Of the many Halloween costumes I saw this weekend, among the snow and skintight everything, were a number of Holly Golightlys, Marilyn Monroes and otherwise all-purpose “retro” girls. Right on the heels of the release of My Week with Marilyn, a biopic about the essential blonde screen siren, is the announcement that a biopic of Grace Kelly is in the works. These things got me thinking about the presence of the old and glamorous and the mundane, everyday 2011. I wonder what the obsession with the look of Old Hollywood icons says about young people. What does it mean when we boil down someone’s entire career to a single screenshot, dress or hairstyle?
Because even if you’ve never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Seven Year Itch, you have seen that scene. You know what I mean. The one with a coiffed Audrey Hepburn, oversized shades screening off her eyes, pearls sitting on her long neck, croissant in hand, standing in front of Tiffany’s. Or Marilyn Monroe, platinum waves sloping on the side of her smooth, grinning face, her white dress billowing from the breeze of a subway grate. You know those images. You know those actresses — if not for their body of work, then at least what they represent.
The problem is that this glamour, this grace embodied by icons like these, seems to be lost in the translation of generations. In an effort to capture the charm of eras past, something is watered down. The subtlety of style that made figures like Hepburn, Kelly and Monroe so ineffably elegant can’t be simplified into a polyester Halloween costume. The oversaturation of classics like these inevitably leads to a misunderstanding. Countless coffee-table books and Tumblrs are devoted to images of icons like these, but I wonder how much the focus on the aesthetics of a bygone era affects their worth.
The premium on appearance as a measure of idol status is cemented by the fact that many of those Hollywood icons we count among the greats in terms of style died relatively young. There’s an undeniable, grotesque sort of glamour in making an early exit. That timelessness, that frozen image of youth, is a troubling paradox.
Take, as a counterexample, Elizabeth Taylor, who died this past year at the age of 79. The raven-haired, violet-eyed starlet, blessed with two rows of eyelashes and a killer figure, aged before an increasingly intrusive tabloid society. She took her age with poise, a sense of humor that fit with her fiery personality. But she has not achieved that same level of instant, single-image international recognizability as say, Audrey or Marilyn. Liz is certainly famous, but not because of one look or film, but an entire career, a lifetime that played out for decades. I wonder if she will soon be categorized by a single moment of greatness in the way that many of her contemporaries have been.
Men are not excluded from this idol worship. Perhaps the best, most enduring example of style that stretches decades is that of James Dean. Dean, with his slight figure, troubled brow and leather jacket embodied then — and now — the angst of young adulthood. He died in a grisly car accident at 24. It’s crazy to think that someone who only appeared in three films in his short lifetime has made such a mark on cultural consciousness. James Franco, whose small, Dean-like eyes and non-conformist attitude have garnered him many comparisons to the Rebel Without a Cause, has adopted Dean as an influence. Connections like this are a common occurrence. It seems that anytime a thin, brown-haired actress displays a sliver of elegance on screen, she’s dubbed “the next Audrey Hepburn.”
While I completely support the idea of drawing from the past tradition of art in order to appreciate the present, the loose overuse of these supposedly sacred icons is something that should be reconsidered. Understanding influences in their context is ultimately more rewarding and interesting. Icons become influential because they are so fascinating. Explore a few other facets of a personality, and you might find something even more inspiring than the ordinary.
Rachel del Valle is a College sophomore from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Duly Noted appears every Monday.
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