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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Grace Kelly—Too Everything

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Photo courtesy Photofest.
by Leah Churner

“She’s too perfect, too talented, she’s too beautiful, she’s too sophisticated. She’s too everything but what I want.” This is James Stewart at the beginning of Rear Window, struggling to articulate his qualms about marrying his girlfriend and sounding fairly neurotic. When Grace Kelly enters the room, however, we understand.

Kelly was born in Philadelphia in 1929. Though she played WASP-debutante types in movies, she was actually Irish Catholic, and her family’s money was too new for the city’s social register. Still, her upper-middle-class breeding was a salient feature of her persona on screen and off, and to this end she cultivated her trademark white gloves and Oxbridge accent.

The Grace Kelly star persona had no overt flaws. Pale, blonde, thin, gorgeous, smart, and rich, she’d hit the genetic jackpot. If Marilyn Monroe bargained for affection by playing dumb and trashy, Kelly offered no tokens of self-deprecation to mitigate the threat of her beauty. On screen, people wanted to see Kelly punished for her perfection. Off screen, she didn’t need a pro like Hedda Hopper to smear her in the papers because her parents cut her down to reporters all the time. Her father regarded acting as “a slim cut above streetwalker,” according to Judith Balaban Quine, in her book on Kelly.

The films in BAMcinématek’s retrospective, Grace Kelly: The Cool Blonde (through July 26), together paint a mysterious picture. She usually portrayed versions of herself, so why is her personality so elusive? Also, she was a shrewd negotiator with the studios, picking and choosing her roles more freely than contemporaries. So why is her filmography dripping with schadenfreude?

Granted, Kelly chose prestigious projects. Her movie career was brief—two years shorter than Marilyn’s—but distinguished. She made 11 films in five years, working with top directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Zinnemann) opposite A-list stars (Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, William Holden, and others) in genres ranging from western to musical to romance.

In 1954, she won an Academy Award for her role in The Country Girl. Campaigning hard for this role, she was determined to prove that she really could act. Once past the exposition, The Country Girl is a formidable adult psychodrama; Kelly dissolves into the creepy codependent wife of a broken-down, alcoholic actor. But even Kelly’s glam-down effort aroused contempt on Oscar night (most famously from Judy Garland, who was nominated in the same category for A Star is Born).

Kelly’s movies rarely have happy endings; there may be smiles and jaunty music, but an ambiguous minor chord strikes beneath the surface. Kelly either abandons her intention of dumping a loser (Bing Crosby in The Country Girl and High Society), or she snares the guy she’s after only to find him grimacing in her grasp (Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief). Often, she must be “downwardly mobile,” morally or socio-economically, to find love. She must descend from her pedestal and meet at sea level a man who is either old, poor, or both.

Kelly was already linked to Prince Rainier III of Monaco when she played a princess-to-be in The Swan, making the dénouement even eerier—she finally snags her royal title only to learn the price of royalty. The prince explains, “Think of what it means to be a swan. To glide like a dream on the smooth surface of the lake, and never go to the shore... Be a bird, but never fly; know one song but never sing it until the moment of death.”

Alfred Hitchcock styled Kelly as the ultimate frigid sex symbol, explaining to François Truffaut in 1962, “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful... You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face.”

Like Marilyn, Grace was disillusioned by stardom and found a way out. Yet when she married Rainier at age 26 (the year after The Swan’s release) she hadn’t intended to go away forever, but she did. Her eventual decision to retire from acting was motivated by complex political and financial reasons. Contrary to popular belief, she did not turn down the title role of Hitchcock’s Marnie simply because her subjects objected to Her Serene Highness kissing Sean Connery.

Kelly never sang her swan song, never made the comeback to American cinema that would have given her life the triumphant arc of a screenplay. A number of her biographers have concluded that her life ended in disenchantment, loneliness, and depression. Is that what we wish to believe, or a projection? Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, the best we can do is peep through binoculars at fragments of the truth, and speculate.

Leah Churner is a freelance writer in Austin, TX. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, The L Magazine, and The Austin Chronicle. She has also curated film and video programs at Anthology Film Archives, Museum of the Moving Image, and Light Industry.

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