Grace Kelly's film career spanned just five years and 14 movies, yet her legacy is indelible. Thirty years after her death (on Sept. 14, 1982) and 56 years after she made her last movie, the actress-turned-princess remains a trendsetter for her beauty, style and poise, and her on-screen performances continue to mesmerize with their unique blend of ice and fire.
The details of Kelly's biography remain familiar, as they dovetail so neatly with many of the roles she played. Born in 1929, she grew up a Philadelphia socialite, but rather than live the debutante life, she moved to New York, where she became a model, a stage actress and a TV actress. Her acting icon was Ingrid Bergman, a star with a similar mix of icily perfect composure and radiant sensuality.
When Kelly was 21, in 1951, she moved to Hollywood and, within months, scored her first lead role, as Gary Cooper's prim, pacifist bride in the now-classic Western "High Noon." Her Amy Kane was a template for later Kelly roles: aristocratic, reserved, yet full of unexpected passion and intensity. (And linked to a man old enough to be her father.)
Kelly played another cool-yet-hot woman in the 1953 jungle romance "Mogambo," opposite Clark Gable (reprising the role he'd played two decades earlier in "Red Dust"). The role earned Kelly her first Oscar nomination.
Where she really shone, however, was in the three films she made for Alfred Hitchcock. "Dial M for Murder" saw her pull off the neat trick of playing a sympathetic adulteress (it helped that her husband was a monstrous Ray Milland). When her husband plots to kill her, then later to frame her for the murder of the hired assassin, she is forced to discover inner reserves of cunning and strength she didn't know she had.
Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) remains perhaps Kelly's best-remembered and most purely entertaining movie. Convalescent photographer Jimmy Stewart complains that her fashionista, Lisa Fremont, is too perfect and too upscale for the likes of him, but the two discover a shared taste for perverse voyeurism and dangerous adventure when he spies evidence of a murder in a neighbor's apartment. Watching the elegant Kelly swan around Stewart's tiny flat, clad in the most glamorous outfits Edith Head could design, it's easy to understand his character's "too perfect" complaint, while it's also easy to understand the frustration of Thelma Ritter's nurse, who thinks Stewart's an idiot for not marrying Kelly immediately.
Her third Hitchcock movie, "To Catch a Thief," was another memorable frolic, this time with Cary Grant on the French Riviera. Seen today, the movie foreshadows Kelly's life yet to come -- moving to Monaco, and driving the dangerous local mountain roads.
By now, Kelly was a huge international star, with her persona firmly established. In the one radical break she made from her usual roles, she starred in "The Country Girl," playing a dowdy, depressed wife trying to prop up her husband, an alcoholic Broadway star (Bing Crosby). It's a surprisingly raw, vanity-free performance. She won the Oscar for it in 1955, taking home a prize many thought belonged to Judy Garland for "A Star Is Born." As towering as Garland's performance was, it consisted of feats everyone knew she could do, weeping and singing her heart out. Kelly may have won, in what was reportedly a very close vote, because her role was so much more of a stretch.
However, Kelly's last two roles were hardly a stretch at all. 1956's "The Swan" saw her betrothed to a prince, this after she'd met Monaco's Prince Rainier III at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival and become engaged to him a few months later. Her final film, the musical "High Society," saw her playing a Philadelphia socialite who's about to marry. (Again, her leading man was Crosby, who had been an off-screen lover as well.) With its sparkling Cole Porter score and fizzy romantic comedy, the film made a "swell party" for Kelly's farewell to movies.
Yet as eagerly as she'd courted Hollywood, Kelly found it to be a place full of phoniness, vanity and hypocrisy, so she didn't seem to mind giving it all up. At the peak of her career, she traded in her backlot-fabricated Cinderella stories for a real-life one (though the royal wedding was pure Hollywood, with Kelly's hair and gown done by the stylists at MGM). She abandoned Hollywood for Monaco and her prince, and she seldom looked back. Over the years, she would turn down offers to return to acting (though she did do voiceover narration for a couple of now-forgotten documentaries). Marriage to Rainier may not have been the storybook life she'd anticipated, but if she had disappointments, she didn't let them show. Throughout her life as a princess, she remained as regal and composed as she ever had appeared in the movies.
Princess Grace was only 26 when she quit acting and just 52 when she died, having suffered a stroke behind the wheel and running her car off a mountain road like the one in "To Catch a Thief." So she always seemed young. Fans never saw her age, they never saw her movie career jump the shark, and ("Country Girl" aside) they never saw her appearing less than perfect. So there was nothing to tarnish her legacy, to besmirch the recollection of fans who wanted to remember her in her prime.
Kelly's impact as an actress was profound. Certainly on Hitchcock, for whom she was the model for all the icy-hot blondes that followed in his films (including Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren). It was as if he was trying to make them all over into Kelly's image, as Jimmy Stewart does to Kim Novak (transforming her into an icon of chilly blonde perfection) in Hitchcock's 1958 classic "Vertigo."
A lot of contemporary actresses have tried to recapture her mix of poise and passion, even aping her greatest hits -- think the patrician Gwyneth Paltrow in "A Perfect Murder" (a remake of "Dial M"), or the aloof Thandie Newton in "Mission: Impossible 2" (where she echoes the road sequence in "To Catch a Thief"), the playful Daryl Hannah in the TV remake of "Rear Window," or the icily composed January Jones as Betty Draper on TV's "Mad Men." (Jones even spoofed Kelly's "Rear Window" performance on "Saturday Night Live," a parody that was painfully unfunny because it was so deliberately vulgar that it bore no resemblance at all to the original.)
Still, it's safe to say that no modern actress can carry off all of these traits with, well, grace. For that, we will continue to gaze fondly at the original.
Fourteen Hours (1951)
High Noon (1952)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
The Country Girl (1954)
Green Fire (1954)
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
The Swan (1956)
High Society (1956)