1. Marilyn Monroe.
Her name is basically inextricable from the word and concept “ICON” by now. There never has been, and perhaps there never will be, anyone as iconic as the famed and celebrated Marilyn Monroe. The image of her standing over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch, the whoosh of the subway causing her white dress to billow and fly, exposing her completely, is probably the most iconic image ever. The moment Billy Wilder snapped that shot, Monroe became immortalized as a New York City babe, the paradigm playmate, The Girl from the upstairs apartment that the downstairs everyman could only dream about. She became fantasy — the ultimate unbridled, guiltless, joyous little nymph to men and women everywhere who wanted her and who wanted to be her. This very image was blown up over five stories high and hung in the middle of Times Square before the release of her new film, and for weeks and months, New Yorkers would walk to work and look up into the sky at the goddess of love reigning above them.
2. Brando as Stanley.
If Marilyn represented iconic femininity, then Marlon Brando is her Hollywood soul mate, embodying that primitive masculinity women and girls everywhere yearn for today, the kind that seems (unfortunately) to have gone out of style. Brando shot to fame for his performance in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. He was cast in the role of Stanley Kowalski, a beast of a man who makes no apologies for who he is and what he does. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not exactly peaches and cream, and his character does some pretty awful things over the course of the film, but Brando as Kowalski brought to audiences everywhere a kind of masculinity and raw sexuality that was almost animalistic in nature. The lure of his sexual power was too intense, and it has since remained totally unmatched onscreen by contemporary actors. Even after all the atrocious things he does, Stella still can’t help but slink back down those stairs and into his big arms. The man is damn fine, and for all the boys out there who done wrong – take notes. This is what an apology should look like:
3. Elvis onstage.
We can’t talk about icons without talking about The King. And with Elvis, it was all about the way he moved those hips. Brando may have been machismo personified onscreen, but Elvis lived that very notion every time he took the stage. Moreover, he fuses that raw sexuality of his with music, and that particular combination leads to — as we’ve seen countless times before — endless scrutiny, turmoil, debate and backlash. Notoriously nicknamed “Elvis the Pelvis,” censors in the US demanded that he be filmed from the waist up, excluding those gyrating hips of his, in an attempt to suppress and repress the sexual overtones of his performance. And their demands weren’t for nothin’ — Elvis incited absolute, blind, and all-consuming chaos within his female fans, who all screamed and often fainted at the way he moved. It was complete and total pandemonium in the audience, with young girls passing out every time Elvis rocked back and forth to the music. Suffice to say, their parents were concerned. But little girls gotta grow up sometime.
“Elvis doing Heartbreak Hotel” (pay close attention 1:33 onwards):
4. James Dean.
Only the good die young, and Dean was no exception. He’s another guy actors today continuously try to emulate (see James Franco, Ryan Gosling, and countless more). Dean is best known for his masculinity, but not precisely in the way Elvis and Brando are remembered. James Dean brought a sensitivity, a vulnerability, a sweetness and a softness to the characters he played. There’s a stillness to him, a little boy quality that comes off as incredibly endearing on film. Most people remember him from his performance in Rebel Without A Cause — definitely the source of his most iconic image to date. But I personally love him in East of Eden, as most Dean lovers do.
5. Sailor Kissing Nurse: V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
To the best of our knowledge, there was nothing staged or orchestrated about this kiss whatsoever, but never was there a more Hollywood snapshot than V-J Day in Times Square, when the US declared victory over Japan after Pearl Harbor in the midst of WWII. Many report that these two didn’t even know one another – he just took her into his arms and planted one on her. That’s why this Times Square Kiss is perhaps the most iconic kiss ever, and movies everywhere continue to try to recreate that spontaneity, that joy, that glory in the unforgettable first kiss. It’s the kiss that puts all kisses that came after it to shame, and that’s what makes it iconic.