Icons of Hollywood's Golden Age (1930-1959)

By Savannah Barrow | Contributor

Everyone has a favorite actor or actress, someone who manages to inspire you and speak to you through the screen. Some people who mastered this skill are the icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood. They were the greats that helped carve modern Hollywood. It would be impossible and pointless for me to list every iconic actor that helped create Hollywood, there are too many, but I’ve a listed a few who I think resonate with us all. A few people whose names have managed to remain iconic to this day and for generations to come, people who helped define a craft.  


-James Dean: James Dean was the epitome of “the cool guy” during the Golden Age and probably still qualifies today. He had the quiff, was brooding, exuded raw masculinity, was handsome, and branded the plain white t-shirt. However, James Dean was more than a pretty face or a fashion icon, he was an incredible actor. James Dean died at age 24, only a few days after he completed his work on the epic film Giant, only having starred in two other movies: East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Yet, Dean somehow managed to become a cultural icon and remain one to this day. This is a man who would go on to inspire musicians and bands such as Elvis, Bob Dylan, The Clash, and John Lennon (who once said that The Beatles would’ve never existed if it weren’t for James Dean) as well as some of the most well known and talented actors in Hollywood today such as Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, and James Franco. Nicholas Cage once credited one of Dean’s scenes from East of Eden (a scene he improvised) as his inspiration for acting and Johnny Depp also admired Dean’s performance in that same movie saying it was “pure magic”. One cannot watch a James Dean movie without marveling at the depth of his talent. His talent was appeared instinctual and it was that instinct that made him so great. I recommend watching all of his movies if you haven’t already.

-Clark Gable: Clark Gable’s acting career took place during the entirety of the Golden Age taking off in 1934 with It Happened One Night and ending with The Misfits in 1960, dying only two weeks after he finished filming. He became the cut out for what was deemed a gentleman, radiated confidence that has yet to be matched, and had an irresistible charm that had women in every theatre swooning over him. He too became a fashion icon, often referred to as a “gentleman of style”. There are only a handful of actors who are as well known today as they were at the start of their careers, nonetheless that were there at the dawn of Hollywood cinema, but Clark Gable is one of them, he is the star of some of the most admired films ever made and is legendary for his roles in romance movies. It was his role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind that resulted in him being dubbed the “King of Hollywood” and becoming a symbol for masculinity. His status as a legend helped carry his career, and he consistently made at least one movie a year. For a glimpse of the skill that embodied Gable, I would recommend watching Gone with the Wind, The Misfits, Red Dust, and It Happened One Night.

-Marlon Brando: Marlon Brando has been widely considered the greatest movie actor of all time. No actor ever managed to exert such a profound influence on following generations of actors as Brando did. James Dean is said to have admired Brando as an actor and adopted much of his style from him after attending an acting class that Brando taught. He became an automatic cultural icon after his first lead role as Stanley Kowalski in the movie adaptation of Tennessee William’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire. More than 50 years later, actors continue to be measured by the yardstick that is Brando. Many know him best for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but he did ample amounts of other work preceding that. From his early roles in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One to later masterpieces such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, the legendary method actor captivated audiences with his unmistakable voice and manner. Every actor has their weapon and Brando’s was his voice, he used it to make monotonous lines powerful and enticing. He made you cling onto every word, concentrating fully on his soft, assertive diction, ensuring you caught every important glimpse into his engaging characters. Make no mistake, he didn’t mumble or whisper or jumble his words together, he spoke with the utmost clarity and gave each of his characters a unique voice and personality, different than the last. If you close your eyes and think of Brando, you don’t see a specific image or outfit, but instead you hear the echo of his powerful voice with alarming clarity, saying, “Stella!”, “I coulda been a contender”, or “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Marlon Brando offered us his guarded sensitivity, legendary acting that never escapes your memory, and his unique style that resonates loud and clear. All of his movies are excellent, but if I had to recommend a few, they would be A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and The Godfather.


Audrey Hepburn: Audrey Hepburn is iconic for her sophistication, grace, and lighter-than-air attitude. An icon for both film and fashion, she snuck up on everyone and then took them all by storm. In 1953 she starred in her first movie, Roman Holiday, which lead to her winning the Oscar for Best Actress. She spent the next twenty years making memorable film after memorable film with enchanting performances in movies such as Sabrina, My Fair Lady, Funny Face, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn became an icon right away thanks to her classic beauty and charm. Peter Bogdanovich once said, “Audrey’s charm is like the Mona Lisa, you can’t describe it, only experience it” and if you haven’t had the privilege to see one of her movies and witness this undeniable, elegant charm, then you need to as soon as possible. She is the icon for the contemporary woman, and many women ask themselves the question (which also happens to be the name of a popular book inspired by her) “What would Audrey do?” The American Film Institute ranked her the third greatest actress of all time. Two of her most iconic roles were actually intended for other actresses. The role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe and her role as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, the role that launched her into fame, was originally intended for Elizabeth Taylor, but the creators of these movies were so awed by Hepburn’s talent, that they quickly changed their minds. Aside from being a remarkable actress, Hepburn doubled as a humanitarian. In 1988 she officially retired from acting and became a special ambassador of the United Nations UNICEF fund, a job which she dedicated the rest of her life to, and helped the children in Latin America and Africa until her death in 1993. A few of her movies I recommend are Roman Holiday, Funny Face, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe maybe the most well known person on this list. Generation after generation, Monroe continues to show up in pop culture. In the 1960’s, she was Andy Warhol’s muse for his silkscreen, in the 80’s she inspired Madonna’s “Material Girl”, she was the key character in the film My Week with Marilyn, and was inspiration for Nicki Minaj’s single “Marilyn Monroe”. Monroe must have had something more to offer than her beauty to keep new generations interested and coming back. Marilyn Monroe was a devoted actress that took her craft seriously. She was ardent on making sure she produced the best work she could and tried her best to be taken seriously by everyone, which was hard to do since she was usually typecast as the stereotypical dumb-blonde bombshell, but many who knew her well say she was an exceptionally bright, witty, and determined woman. Fellow actress, Mitzi Gaynor, one said of Monroe, “I never saw anyone work so hard. She did such a good job and personally, I think she stole the whole damn show. I just think she was thrown into a nest of vipers." Monroe has always been very memorable in her films with a great sense of comedic timing and a unique screen presence. In my opinion, she was very underrated as an actress, due to her looks, she was often confined to roles that didn’t highlight her talent to the most of its ability. However, in films such as Bus Stop and The Misfits, we see the potential of Monroe. The sultry actress knew how to steal the show and was a total original, there has never been anyone quite like her. I would recommend watching Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and The Misfits for a good look at her work.

Elizabeth Taylor: When you hear her name, many think of various fragrances, glamour, striking beauty, and Cleopatra, but Elizabeth Taylor was a truly great movie star. She had a very mature screen presence that she developed at a young age which made her capable of portraying deep characters and often, characters older than her actual age. She also had an approachable quality that contributed to her charm. She managed to appear both alluring and deeply passionate at the same time, and it was probably this combination that made her so relatable to fans. She had the ability to play a wide range role, from a distressed victim like in Suddenly Last Summer, to a vixen queen like in Cleopatra. She remains one of the best dramatic actresses to ever grace Hollywood with her presence. Taylor is one of the few stars who were able to continue to attract media and earn a living, even after the height of their popularity and her talent had faded. She hadn’t starred or appeared in any high profile project in 40 years before she passed in 2011, yet still managed to stay in the public eye, a conquest that few stars manage to pull off. Some of her best films are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, and Giant.