Icon Versus Actor


All the talk this week over James Dean’s likeness has given me much to think about regarding how certain actors become icons of pop culture. For those who aren’t aware, it was announced earlier this week that Dean’s likeness would be used, recreated via CGI and unused footage, for an upcoming film, in which he’d be a secondary character.


Forgetting the debate over CGI resurrections, I’ve always wondered if Dean, had he lived, would’ve continued to be as great an actor as he was in his sole three movies. The performances he gave were mesmerizing and ushered in a new form of acting that represented the disenfranchised youth at its most modern. But were those performances just a phase? Would Dean have been able to expand beyond his performances of teenage angst?

I often wonder the same thing about Grace Kelly. Like Dean, her career was short-lived – but just like Dean, the circumstances of her life transformed her into a cultural icon. From her debut in High Noon and onwards, Kelly made a trope of her roles. She was the cool, icy blonde. Elegant, but also distant, and it would take the course of the film for someone (usually a man) to melt that icy heart.

Grace Kelly in High Society (1956)

Kelly was phenomenal in all these roles. The way in which she slowly gets roped into Jimmy Stewart’s neuroses in Rear Window pays off in a thrilling climax; the charm and wit she portrays in To Catch a Thief shows that she could very well be the next Cary Grant, as fashionable, witty, and charming; then there is High Society, she is the ultimate ice queen in this 1956 picture – three men fall for her, but her own haughty personality makes it impossible for her to see past her own upturned nose.

Then there is Kelly the style icon. Last year, I wrote a post about the Kelly bag. All the Technicolor gowns, all the Edith Head wardrobe, all the splendor of her composition and composure – all of these things create a fashion icon who catapults herself further into the limelight when she becomes a real-life Princess. Is it any coincidence that the very same year she married Prince Ranier, Kelly played a European princess in The Swan?

Grace Kelly made eleven pictures between 1951 to 1956. (For reference, Daniel Day-Lewis made seven pictures between 1997 and 2017.) There is something to like about Kelly in every single one of her pictures, and there’s always something to dissect, but I do wonder if Kelly had continued making films into the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, would she have blossomed beyond the ice-queen roles?

Many of her peers certainly did. Audrey Hepburn, who began with gamine roles, found movies that allowed her to expand her acting potential, branching out into pictures as anti-Hepburn as Wait Until Dark. Kelly’s favorite actress, Ingrid Bergman, found unexpected freedom in Italy with neorealism before returning to Hollywood with a new kind of intensity as seen in Murder on the Orient Express.

In the early days, actors were known for playing a certain role. John Wayne the Cowboy, Jimmy Stewart the All-American, Katharine Hepburn the Career Girl. But actors of Kelly’s generation wanted to study their craft, use those skills in theater companies and apply them to the silver screen. Kelly went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Jason Robards and Don Rickles, her uncle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and she acted in nearly 60 live television programs. (James Dean also began in television anthology shows.)

Andy Warhol, Grace Kelly, 1984

In this classic film buff’s humble opinion, with all the training and cultivated talent that Grace Kelly had, she could have indeed grown beyond the roles of her short career had she continued. She had the talent, the drive, and the professionalism that would’ve made her the next Ingrid Bergman. Her status as a cultural icon may have replaced her humanity with symbolism and discussions of mass media consumption, but it would be foolish to call Kelly’s body of work insubstantial. There is something very wonderful about it, something that endures. If she were any other actress, that would not be the case.

But she was Grace Kelly, and (to quote Cary Grant) she was serenity.


To read the other blogposts celebrating Grace Kelly please click here and follow The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon co-hosts The Wonderful World of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, Musings From a Classic Film Addict!


9 thoughts on “Icon Versus Actor

  1. Pingback: DAY 1: The 5th Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon – The Flapper Dame

  2. The Flapper Dame

    I always wonder what Grace would have done with her career had she not married into royalty or was allowed to still act. Marnie? Back to the NY stage? A Tony Award? She stopped her career at the peek and didn’t have a slope and reinvention point. I could see her going down Audrey’s route- but even then Audrey stopped acting in leading parts too I wish we knew- but at the same time the mystique is part of the allure to Grace. Its part of what keeps us glued to her story and career! THANK YOU FOR PARTICIPATING!!! I will see you round the blog-o-sphere soon!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think about this a lot! Ingrid Bergman became such a wonderful character actor in her later years. Imagine what Grace could’ve done with the movies of the ’70s. Would she have been able to stand alongside the new generation, the Jack Nicholsons and Dustin Hoffmans? Imagine Grace working with young Meryl Streep! Thanks for letting me participate!!!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, added! I always wonder about these actors who started out in the ’50s and got out before the studios collapsed. Look at how Marlon Brando evolved by the ’70s and ’80s. I really think Grace could’ve gone down that path.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Margot Shelby

    Interesting exercise in what if? It is a difficulty. Staying forever young and beautiful, like a Rose frozen in time that can still be admired 100 years later, or developing and through that also showing imperfections, but maybe becoming more interesting. I’m sure Kelly would have coped admirably.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi there, you raise some great food for thought! I think that Grace’s “disappearance” from the silver screen has added to her mystique. We haven’t seen her age before our very eyes as we’ve seen other actors do. But if she had been in movies for the long haul I’m sure she would be that glowing presence of the classic Hollywood tradition that would elevate any film. I don’t see her being out of place at all. As you and Cary say, “she was serenity.”


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