Kelly’s life was one of glamour, privilege and ultimately tragedy. Now, as Grace of Monaco, the biopic starring Nicole Kidman, opens the Cannes film festival, fresh controversy has stirred
Vanessa Thorpe, Observer arts and media correspondent
A blind date, you could call it, if a rather high-flown one. She was Grace Kelly, Oscar-winning Hollywood star, in Cannes to join the US delegation at the film festival of 1955, and he was Prince Rainier III, of the neighbouring principality of Monaco. A photoshoot of their meeting over a pot of tea on the Croisette had been set up. Despite the glamorous trappings, it was a stilted, formal start to a stilted, formal courtship.
On Wednesday the late, great beauty is to make waves on the beach at Cannes once again, when the new biopic starring Nicole Kidman, Grace of Monaco, opens the 67th annual film festival. It is a controversial film before the critics have had sight of it, because the Grimaldi family, Princess Grace’s three children by Rainier, have poured scorn on the screenplay and because its powerful producer, Harvey Weinstein, is known to have criticised director Olivier Dahan‘s handling of the material. The film, which concentrates on a relatively short period in the life of the princess and co-stars Tim Roth as Rainier, was to have opened last November. In January, the Weinstein Company temporarily removed the film from its schedule.
Prince Albert and his sisters, Caroline and Stéphanie, are not expected to attend the gala premiere. Last year, after seeing a script, they claimed the film “contains important historical inaccuracies as well as scenes of pure fiction”. Then, last Friday, the royal Monégasques alleged the film’s trailer was farcical “and confirms the totally fictional nature of this film”. Their statement read: “The princely family does not in any way wish to be associated with this film, which reflects no reality, and regrets that its history has been misappropriated for purely commercial purposes.”
Whatever the motivation for making Grace of Monaco, the film reflects an enduring interest in a woman who, as the Observer’s former critic Philip French said this weekend, became “an important and complex figure”. When Hitchcock dreamed of his perfect, ice-cold blonde, it was Grace Kelly who made her luminous flesh. The director’s infatuated vision of cut-crystal allure has kept the image of the princess alive in the 32 years since her death in a car crash near her Riviera home. Her performances in some of the most admired films of all time, from Fred Zinneman’s 1952 western High Noon, to the unnerving Rear Window, placed her in the midst of Hollywood’s most potent era. “She was important to the development of the legend of Hitchcock and, in those half a dozen films she made in five years or so in the early 1950s, she became a key figure in film; in film criticism; in the birth of the idea of celebrity; and even in politics,” said French. “High Noon was a very influential film at the time of the cold war and of McCarthyism in Hollywood. People on the left and on the right became obsessed with it.”
Sir Christopher Frayling, an expert on the western, sees Kelly’s young school ma’am in this film as the archetypal “fair lady”, in opposition to the “dark lady” of the saloon bar, played in this case by Katy Jurado. “Grace was the ultimate Wasp, remote and haughty and more New England than wild west,” he said.
Kelly gave up acting when she married the prince in April 1956, becoming Monaco’s princess consort in a church service watched by guests including Cary Grant, Ava Gardner and David Niven, and wearing a handsewn dress sent by MGM studios. The wedding was filmed and released in cinemas in a deal that freed her from a seven-year contract, and the couple sailed off on honeymoon on a yacht given to them by Aristotle Onassis. Her transformation from film star to royalty was made complete when Rainier banned her films in Monaco. The “wedding of the century” was satirically recorded in Punch, remembers French, with a poetic pastiche of Hilaire Belloc written by Graham Greene that pointed up the disconcerting involvement of Father Francis Tucker, her husband’s chaplain and moral adviser (played by Frank Langella in the new film), which concludes:
Prince, you may draw your curtain close
And see your sentries on the stair,
Then lie down by the bride you chose,
But Father Tucker will be there.
Grace Patricia Kelly’s story is far from a rags-to-riches fairytale. (That template better fits Rita Hayworth, who started out dancing in a nightclub as Margarita Cansino and became the wife of the Aga Khan.) She was the third child of a rich Philadelphia brick magnate and enjoyed a privileged upbringing that would go on to make her a natural for The Philadelphia Story, a play she appeared in at drama school before later taking the lead role of Tracy Lord in the musical version, High Society, her final Hollywood film, opposite Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Crosby, who sang the hit song True Love with her in High Society, has a place on her long list of great loves. Early on she had fallen for Gary Cooper, who handpicked her for stardom in High Noon. She would have an affair with Clark Gable while filming Mogambo, leading her to quip: “What else is there to do if you’re alone in a tent in Africa with Clark Gable?” Later she told an interviewer that “if there hadn’t been so much of an age discrepancy things might have been different”.
Dishonourable mentions also reportedly go to married stars William Holden, Ray Milland, David Niven, Oleg Cassini, the husband of Gene Tierney, and even to Pierre Galante, Olivia de Havilland’s husband and the man who set up her first meeting with Rainier in Cannes. Niven did nothing to dispel the image of Kelly as a sex enthusiast when he told Michael Parkinson about the dicey moment when Rainier asked him over dinner who had been his most exciting lover. Catching himself and changing his answer as he spoke, Niven replied: “Grac-ie Fields”. Luckily, Rainier had never heard of the Lancashire singing star.
In 1954 Kelly won the lead role in the film of Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl opposite Crosby and Holden. It was an unglamorous part as the neglected wife of an alcoholic, but her degradations earned her an Oscar, beating off Judy Garland, also nominated for A Star is Born.
It is likely that the new Dahan film focuses on the least exciting period of Kelly’s life – a time when protocol overrode ambition. The storyline charts the political pressure the French government put on Rainier and Kelly’s decision not to take the lead role in Hitchcock’s Marnie, leaving the way open for newcomer Tippi Hedren to star.
Last week Kidman said she understood why Kelly’s three children had spoken out against the film. “It’s a child’s job to protect their parent,” she said. “In that regard, I get it. I get why the children are upset.” She added: “It’s not meant to be a biopic. I certainly did my best to honour everything that was real and truthful in it.”
Kidman said she felt Kelly had to play the part of a princess. Adopting a new regal identity, she took up the charitable life, promoting the Red Cross with a starry annual ball in Monaco and hosting Christmas parties for local children. Yet she was always flanked by the press, as is shown in a poignant picture of her arriving at the Cannes film festival for a Hitchcock tribute two years before her death. “The freedom of the press works in such a way that there is not much freedom from it,” she once said.
She died in a car accident on a dangerous coastal road in 1982, suffering a stroke and losing control of the vehicle, which spun and plunged down a 45ft drop. Younger daughter Princess Stéphanie was in the car but survived with minor injuries. The funeral of her mother was watched by 100 million people on television.
There is, of course, a fashion legacy, celebrated four years ago at the Victoria & Albert Museum in an exhibition, Grace Kelly: Style Icon. But more than the ubiquitous Hermès Kelly bags, and a “look” described by Women’s Wear Daily in 1955 as “a fresh type of natural glamour”, the actress’s real achievement may be the careful transition from screen goddess to staid princess. She went convincingly from a co-star about whom Cary Grant once said: “With all due respect to Ingrid Bergman, I much preferred Grace. She had serenity,” to an official and public Serene Highness.
Grace Kelly: her key roles
High Noon, 1952 Schoolteacher bride of principled marshal Gary Cooper
Mogambo, 1953 An ingénue in Africa with Clark Gable
Dial M for Murder, 1954 Deceived London wife of murderous Ray Milland
Rear Window, 1954 Polished lover of grumpy James Stewart
The Country Girl, 1954 Put-upon wife of alcoholic Bing Crosby (for which she won the best actress Oscar)
To Catch a Thief, 1955 Rich and headstrong pursuer of Cary Grant’s retired cat burglar
High Society, 1956 Haughty heiress Tracy Lord