Hollywood loves nothing better than a rags-to-riches, nobody-to-somebody tale of overnight success.
Case in point: The fourth remake of A Star Is Born is in theaters, this time with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles of ingenue on the rise and veteran star whose career is faltering, respectively. They add their names to a list of performers who have also appeared under the title which includes Janet Gaynor and Fredrich March, Judy Garland and James Mason, and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
It’s a movie trope that is revived again and again. Suddenly, a person-in-the-know plucks an unaware talent from obscurity and helps place them in the spotlight, with all the trappings of fame and wealth that come with it.
But does it actually happen in real life? The answer is yes, but these cases are the exception rather than the rule, says film historian Max Alvarez.
“It’s kind of a right place, right time story. In the entertainment industry it is out of sight out of mind, those in power have to physically see you to imagine you, they are often not going to go out and try and find you,” Alvarez says. “You do hear stories of people who just happened to be on the studio lot, and they catch someone’s eye. It’s that kind of a situation where these discoveries happen.”
The golden age of Hollywood was rife with stories of starlets being plucked from obscurity to become the darling of the silver screen. More often than not these were creations of publicity departments, fabricated to make headlines and boost the star power of new talent, or, as in the case of Merle Oberon, to hide a possibly then career-damaging secret from the movie going public.
In a few cases though, fact was as amazing as the fiction. And stories of how superstars got their start — stretching from the studio system of yore to Tinseltown today — still circulate. Here, a few actresses’ real discovery stories that have become, and are the stuff of, Hollywood legend.
Perhaps the most famous of all the in-the-right-place at the-right-time tales is that of Lana Turner.
In 1937, 16-year-old Julia Jean Turner cut her Hollywood High School typing class to head across Sunset Boulevard in order to share a soda with friends. According to Turner, the location was the Top Hat cafe, not Schwab’s Pharmacy as is usually named in the oft retold story.
Seated inside was William R. Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, who, according to his son W. R. Wilkerson, would later recall how “breathtakingly beautiful” Turner looked that day. Wilkerson asked the shop manager who she was and if he could arrange for them to be introduced.
"You can imagine what ran through my mind," Turner told W. R. Wilkerson in a 1974 interview.
Introductions were made, and Wilkerson then asked Turner if she would like to be in pictures. “I’ll have to ask my mother,” she is quoted as replying. Days later, mom in tow, Turner visited the publisher’s office. Wilkerson then sent a note to Zeppo Marx, who signed Turner to his agency.
Renamed Lana, Turner would go on to have a near half-century career spanning film (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Peyton Place), theater, television, and radio, and who in the mid-1940s was one of the highest-paid female stars in the movie industry. A huge talent for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) studio, she became the representation of true Hollywood glamor and her discovery story the stuff of legend.
Before Tippi Hedren became the muse of director Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds, Marnie), she was Nathalie Kay Hedren, a painfully shy teen who was discovered by a modeling scout while getting out of a cab in Minneapolis. The encounter led to a burgeoning modeling career that had her starring in a television advertisement for Sego diet drink in 1961. Having recently relocated to Los Angeles with four-year-old daughter Melanie Griffith, a newly-divorced Hedren was surprised when the phone rang.
Hitchcock had been watching television, saw the Sego ad and arranged a meeting with the woman he hoped would be his replacement for Grace Kelly. With only one acting job under her belt (an uncredited role in 1951’s The Pretty Girl), Hitchcock signed her to a seven-year contract with the weekly wage of $500.
Named after child star Shirley Temple, perhaps Shirley MacLaine Beaty (her brother is Warren Beatty) was destined to sing and dance her way into audience hearts. But it was an injured ankle that helped launch her career into the stratosphere.
Having moved to New York City in order to fulfill her dreams of performing, 20-year-old MacLaine was a chorus dancer and understudy to actress Carol Haney in The Pajama Game on Broadway in 1954. During a matinee performance, Haney injured her ankle and MacLaine took her place in the spotlight. Taking in the performance was film producer Hal B. Wallis, who screen tested the unknown and then signed MacLaine to a seven-year contract.
Her first film was 1955’s The Trouble With Harry, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. MacLaine had continued success in The Apartment (1960), Sweet Charity (1968), The Turning Point (1977), Steel Magnolias (1989), Postcards From the Edge (1990), and received a best actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment (1983).
For lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts, MacLaine was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 2013.
The girl who would go on to embody Katniss Everdeen on screen was discovered in classic Hollywood tradition. Though for Jennifer Lawrence, it occurred in 2004 when she was 14-years-old student on a spring break trip to New York City from her Kentucky home.
While in Union Square with her mother, she was approached by a man who said he had model agency connections. “My mom gave him her number,” she told ABC News of the incident. “Then he called and said modeling agencies wanted to meet with me. And I made up my mind in the cab ride, I was like, ‘Well, I’m only going to sign with a modeling agency if they’ll let me act.’”
Lawrence spent the rest of the summer in NYC acting in commercials. Working solidly over the next six years, Lawrence’s breakout role came in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. In 2012 she headlined the first installment of The Hunger Games, before receiving an Academy Award in 2013 for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook.
Who looks good eating pizza? Natalie Portman does, according to the Revlon Cosmetics representative that saw her biting into a slice at a local Long Island, New York parlor.
“I was just at a pizza place, after dance class, with my mom,” Portman recalled to The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. “I was excited. As a 10-year-old girl, it was super-flattering.” Like Jennifer Lawrence, Portman knew there was more to her than just capitalizing on good looks.
She requested to be put in touch with the team’s acting agents and roles in Léon: The Professional (1994), Mars Attacks! (1996) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) followed, ahead of V for Vendetta (2005) and an Academy Award-winning turn in Black Swan (2010).
Like a tale created by a Hollywood screenwriter, Sofia Vergara was discovered while taking some sun by the water in her birth country of Columbia. “I was 17. I was at the beach with my parents and some scout asked to take a Polaroid of me,” Vergara told E! in 2013.
The then dentistry student was soon modeling and made her onscreen debut in a Pepsi commercial for the Latin American markets. After relocating to the United States, Vergara became a Univision personality in the mid-1990s ahead of her film debut in Big Trouble (2002). Vergara appeared in Chicago on Broadway in 2009, the same year she began playing Gloria Delgado-Pritchett in the ongoing sitcom Modern Family, for which she has received four Emmy nominations.