Immigrants in the Film Industry

Since the inception of the American film industry in 1910, Hollywood has captured the ideals, values, and struggles of our country on the big screen. Through creative explorations of current events and the ability to metamorphose reality into art, the innovative minds of Hollywood have shocked, awed, and endeared audiences across the globe.

Without the talents and skills of immigrants, though, would Hollywood be the same?  Film experts and historians say no. Many early films made inside and outside of Hollywood were made for newcomers to the United States, living in cities that were dominated by first- and second-generation immigrants.

From an article in the LA Times: “The early movies were a medium that spoke directly to immigrant Americans," explains film historian Steven Ross, whose 1998 book, "Working Class Hollywood," explores how films shaped America's idea of class during the silent movie era. "In the big cities, nickelodeons were located in the bad areas of town -- the immigrant neighborhoods. But it was a huge audience. By 1910, many cities had a population that was 70% first- and second-generation immigrants."

Many of your favorite Hollywood celebrities hail from outside of the United States and immigrated to our country for the same reasons that many immigrants make the move: opportunity, appreciation of the culture, and the chance to live out the American dream.

You might be surprised about who makes the list:

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Charlie Chaplin

Occupation: actor, filmmaker, composer

Notable Films: Modern Times, The Great Dictator, The Kid, The Immigrant

Country of Origin: England

Chaplin was a catalyst in the American film industry, ratcheting up the prominence of the silent film and quickly becoming one of the most iconic people in the Hollywood film industry. Working as both an actor and filmmaker, he is most notably recognized for his trademark character “The Tramp.” Through this character and his penchant for political commentary, Chaplin satirized major political movements of the time. One of his most commercially successful films, The Great Dictator, scorned the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler.

Today, Chaplin is still lauded as an irreplaceable piece in the puzzle that creates the backdrop of modern Hollywood. His works are important examples of art and comedy as a means of political protest. His accolades include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lincoln Center Film Society, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, three Academy Awards, and six recognitions from the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.

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Audrey Hepburn

Occupation: Actress, Philanthropist

Notable Films: Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, Funny Face

Country of Origin: Belgium

Actress, humanitarian, and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn is ranked by the American Film Institute as the 3rd greatest actress in Hollywood and 6th overall. Her acting work primarily occurred during the Golden Age, a time when Hollywood was at its peak. Shortly after her immigration to America, she starred in her first film, Roman Holiday. For her work, she was awarded an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA. This was the first time that an actress had been awarded all three for the same film. Throughout the latter years of Hepburn’s life, she spent less time acting and more time working with UNICEF.

For her work with charitable organizations, Hepburn was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. For her work as an actress, she was also awarded an Emmy Award, a Grammy award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Tony Award. Some of these awards were given posthumously, allowing for her addition to the coveted list of “EGOTs,” or those who have earned all four of the major annual American entertainment awards.

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Alfred Hitchcock

Occupation: Director and producer

Notable Films: Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window

Country of Origin: England

Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock rose to fame as one of the most influential directors in the history of film. His films shaped the thriller and horror genre, and his influence can still be seen today in films that utilize the “Hitchcockian” method of following the perspective of a person’s gaze and his unique framing of films to organically emphasize anxiety in the audience. Hitchcock started his career in film as a humble title card designer, eventually moving through the ranks until his films were grossing over $225 million.

Hitchcock has been awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2002, he was named the most influential filmmaker of all time. His other awards include two Golden Globes, eight Laurel Awards, and four Lifetime Achievement Awards in addition to the AFI award. Eight of his films have been preserved in the US National Film Registry

Natalie Portman

Occupation: Actress, Writer, Producer, Director

Notable Films: Star Wars, Episode 1-3, Black Swan, Thor, V for Vendetta

Country of Origin: Israel

Most well known for her role as Padme Amidala in the Star Wars prequel films, Natalie Portman is a shining star in Hollywood. Her more recent works include parts in the Thor films, as well as her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in the 2016 biopic Jackie. Her talents span the range of genres, from period films such as The Other Boleyn Girl to psychological thrillers like Black Swan. Her talents extend to her humanitarian efforts, focusing on American and Israeli politics, as well as animal and environmental causes.

Portman has been awarded various accolades for her work in film, including an Academy Award, a BAFTA, two Golden Globes, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. In 2017, Portman was named the 2018 Genesis Prize Laureate for her work in advancing equality for women.

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M. Night Shyamalan

Occupation: Actor, Filmmaker

Notable Films: The Village, Signs, The Sixth Sense, The Visit

Country of Origin: India

Filmmaker and actor M. Night Shyamalan is well known for his forays into the world of the supernatural and his “twist endings.” Shyamalan's parents migrated to the United States when he was still an infant. He grew up in Pennsylvania, attending Catholic school before going on to earn his degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. From a young age, M. Night Shyamalan showed talent in filmmaking, earning a Young Artist Award nomination in 1999 for his film Wide Awake. He found commercial success with his film The Sixth Sense and continues to direct movies. His most recent work was Glass, the last film in the Unbreakable trilogy.

Despite having not won any of the four major American entertainment awards, he has won several smaller awards such as the Christopher Award, an Empire Award, a Bram Stoker award, and a Nebula award. Additionally, he has been nominated for two Academy Awards, two BAFTA awards, and one Golden Globe.

The Film Industry Depends on the Perspective of Immigrants

Our ability to experience other cultures through film rests heavily on the willingness of immigrants to bring their perspectives into the American film industry. Outside of working as actors, directors, and producers, countless immigrants do the heavy lifting of Hollywood, working as camera operators, sound technicians, and beyond. Since the beginning of American cinema, Hollywood has taken on the role of representing what’s important to its citizens. Just as the United States is a melting pot of immigrant talent, Hollywood finds much of its success due to the collaboration between people across the globe.