Hollywood Sex Symbols Who Turned Out to be Surprisingly Talented

by Jennifer Lafferty

Hollywood Sex Symbols Who Turned Out to be Surprisingly Talented

Sexiness sometimes distracts from an actor’s talent, or lack thereof. In old Hollywood, obvious sex appeal was a prerequisite for leading ladies, with male actors facing similar scrutiny. The flip side of on-screen sex appeal is that it often overshadows really good acting. From Matthew McConaughey to Marilyn Monroe, check out these actors who proved they were more than just sex symbols.



Matthew McConaughey



Hey, hey, hey! There’s no question Matthew McConaughey owes a lot to his sex symbol status, largely building his career on romantic comedies, but he surprised everyone with his Oscar-winning performance in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club.


Sophia Loren



Another sexy star whose acting ability was recognized by The Academy is the voluptuous Sophia Loren, who won an Oscar for her role as a courageous mother in the heart wrenching foreign-language drama Two Women, set in WWII-era Italy.





Although most of Elvis’ movie roles didn’t require much acting, the singer/actor showed a lot of promise early on in his career, with his 1956 big screen debut in the Civil War drama Love Me Tender.


Angelina Jolie



Angelina Jolie scored plenty of acclaim with her breakout performance as an AIDS infected model in TV movie Gia, but she was mostly viewed as a sex symbol until demonstrating her range in movies like The Good Shepherd.


Warren Beatty



Warren Beatty’s sex appeal was always a dominant aspect his identity both on-screen and off. By the late 1960s Beatty had taken charge of his career, producing groundbreaking projects that showcased his acting talent like Bonnie and Clyde.


Halle Berry



Starting out with a role as a model on TV’s Living Dolls, Halle Berry’s career followed the path of a pretty, sexy starlet for more than a decade, until her Oscar-winning performance in the 2001 drama Monster’s Ball.


John Travolta



John Travolta was so convincing in his ultra-macho roles like Vinnie Barbarino and Tony Manero, it was difficult to see past his animal magnetism. 1994’s Pulp Fiction provided a career reboot and the opportunity to show off his acting skills.


Grace Kelly



With her sophisticated brand of sex appeal, Grace Kelly was known as an ice goddess when she played sirens in movies like Rear Window, but the future Princess of Monaco won an Oscar for 1954’s The Country Girl.


Cameron Diaz



When Cameron Diaz burst onto the scene in the mid 1990s, she was quickly typecast as a stereotypical sexy but ditzy blonde. Diaz has since proven herself to be a very gifted comedic actress.


James Dean



James Dean, who helped redefine sexy during his brief career, wowed female moviegoers in films like Rebel Without a Cause. The full extent of Dean’s astonishing talent was eventually acknowledged, many years after his premature death.


Michelle Williams



With her endearing blend of childlike innocence and captivating sensuality, Michelle Williams seemed perfect for sex kitten roles, but in films like Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn, she displayed surprising depth as an actress.


Catherine Zeta-Jones



Catherine Zeta-Jones set the screen on fire with her exotic appeal in movies such as The Mask of Zorro. However, the actress’ sexy performance in 2002’s Chicago was also impressive enough to win her an Oscar.


Tom Cruise



Tom Cruise’s days as a movie heartthrob made him a popular leading man, but he has successfully expanded into more meaningful projects; notably the powerful 1988 drama Rain Man, and the 1996 romantic dramedy Jerry Maguire.


Kim Basinger



After films like 9 1/2 Weeks, it was difficult for audiences to get beyond Kim Basinger’s sexy persona, but in the 1990s, Basinger carved out a niche as a serious actress, delivering an Oscar-winning performance in L.A. Confidential.


George Clooney



Before he became a revered actor/filmmaker, George Clooney made a name for himself as a hunky, charismatic pretty boy. While retaining his sex appeal, Clooney has managed to elevate himself to a dignified, award-winning leading man.


Scarlett Johansson



Provocative roles in movies like Vicky Cristina Barcelona could have easily sealed Scarlett Johansson’s fate as a sex symbol, but she has balanced these sexually charged characters with acclaimed stage and screen performances.


Marilyn Monroe



As the ultimate Hollywood sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe went virtually unacknowledged as a talented actress during her lifetime. Monroe took her craft seriously, attending classes at The Actors Studio, and turning in now highly regarded performances in dramas like The Misfits.