An icon, by definition, is an object whose image symbolizes an ideal, from beauty to strength to piety, depending on whom you ask. Over time, these images become enduring myths, transcending global zeitgeists and their respective cultural mores. Icons themselves have been the source of inspiration for a wide range of artistic genres over the course of history from the Grecian reliefs of antiquity, to early Byzantine painting to 1960s pop art. The film industry has generated a stable of such icons, who, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have become the subjects of many a famous painting, at times even turning the painter himself into an icon, i.e. Andy Warhol. Among these stars are a handful whose timeless beauty will continue to inspire generations of artists to come.
Mary Pickford, the first bona fide Hollywood star acquired iconic status for her unmistakably innocent, angelic face, which eventually coined her the nickname “America’s Sweetheart”. Her contemporary counterpart, the “divine” Greta Garbo, became known as the turbid vamp, and destroyer of men, whose elusive personality and enigmatic gaze forever shrouded her in mystery. Rita Hayworth’s thick red hair and generous curves inspired the moniker “atomic bomb”. So influential was this nickname that her image adorned the experimental bombs dropped on the atoll of Bikini during the United States’ 1946 nuclear weapons tests. But her most iconic moment would have to be from the movie Gilda, where in a moment of exceptionally charged eroticism that made the forearm a forbidden fruit, she tantalizingly removed her long black satin gloves.
The 50s heralded the era of the pin-up girls, most of whom would bare more than just their arms. Among the early beauties from this period was Norma Jean Baker, who would eventually, with a name chosen by a 20th Century Fox executive, distinguish herself as the greatest female movie icon of all time: Marilyn Monroe. As Marilyn Monroe, Ms. Baker projected, not unlike James Dean, an aspect of the human being that burns with a brief albeit intense flame—like a shooting star that we can only fleetingly catch with our eyes, but the image of which is indelible. For all of her power, people often felt when watching her that she might disappear at any moment. Truman Capote described her perhaps most evocatively: “…She is like the flight of a hummingbird; only through a movie camera, or photo camera, can her poetry be expressed.”
Like many of today’s corporate-contrived celebrities, Marilyn was a creation of the managers of film production companies. Her manner of speaking with aspirate vowels, so erotic and distinctive, was the result of intense training to overcome a stammer. In her private life, Marilyn was not the dumb blonde who appeared on the screen. She liked bookshops, and was one of the first actresses in Hollywood to establish a production house. But in the long run, the role she had to play even off the set became too heavy: “I take on Marilyn as an unbearable burden,” she said shortly before her death.
A different icon from the same era, though still today considered “modern”, is Audrey Hepburn. Unique in style and quirky in personality, she enchanted the world in Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday. Her sophisticated grace made her the perfect choice to play good girls in search of love. But despite the lightness of this trope, Ms. Hepburn was able to infuse her characters with unparalleled depth and dimension. Equally charming and refined was Grace Kelly. Though her film career was cut short by her marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, she remains to this day one of the most recognizable women of all time, iconic for her classic, timeless beauty. To many, she is perfection personified.
More recently, there are three actresses who have been instrumental in putting to rest the gendered stereotypes of the 50s: Faye Dunaway, Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep. During the 60s and 70s Faye Dunaway broke through into the film industry, and quickly became known as an actress whose charisma on screen was defined not by a specific brand of sex appeal, but by a substantial, commanding presence. She was born in Florida and grew up an army brat, following her father from various and disparate military bases across the country. Unlike other divas of her time, she emerged from the folds of Broadway rather than Hollywood. Her talent, combined with her captivating beauty and ineffable charm, made her extremely popular, turning her into an icon of the 60s and 70s, during which she was most active in her career.
That career began to gain momentum in 1968 when she starred in three films: The Extraordinary Seaman, directed by John Frankenheimer; The Thomas Crown Affair, directed by Norman Jewison, and the Italian film Amanti, directed by Vittorio De Sica. On the set of the latter she met Marcello Mastroianni, with whom she had a brief yet infamous affair. It wasn’t until the mid-70s’, however, that the actress truly triumphed, when she starred in Network, directed by Sidney Lumet. The film was a worldwide success and showered the actress with awards, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Her frequent and seemingly alchemic collaborations with compatible directors, screenwriters and co-stars shaped her illustrious career, which eventually pushed her into the elite realm of iconographic women.
Jessica Lange became iconic for her embodiment in film of the ‘strong woman’, and rose to fame in the 70s and 80s. While studying fine art at the University of Minnesota, she posed as a model and took acting lessons. Soon thereafter she worked to perfect the craft during an extended stay in France, and decided to make it her career. The fact that she has played 26 characters in 26 films, directed by 26 different directors, is a testament to her far-reaching capacities as an actress. At the age of 32 she starred in the transgressive movie The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), alongside Jack Nicholson, directed by Bob Rafelson. It quickly became one of her most notable films. Her execution of the role helped the movie to gain cult status, although the incendiary sex scenes and jarring depictions of violence didn’t hurt. Regarding what guides her to take on certain characters, she stated: “It comes down to something really simple: Can I visualize myself playing those scenes? If that happens, then I know that I will probably end up doing it”.
Meryl Streep became an icon almost instantaneously from the outset of her career trajectory, due to her inimitable acting style and magnetic presence. In ‘77, she got her first nomination for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her intense interpretation of the role of an abandoned girlfriend who finds a new love in The Deer Hunter alongside Robert De Niro. During the filming of the post-Vietnam masterpiece directed by Michael Cimino, she met the artist John Cazale whom she would stay beside until his death from cancer in 1978, a few months after they began their affair. In September of the same year, she got married to the sculptor Don Gummer. Then, her heart-wrenching performance in Kramer vs. Kramer earned her an Oscar. Meryl has always been on the frontlines of an accusatory battle against the Dream Factory for its lack of substantial female roles. Recently though, she came back with gusto from that conflict, playing the role of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. With her eighteen nominations for a Golden Globe, four of which hit home, Meryl Streep is one of the most awarded actresses in the film industry. So far she holds the record for nominations for the Academy Awards.
Iconographic images of people are always, as a matter of course, reflective of a tension between an ideal and the complex messiness and inherently frail biology of reality. We are magnetically drawn to such images in part because they embody at once what is for us the most basic and oft-mythologized binary: the sacred and the profane. This is true of even the earliest iconographic representations of (once or contemporaneously) living people. In early iconographic representational work this tension was subtle, even subtextual; with respect to icons from the big screen it has become a more explicit preoccupation. With the emergence of the Paparazzi and the public’s ever more instantaneous access to an apparent “reality” behind the entertainment industry’s contrivance, perceptions and receptions of contemporary icons are fraught with fascination about how the actual lives they lead relate to their timelessness. Indeed, it is precisely this fascination that has given rise to the myriad contemporary art movements that have helped to create present-day icons.
From September 10th – December 31, 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents “Regarding Warhol” which features the work of one of the most famous artists of the 20th Century including many of his iconic portraits of entertainment legends.
Article by Silvio Saura, Copy Editor Marianne White.