Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Christopher Reeve in Superman, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Harrison Ford in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Al Pacino in The Godfather….
We all refer to these as ‘iconic’ film roles. Portrayals of some of the greatest characters to grace the silver screen. Heroes, heroines, rebels, criminals, saviours. These characters have been embraced worldwide and have each become mainstays in cinematic history and popular culture for decades. It may be something like their clothes, their hair, their actions or even their speech – We, the audience, make a connection to that one vital part, and it’s forever embedded.
We call these portrayals ‘iconic’…. But is it the actor? Or the character itself? The real problem with this argument is that we all have attached those actors to those roles. Even after 30 years and ridiculous attempts at emulation, Sigourney Weaver is still synonymous with the ‘ass-kicking female lead’. It still remains to be seen of an actress who can pull off a similar role without inhabiting elements of Ellen Ripley. This is what frustrates me to the core – there’s no ‘suprise’ in cinema anymore. No original thought. As pointed out vivaciously by Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media in his Star Trek 2009 review, the overall majority of films from the last decade have been either remakes, re-imaginings of past films, as well as direct/indirect translations of fictional material released years prior. But it’s all about marketability – if you see something you recognise or like or love, you’re naturally going to want to see more of it. And that’s what I’m trying to point out here. We subconsciously feel safe seeing something or someone we vaguely recognise and we feel comfort in knowing to an extent what we are seeing and feeling. But that’s human nature and can really be applied to most situations. However, we also feel obligated to enjoy films starring iconic actors. Again, we feel ‘pre-satisfied’ and ‘safe’, because of their previous work, and high praise for it.
Isn’t there anything like it though? Harrison Ford putting on that hat? Christopher Reeve spinning retardly in that phone box?
I might be going slightly off in another tangent, but I think it’s food for thought. As sometimes we really do take for granted what these amazing actors have done for cinema and television today. Maybe there wouldn’t be a career for Michelle Rodriguez if it wasn’t for Vasquez… Maybe Samuel L Jackson would be a bank teller if it wasn’t for John Shaft. Films can and probably have changed your life one way or another. An unescapable effect.
But if all those defining, iconic roles that I listed above were not portrayed by those actors/actresses – Would they have honestly been as much a part of our lives as they are today? An often clichéd quote from directors we hear time and time again is – “he/she was the only person who could play the part.” If you really dug deep you’d find countless amounts of directors who have said something along similar lines. But who was the first choice to play Indy? Tom Selleck. Who was cast as Marty McFly initially? Eric Stoltz. You’d be hard-pressing trying to envision any other actor playing those parts, really wouldn’t you? Odd one eh?
But wait, it’s the same character, right? Just with another face, hair-do, voice. Could we honestly admit that the perception of that iconic character can ever be anything than what it was? I can’t attempt to answer the question, however it’s a mind-boggling one. Cinema has hit it’s crisis peak in my opinion, we don’t have that ‘one-man show’ anymore. And judging from a time where new releases are merely fecal matter (i.e Alvin And The Chipmunks, The Last Airbender, White Chicks) – Is there much point to finding that defining role for the 21st century?
That’s what I love about those iconic characters. We’re mentally configured to loving those characters just purely from the simplest of things – and it’s the way those simple things are presented that make the actors so tightly knitted to that character.
Could there ever have been another Ripley, RP McMurphy, Alex DeLarge, Han Solo or Michael Corleone???… The actors that portrayed those roles were masters of their art. They didn’t do it for a quick buck, they did it for us, the audience. Nothing like today. And that’s why they are considered icons, and you won’t find anyone close in Hollywood currently even attempting at best to prove otherwise.
Maybe I’m not seeing the bigger picture . We all know what that is. Acting isn’t really about the acting anymore, nothing DEFINES iconic when I watch films today. In reality, it’s all business and it makes the world go round on its soon to be toppling axis.