though if you cheerfully tell people that Jonze's original name was Adam Spiegel, they'll just find you annoying.

The strong contender for supporting actress is "Hustle" star Jennifer Lawrence. But what you call her says as much about you as her. Jennifer suggests respect, but not much else.


Hollywood insiders say Jen--or even JenLawrence, one long word, a mononymic moniker, like Madonna only with her real name--and if you've encountered her in a professional context, you probably can too. JLaw is okay if you're a hardcore fan or Perez Hilton--it suggests you're trying a little hard, but also a respect for her nom de street. Jenny? You may as well announce "I'm a Facebook stalker."

You'd want to reverse all that for Jen's "American Hustle" co-stars and fellow nominees. Bradley Cooper is never Brad, though director Russell and some work intimates will pull out a Cooper from time to time. That's OK, because Cooper has a nice sound to it. It sounds a little like copper and a little like scooper, and those are good things. Brad is like bad and bray. Less good.

And hoping to nab Christian Bale's attention with Chris? You'd have better luck trying to get Batman to come to your next birthday party.

That all seems intuitive enough if you learn the cues. Drop some letters. Keep other letters. Add a Y, except for when you don't.

But good luck figuring out the insider shorthand for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubieszki, the Mexican-born D.P. who is a favorite to win for his work on Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity." You'd think Manny, but you'd think wrong. Not Lubie, either, though that would be a cool nickname. No, he's Chivo, a childhood appellation that, mysteriously, came about when he conjured to his family thoughts of a chivo, or goat. Anyone who's anyone in Hollywood won't use his real name. They'll call him Chivo. A name is just a name until you pick the wrong Mexican animal.