Francis Feeney (Maine, 1881-Los Angeles, 1953) was a silent movie star who ended up like so many, with very few and legendary exceptions, half-forgotten after the appearance of sound (that story always haunted me: as if you stopped playing at football from one day to the next and, five years later, their extinguished cult gods live spitefully in their mansions fighting against oblivion and begging for television appearances on the brink of madness).
Young Feeney got his chance because one day a leading actor, drunk from the night before, skipped a theater performance. Feeney nailed it and the newspapers quoted him, but the script could not be changed in time, so he took the applause with the name of the actor he replaced, who luckily was also called Francis, but with another last name: Ford . Between success and his last name, Feeney chose success: he was renamed Francis Ford. Incidentally, out of habit, the new surname was passed on to his little brother, John Feeney, who was called John Ford.
Years later, John Ford received a visit on a set from a man who wanted a role in his next film. “Very well, what is your name?” He told him. “Frank Feeney,” he replied. “What a coincidence, the same name as my brother.” “I already know it! I am the real Francis Ford, the actor who couldn’t perform on opening day.” That was the name of the rest of his life, as told in that masterpiece of a book that Peter Bogdanovich dedicated to Ford (John Ford, Hatari Books).
The impressive nature with which Francis Ford assimilated his new name reminded me of another story, this personal one. It happened 20 years ago in my living room, when those of us who always were bored to death were gathered together, and one said: “Let’s screw up Miguel Ángel’s life.” For one reason: he wasn’t there. We were all there, he wasn’t there. I don’t know what codes are used in gangs elsewhere; Galicians only have one rule: always try to be there.
Miguel is cleaner than a fish. He is famous for being the best-smelling guy in Pontevedra; one year she found out that her perfume was no longer manufactured, she called headquarters in all the countries and ordered as long as she could to prolong that exceptional smell that, we knew when she spilled the last drop, was already the natural smell of her skin. Sometimes I call him to meet up (“it’s urgent”), we sit in the Plaza da Leña, he gets impatient (“well, what did you love me”), and I, breathing in with my eyes closed, tell him: “Nothing, smell you ”.
Well, one day two decades ago it was decided, in his absence, to start calling him Choto. No more. An unbearable phonetics that referred to a stigmatizing expression: smell like choto. And we started, like fine rain: “Choto, today we meet at six”, “Are you coming to watch the game, Choto?”, “Have you called Choto?”. In this way, a climate of trust was established in which it was perceived that Miguel, in private, was affectionately called Choto by his friends, and thus, when someone from outside became familiar with him, they would already call him Choto. Choto was the cool name, the name of those of us who were inside, therefore it spread like a wick. If we wanted to do a good deed, we would not have been half successful.
A year later it was Choto forever. And the? He attended the name change at first with bewilderment, he did not have time to react. Months later he looked out one night at the Portonovo Woodstock crouched, making jokes, while he said: “Here comes the Chotillo!”. He had doubled the pulse: unable to stem the tide, he made her his. He won the battle against a whole popular expression. Every time I hear or read Choto I think of something clean that smells very good, the most portentous humor, the biggest heart. The word refers me to something pleasant that I always want near. People win, they strip anything of meaning: they turn names into what they want, into what they are. My friend is so strong that, if he had been named Mussolini, Mussolini today would be a name that would make normal people want to hear it.