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Monday, August 22, 2011

Being an icon: remembered fondly or simply becoming overrated?

Okay, so I'm going to keep today's post fairly short... mostly because otherwise this will turn into a rambling post, and also because I have stupid summer homework I have to do. School opens in about a week, so... but I did finish reading one of the books, so I'm going to treat myself to a little break by writing here. (Yes, I know, I'm an awful procrastinator!)

So you may have noticed that during the month (and a little more) that I've been writing on here, I have not once mentioned a name so frequently linked with Old Hollywood -- Marilyn Monroe.

You may find this strange, usually because Marilyn has become over the years (unfortunately) the poster child for Classic Hollywood. The platinum blond hair, red lips, and beauty mark (or you could. call. it. a. MOLE. I mean, that's what it is, isn't it??!!) have become an icon of sorts that is frequently the only common link between today's generation (with the exception of those of us who watch classic film) and Yesteryear.

Which is, I guess, why I have neglected to mention her.

Before I continue: don't get me wrong. I most certainly don't hate Marilyn Monroe or anything and I don't want to offend any of her fans. It's only, I often wonder about her popularity. Does this spark from the somewhat scandalous life she lived - Happy birthday, Mr. President - to her early death, which was, of course, above all a tragedy... but still, attention getting? Is it because people find her a good actress? 

I think that I can surprisingly find Marilyn a good actress, more than a sex symbol, etc. when you watch her at some of her very best in the films. But why do we remember her as the iconic dumb blond, then, or the skirt flying up above the subway grate?? 

Here's my opinion on Marilyn: she's not an awful actress and I have been known to enjoy her movies. I think she was pretty, but I have to admit there are other actresses of the Golden Era that were more beautiful. So I don't hate her or anything and I'm not trying to write a bashing Marilyn post here.... but I must admit, I do find her a little overrated...

But, in  fact, I think people are often unfair to Marilyn by remembering her as the girl who first posed nude for Playboy or had an affair with JFK because she did not come into Hollywood with the intent of being a media toy - she came to act, didn't she? 

I'm a little all over the place, so let me try to make my point a little clearer. I happen to know a girl.... She claims to really like Marilyn Monroe and has a picture of her on her bedroom wall. But the thing is, she doesn't know anything about her life or career. And she hasn't even seen one of her films. I think this a very good point of someone liking Marilyn simply because they find her iconic and not because they enjoy her movies - and personally, as someone who loves Old Hollywood so much, it does make you kind of annoyed, doesn't it?

I think all of this has got a lot to do with being an "icon."

I wouldn't call Marilyn the only victim of this whole "icon" business, either. What about Audrey Hepburn? Now, you all know that I really love Audrey (it's kind of impossible, not to). But through stills of Breakfast at Tiffany's in that gorgeous (but most certainly overused) black dress, with the cat and the diamonds and the long cigarette holder, she has, too, become an icon to hang on teenage girls' bedroom walls without a clue to who she really was.... or to the fact that she made other films....

I happen to have a big decal of Audrey on my bedroom wall myself. But before you call me a hypocrite: I actually know a lot about Audrey's life and career. I've read several books and I've seen plenty of her films. I don't love her as an icon, but as an actress.

Another icon: James Dean. He did about three films before his death in a car accident and he has henceforth gotten the "iconic" treatment, too. It's a little different with the guys. The girls (like Audrey and Marilyn), find themselves plastered on bedroom walls, t-shirts, and jewelry. I have yet to find James Dean's face on a coffee mug, but gets the celebrity treatment of not a legend but a modern day star. Take a look at his website, for his example - If you wouldn't have known better, you think it was a prospering, up and coming male model (at least, that's what I would have thought.)

I mean, the man only did make three movies...

Take Humphrey Bogart, for example. He, too, has become an icon of sorts: a "Bogie", with the trench coat and the fedora hat, speaking in that ever so memorable lisp. Maybe his icon has dimmed in recent years, but I can still remember that episode of "The Brady Bunch" - "Pork chops and apple sauce," Peter says.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against these particular actors. Audrey and Bogie are two of my own personal favorite actors. I'm not really the world's biggest Marilyn fan, but I don't hate her and James Dean was probably okay, too.

I'm not trying to bash the whole "iconic" deal, either. In a couple ways, it's a good thing. "Icons" help the newer generations remember the stars of the past, even if it is through posters on their bedroom walls of celebrities they could know less about. 

What makes a person iconic? Why is Marilyn Monroe the iconic of them all? Why... why not Ava Gardner? (Just pulling someone random out here). 

Some may argue that Lucille Ball is an icon, too. I agree that she most certainly is an icon... her flaming red hair and humongous blue eyes won't be forgotten for decades to come. But she is an icon in the way that Elizabeth Taylor is  -- both still popular with the public after their deaths and regarded as icons, you're not likely to find them stamped on merchandise the way you would with Marilyn or Audrey.

Is that it? Do these icons sell money? Once I remember watching a TV special on dead icons and how much money they bring in. (Among them were those I've mentioned, including Lucy... as well as Elvis Presley, which is another good example, but I won't get into that because that kind of detours into the music industry... and that would bring me to the Beatles, and then I'd go on forever.)

I'm also not trying to say that it's unoriginal to have one of these icons as your favorite actor. That would be totally hypocritical considering how much I love Audrey and Bogie. It's just... I don't know. I kind of hope I made myself clear otherwise this would totally become a rambling post.

What is your opinion on turning particular stars into icons (and not others... Case in point: why Marilyn, not Ava? Or to even go farther, why not pick someone randomer... like, Marilyn vs. Susan Hayward??!!)? Does it overpower what good actors these people actually were and instead turn them into nearly a brand name of sorts? Or does it keep the memory of Golden Hollywood alive? And also... is there any explanation for why some become icons and others don't? Which icons do you love - any of the ones I mentioned?

Okay, so screw that whole "fairly short" thing, because I did go on for way too long. But I would love to hear your opinions on this... and if I make any sense at all. * smiles sheepishly *.

Well, I've got to go and write a book report now. But thanks for reading this  random rant... 

(Oh, and by the way -- I finally threw my hat into the ring for the Carole-tennial [+3] blogathon, as the new banner on my sidebar should tell you. It's sponsored by Carole and Co, and it looks like it's going to be great fun!)


Audrey said...

I chuckled to myself when I read the part about James Dean not being on coffee mugs. Case in point:

I'm not trying to invalidate your point at all, though. I actually agree with the point you are making here. It does kind of get old pretty quick when the same Audrey picture is plastered over and over. She was in lots of other pictures and films, after all! But I know for a lot of people getting interested in Audrey has led them to explore other classic films. So it can be broadening in that way. You make some good observations!

Anonymous said...

I've just stumbled accross your blog and, so far it's very interesting. Now, about the whole "icon" thing. I think that, in Marilyn's and Dean's cases, they were both quite enigmatic at the time they lived. Both their lives and their deaths had a touch of mistery. Also, if you look at Marilyn's photos and films, you can see that the camera absolutely adores her. Even if she were the most terrible actress, people would've gone to the theater just to see that face and that body. Men and women were hypnotized by her beauty and sexiness. I tell you that because, even before she became a big hit, people would take interest in her (after seeing her on a small part in a movie, for example). And, when she became famous, her personal (and tragic) story made people sort of relate to her. The legend of Marilyn began when she was still alive and after her untimely and misterious death, people became even more curious about her. And because of her magnetism (I know this word is a little vague and clich├ęd, but I that's the best I can do) the idea, the image of Marilyn endured until today.
As for James Dean, after his first movie, people started to take interest in him, because he was very good. He had some of what Brando had, so obviously people became intrigued by him. And I think his death was the big reason why he became such an icon. If he hadn't died so young in that terrible car accident, I don't think he would've been the icon he is today. Oh, and by the way, I have a coffee mug with his face on it and there are a lot of random items with him stamped :) You'd be surprised ;)
But it's hard to reach a definitive and objective conclusion about what makes an icon. I don't know and I can only speculate and discuss what might be.

Rianna said...

Audrey - LOL, I laughed really hard when I saw those James Dean coffee mugs. I guess I ought to have checked that out first! :D And yeah, after I finished my rant I thought how through these more talked about "icons", a lot of people venture into classic film and that's such a wonderful thing! I love Audrey Hepburn of course and because of that I think it should be validated she made more than one film... even as much as I love BAT's. Thanks for your input :)

Classicmovies - Hi, thanks for stopping my blog and taking the time to leave such insightful comments! I'm glad you found my rant interesting...
I agree completely with you that Marilyn did have a "magnetism", as you put it, that sold. It sold movie tickets then and today it sells merchandise (case in point). Her death was very tragic and probably has a lot to do with her being an icon.
The same applies to James Dean. I've only seen one of his films (out of three), and though I liked it I won't judge his acting just on that. I think his sudden death has a lot to do with it. My father pointed out to me Montgomery Clift - like Dean, he was a method actor. Like Dean, he was in a car crash. However, he survived and lost all his looks and his career.... he died late into his 40's and doesn't survive with the "icon" status that Dean does. Had he died in the car crash he may have had the same effect.
Though Marilyn was most certainly a popular box office draw and had all the ingredients of the "sex symbol", there were a lot of other gals in the 50's with the same aura - Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor. I think the solid factor in Marilyn's becoming an icon were, as you pointed out, her tragic story (I know all about her growing up in foster homes and etc.) and her death to top it off.
A early, tragic death has a lot to do with a person becoming an icon. In fact, tragedy has a lot to do with it... take Princess Diana or Michael Jackson, for example (if we're going to leave the Old Hollywood field for a sec). They both suffered in their lives and had early deaths. I like the both of them but that has a lot to do with them being the icons they are now.
Of course... tragedy and an early death doesn't turn everyone into an icon. Jean Harlow? Carole Lombard? And... Natalie Wood, of course. With Natalie's case, she did die young but she was no longer in her prime and her death was kind of glossed over. Say she had died right after "West Side Story", and we'd have t-shirts with her face on it being sold at Forever 21.
You're right, though. Who knows what makes an icon? ;) And yeah, I'm totally coming to the conclusion now that there are LOTS of coffee mugs with James Dean on it... lol.
Thanks once again for taking the time to leave such a thorough answer; I can tell you thought it over a lot. Hope you like the blog! :)

StanwyckFan said...

Whew. What a post! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. But, I think saying that Marilyn Monroe is "a little overrated" is a little understatement. I don't adore Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn (no offense - please don't hate me) and I therefore find it rather ridiculous that I am able to find Audrey Hepburn's or Marilyn Monroe's faces plastered all over anything. But I guess that since seeing these "icons" does let some people get into classic film I'll get over it someday. ;)

Rianna said...

LOL, no I don't hate you for not liking Audrey :D I guess what I just meant is why are some people plastered all over everything and what makes them icons... and not others??? Whether I like them or not was, like, a different thing. hehe. And yeah, it does get people into classic film which is probably the best thing. thanks for your input :)

Anonymous said...

People need fantasies in their lives, and Marilyn is nothing more than a fantasy...the "real" Marilyn was not as innocent or as magical as they make her out to be.
Good thing she didn't live in our days - her erratic behavior and drug addictions would've turned her into a tabloid favorite

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