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Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn....what makes a timeless icon?

PUBLISHED: 19:42 06 September 2018 | UPDATED: 07:07 07 September 2018

Timeless Marilyn Monroe exhibition is being staged at Moyes Hall, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Kudos/Alfred Eisenstaedt

Timeless Marilyn Monroe exhibition is being staged at Moyes Hall, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Kudos/Alfred Eisenstaedt

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Time can be cruel. Some of our biggest stars can disappear from our memories in what apears to be little more than a blink of an eye. But, for some, their appeal is timeless. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at what turns a star into an icon

What’s the difference between a star and a timeless icon? It’s an interesting question which popped into my head I was touring the brilliant Marilyn Monroe exhibition at Moyes Hall in Bury St Edmunds.

Beautifully curated by Brian White, of Kudos Memorabilia, the exhibition, brings together some stunning images of Marilyn taken at various points during her career – and for the most part presented as vintage prints – but the one thing that emerges from this dazzling collection of photographs is a sense of timelessness.

Marilyn continues to transcend time. All these pictures were taken between 1948 and 1962. They are a window into a life which has long since ended and reveal a world that no longer exists. Marilyn lived at a time when Hollywood studios still had stars under contract and America was yet to be scarred by the Vietnam War and long-drawn out wars in the Middle East.

Steve McQueen proves less is more. Photo: Warner BrosSteve McQueen proves less is more. Photo: Warner Bros

These images shouldn’t speak to us but they do. Marilyn Monroe, as the exhibition makes clear in its title, is timeless. She has a talent and personality that not only continue enchant fans who grew up with her but, judging by the age of my fellow visitors, who were largely young women, she continues to attract new fans.

Although her films continue to find new audiences – restoration film company Park Circus have re-issued Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot in recent years – the real secret to her success is that her image speaks louder than her work.

This then begs the question when does a star become an icon? Stars fade but do icons live forever? It’s an interesting question. If that is the case, what attributes do you need to become an icon?

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's - real style icon. Photo: ParamountAudrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's - real style icon. Photo: Paramount

Popularity is part of the equation but it’s not everything. You have got to have presence and you’ve got to have a unique style about you. It’s that uniqueness that will help you stand the test of time – and you have got to have a quality that speaks to people and makes them care about you.

You have to pass, what I call the Steve McQueen test. Steve McQueen was a star but he was also an icon. McQueen grabbed your attention whether he said anything or not. His screen roles frequently emphasized his strong, silent, dare I say, taciturn, approach to acting.

When McQueen was on screen you looked at him whether or not he was saying or doing anything. Yul Brynner found this out in The Magnificent Seven. As the established star Brynner had the majority of the lines, McQueen just brooded next him, but, he had screen presence. He was silent and deadly and just as each take ended, he did something to capture people’s attention whether it was to remove a toothpick from his mouth or merely touch the brim of his hat.

Elvis Presley remains a timeless icon. This image taken from his 1968 TV special. Photo: NBCElvis Presley remains a timeless icon. This image taken from his 1968 TV special. Photo: NBC

The extent of his ability to make his mark on a movie by doing nothing was dramatically demonstrated by the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard. Originally it was designed to provide a vehicle for Diana Ross and McQueen. The role of The Bodyguard is only sketchily drawn out because all McQueen was required to do was look protective and hover in the background.

Kevin Costner is a star but he looked completely lost in his own film. McQueen was an icon, audiences were happy to watch him just standing there.

As Costner demonstrated stardom is not enough to become a timeless icon. Just think that Burt Reynolds was the biggest star on the planet for the best part of ten years during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In the 1920s Rudolph Valentino had women weeping in the streets. Neither has stood the test of time.

Real timeless icons, apart from having a unique style of their own, they also need to appeal to both sexes. Tastes change, fashions change and it takes someone very special to appeal to different generations. It is also almost impossible to predict who will become a timeless icon and who will quietly disappear from view like Burt Reynolds. Will George Clooney transcend time and become an icon of the future? Or perhaps Harrison Ford? Maybe, it’s possibility but no-one knows for sure.

Humphrey Bogart remains an icon. You just have to look at his unique face and his trademark hat, mac and cigarette drooping lazily from his lips and he’s instantly recognisable. Clark Gable, a much bigger star from the same period, is sadly fading from view.

Timeless, the Marilyn Monroe exhibition, is at Moyes Hall, Bury St Edmunds until September 30.

So who are the Timeless Icons whose faces we know even though we, perhaps, don’t know their films.

1. Marilyn Monroe

2. Audrey Hepburn

3. Grace Kelly

4. Steve McQueen

5. Humphrey Bogart

6. John Wayne

7. 1960s Michael Caine

8. James Dean

9. Elvis Presley

10. 1950s Marlon Brando

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