Her beauty has proved timeless—should we be surprised? Equally graceful whether moving or standing still, blessed with a balletic poise, luminous dark eyes, and an exquisite profile a queen might envy, Audrey Hepburn would no doubt have become famous in her youth even if the movies hadn't found her—simply because no self-respecting camera could resist her. What sets her iconic beauty apart now, for us, more than a decade after she's quit the stage of this life, is that her physicality is oddly secondary. Her extraordinary good looks merely halo a still-living smile.
Charles Chaplin’s Little Tramp is the supreme icon of motion pictures—still recognized and loved throughout the world, more than 90 years since he first burst on the screen. The shabby little figure—with derby hat, too-tight jacket, oversized boots and pants, dandified bow tie, and swagger cane—seemed to symbolize the hopes and fears, defeats and optimism of all humanity. Chaplin’s own biography was a rags-to-riches story that saw the product of a destitute childhood in Victorian London become one of Hollywood’s first millionaires and the owner of his own studio before he was 30. His supreme gift was to transform his experience and knowledge of the human lot into comedy, for which his invention and skill have never been surpassed.
“I was one of the people who took the hero further away from the white hat. In A Fistful of Dollars, you didn’t know who was the hero till a quarter of the way through the film, and then you weren’t sure; you figured he was the protagonist, but only because everybody else was crappier than he was. I like the way heroes are now. I like them with strengths, weaknesses, lack of virtue.”—Clint Eastwood
The top female box-office star of 1954, 's status as icon takes in an 11-film, three-year, screen career and a glamorous later life as Princess of Monaco. More than any other star, she was in three memorable films the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, delineating traits of cool beauty, depths of hidden passion, intelligence, playfulness, and style-in short, the qualities that led biographer James Spada to call her "the pious man's Marilyn." Yet Grace Kelly also showed her versatility and won her acting honors for playing against type in the title role in the grimly realistic movie . Grace Kelly was a classic beauty, a public figure, and serious actress representative of an era.
Greta Garbo’s uniquely photogenic beauty belies her great talent as an actress, as her performances in Queen Christina and Camille prove. A hint of a Garbo smile, touch, or glance conveyed volumes. She was languid, distant, and melancholy, yet in her love scenes she conveyed a passion and hunger that startled audiences and overturned American notions of eroticism and sexuality. Part of her fascination, too, is the mystery of her private lives and loves: “I want to be alone,” she insisted, but she remains the world’s divine woman.
Humphrey Bogart is a legend and an icon whose magic has not dissipated with time. The wounded tough guy image Bogart molded over the decades of his career still resonates. There is a truth to this image; audiences sense that the world-weariness, the angst, and the vulnerability, which made him an icon of noir as well, were rooted somehow in reality. Even if the spectator knew nothing about his personal life, they believed and still do believe in his performances in cinema classics like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place, and The African Queen.
Ingrid Bergman was more than the luminous image of healthy sensuality that intoxicated audiences worldwide during and immediately after World War II in movies like Casablanca, Gaslight, Spellbound and Notorious. In later life she found continued film success with Anastasia, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Indiscreet, and Autumn Sonata. She was also a ferociously ambitious actress who played Strindberg, O’Neill, Cocteau, and Maugham on the stage to great acclaim, as well as a woman who found the most lasting sensual experience to be found in the response of an audience rather than any individual husband or lover.
James Dean died at the age of 24, yet half a century later his mystique is unfaded. Had luck favored him that fatal evening, he might still be with us, an actor in the same generation as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, and Sean Connery. His phenomenally charismatic performances in such classics as Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden have immortalized him as a cinematic great. Dean also had serious ambitions of becoming a writer-director, and it is haunting to imagine what he might have done if his life had not been cut short. He remains such icon of gifted youth: even 50 years after his death, we still look at James Dean in full suspense, wondering how he’s going to turn out.
From birth, Katharine Hepburn seemed destined to become a symbol of the modern woman on stage, on screen, and in the world. Fiercely competitive, private, and independent, Hepburn was one part Olympic athlete Babe Didrikson, one part Amelia Earhart, and two parts Greta Garbo. Although often paired with the greatest actors in Hollywood—Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen); Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby), James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story), and Spencer Tracy (Adam's Rib, Woman of the Year)—Hepburn was able to carry her own films like Summertime, Little Women, and Sylvia Scarlett over a stage and screen career that spanned eight decades. Her home was never in Hollywood (where she won four Oscars) or New York but in Connecticut, where she died lamenting "I could have accomplished three times as much. I haven't realized my full potential."
"Forget everything you think you know about this person," Elia Kazan cautioned, in his autobiography. The icon we cherish under the name Marilyn Monroe was in truth the inspired creation of a smart, voluptuous, star struck and self-motivated fantasist named Norma Jean Mortenson. A pure product of Hollywood, she abides across time as brightly as two other self-inventors, Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant. Few things make an afterlife blaze more mythically than a sexual reputation—ask Cleopatra. Norma Jean paid a huge price to become Marilyn, yet here she is—still setting the bar high for all other would-be goddesses.
Marlene Dietrich once said, "I am not a myth." But by referencing the term, Dietrich only reinforces the fact more emphatically. For, using almost any common dictionary definition of that word, Dietrich is a myth. Her image was fashioned by director Josef von Sternberg in films like The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express, and The Scarlet Empress, after which she maintained a Hollywood career that included Destry Rides Again, Rancho Notorious, and an accomplished performance in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution. She has been an object of worship to millions throughout the decades, up to and including this jaded, post-modern 21st century. She is the "intellectual's pin up girl," as author Herman G. Weinberg called her, of filmmakers and film critics alike. She is the "Monstre Sacre" as one of her recent biographers has labeled her. She is her own "Superior Product," (her daughter's words) manufactured and refined in her fertile brain. In other words, Marlene Dietrich is an icon for all ages.
Had he not been an actor, Marlon Brando once wrote, he would have become a criminal—specifically, a con artist. Take him at his word. Too many complain that Brando, the greatest actor of his generation, wasted his life in futile rebellions and left far too few masterworks in his wake, especially measured against his potential; but considering his sincere confession of criminal potential, we can be grateful for the little we do have. The actor who starred so unforgettably in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Last Tango in Paris certainly owes no apologies to posterity.
A recognized prodigy at age 10, world famous by age 23, Orson Welles was a triple magician of theater, radio, and film—and by age 25 a promising figure in American politics. President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged him to try a run for the Senate; newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst branded him a pariah. But by the time he turned 30, Orson Welles’ professional success ended irreversibly; from then until the day he died, he endured ridicule and reproach over what many judged his “failure.” Few knew how feverishly he had persisted as an independent filmmaker. Now, decades after his death, “new” work keeps emerging, and his reputation as an undefeated genius and creator only grows.
Steve McQueen found it hard to balance worldwide fame with a desperate need for solitude. Through performances that were effortless yet powerful, he connected with the people who saw him on stage, on television, in movie houses, and on magazine covers anywhere on earth. Sometimes more comfortable racing a motorcycle than in front of a camera, twice at the height of his stardom he took more than a year off from movies. Despite this, and despite dying young, he left an indelible imprint. Images, his own words, and the words of others chronicle his rise from juvenile delinquent to the highest paid star in Hollywood.