Grace Kelly became a 1950s acting icon, after appearing in only 11 films and also in a number of early television guest roles. Audrey Hepburn appeared in about 30 films, reaching icon status almost immediately and staying there. Katharine Hepburn, who appeared in less than 50 films, is so iconic I’m surprised there hasn’t been a commemorative quarter released even if she wasn’t a President.
Running the gamut between character actor and icon is perhaps only John Wayne, amazingly with over 170 roles, who got his start playing extras in the 1920s. Though he became a B-western cowboy in the 1930s and finally got to say lines, it probably wasn’t until John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939) when Wayne steps into our popular consciousness, casting a long shadow and making him a star, eventually an icon in his own right. Before that, he spent a lot of time in the crowd scenes.
What turned John Wayne from an extra in a silent film about college football to The Duke, whose fans would carve him on Mount Rushmore if they could, never mind put him on a quarter? What makes an icon, if one person becomes one instantly and another slowly morphs into one after decades? What do they share? We do not see ourselves in these people, as we might with character actors. We see something more, something perhaps we would like to be ourselves, something perhaps unattainable, yet a quality that we think we understand and admire.