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Heir raising: why do we care about ‘Hollywood royalty’?

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In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it

Having successfully thrown off the yoke of the British monarchy in the 18th century, America decided it kind of missed having an impervious elite to fawn over and so invented its own. Hollywood royalty is traditionally wealthy, glamorous, highly visible and overwhelmingly white. Unlike genuine royals, Hollywood’s have to actually be good at something.

To believe in the idea of Hollywood royalty, therefore, is to believe one of two contradictory things: either talent is truly hereditary and these dynasties are successful because they are passing down some sort of superior showbiz genes; or it’s all just an accident of birth, and having a powerful mum or dad to open doors is really all you need.

Hollywood royalty has also prevailed through sheer longevity. Some dynasties are into the fourth generation. The Hustons, for example: Grandpa Walter; his son John; John’s children Anjelica, Danny and Tony; and now Tony’s son Jack Huston. Or the Coppolas: Francis Ford; his composer father Carmine; sister Talia Shire, Francis’s children Sofia and Roman; his nephews Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, and now his director granddaughter Gia. These families both have their fair share of Oscars, often work with their relatives, and are drawn to dynastic themes on screen: Coppola’s The Godfather, for example, or John Huston’s unforgettable role as the monstrous patriarch in Chinatown. “What could you buy that you can’t already afford?” he’s asked by Jack Nicholson (real-life partner of his daughter Anjelica at the time). “The future!” Huston replies. Classic royalty answer.

There are many more family trees to study – the Fondas, the Howards, the Hedren-Griffith-Johnsons – and they are proliferating. You don’t have to throw a silver spoon very far across a Beverly Hills restaurant these days before hitting some celebrity offspring or other. Some of them brandish their surname like the brand-signifier it is – so, Patrick Schwarzenegger, tell us about your background. Others don’t flaunt the family legacy too blatantly, such as Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher, granddaughter of Debbie Reynolds) or Margaret Qualley (who is doing fine without namedropping her mum, Andie MacDowell). But those who know their Hollywood peerage always know who they’re dealing with.

On the meritocracy question, Hollywood royalty has its share of heirs who match, or even surpass, their parents: Josh Brolin, say, or Katherine Waterston. But many of the current crop seem to be getting a leg up from mum or dad, then not getting much further. As with Britain’s royals, this world has its share of Beatrices and Eugenies, and the more of them there are, the less royal they seem.

Change – even revolution – is possible, however. New clans are emerging, even non-white ones, such as the House of Wayans, or John David, heir to the throne of (Denzel) Washington; or O’Shea Jackson Jr, who played his dad, Ice Cube, in Straight Outta Compton. New dynasties rise, old ones fall – less like The Crown and more like Game of Thrones. HR’s survival depends on their ability to entertain the masses. Even as they lord it over us, they know they are only there because we want them to be.

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