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State Of Grace: The Enduring Magic of Grace Kelly

Posted: 11/14/2010 11:17 am

Walking around the city of Bologna on my recent trip there, I was struck at how often I saw images of female stars long past from our scene- specifically, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly-and how seldom I glimpsed the faces of today, like Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie.

This may simply be a matter of what attracts my eye, but I like to think these older actresses set a high bar for glamour and fashion that their present-day counterparts can't quite reach. Even decades after their deaths, the timeless style of an Audrey or a Grace speaks to the world they left-and way too soon.

Grace Kelly would have turned 81 this past Friday. Realizing this brought back just how long she's been gone. It's been nearly thirty years since that fatal car accident, which (eerily) happened on the same twisty Riviera roads where she'd filmed Hitchcock's "To Catch A Thief" a quarter of a century before.

Her Cinderella story still reads like a fairy tale. Born into an affluent Irish-Catholic family in Philadelphia, young Grace stood out not only for her incredible beauty, but her brains and drive. At her private high school, Grace first showed a flair for acting and dancing, but unlike her other classmates, this would not be a passing phase.

After graduating, Grace ventured to New York, began modeling, and soon enough was pursuing roles in the theatre. The Kelly family's initial disapproval of her career path in far-off Philadelphia did little to dissuade her, as she painstakingly auditioned for parts, while studying her craft at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts.

Recognition was not long in coming, as Grace went from plays to live television and finally to her first film role, in 1951's "Fourteen Hours", a trim suspense tale starring Paul Douglas and Richard Basehart.

She was getting noticed. In fact, from the moment producer Stanley Kramer signed Grace to play Gary Cooper's young bride in the legendary "High Noon" (1952), she seemed already destined for greatness.

Later, when director Alfred Hitchcock cast her as the adulterous wife in "Dial M For Murder" (1954), he quickly knew he'd found his ideal female muse: an impossibly beautiful and refined blonde who could convey ice on the surface while exuding fire underneath. Her three collaborations with the Master would make her not just a star, but an icon.

Even after winning her Oscar that same busy year playing against type in "The Country Girl", the relentlessly ambitious Grace was looking to climb the next summit. Quickly disillusioned with the dirty business of Hollywood and perhaps wanting to settle down after numerous liaisons with her leading men (most famously, Bing Crosby and William Holden), she seized the opportunity to become a real life princess, marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Though doubtless Rainier was bewitched by his bride-to-be (few men weren't), there was a business calculation in the mix as well: for a tiny principality eager to build its tourist business, what better way to achieve this than to have the world's most ravishing movie star in residence? (Rainier also managed to secure a sizable dowry out of Grace's father John Kelly, who'd made his fortune in the construction business.)

The public, unaware of these back room dealings, simply focused on the amazing story of a Philadelphia girl becoming a Princess. The wedding itself carried all the pomp and ceremony one would expect from a royal wedding, and it seemed every camera on earth was trained on Monaco.

Thus- on April 18, 1956, just several short years after she'd arrived on the show business scene, Grace Kelly had left us. In her place stood Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace.

In the ensuing decades, Princess Grace would remain very much a public figure, but in a vastly more circumscribed role, as wife, mother, and patroness. Even within this narrower, more formalized sphere, she brought all the focus, energy and commitment to her new duties as she had to her acting career.

As time passed, one could sense an element of regret in her life. Her marriage was stable, but by most accounts decidedly old-fashioned and lacking in the kind of intimacy she may (understandably) have craved. In addition, her children, particularly willful, rebellious daughters Princess Caroline and Stephanie, proved a drain on her spirits and her patience.

There was periodic talk of her going back on-screen- reportedly, Hitchcock wanted her desperately for "The Birds" (1963), and she wanted to do it, but Rainier quashed the idea. Going so far as to ban his wife's films in Monaco, the message was clear: Grace was now Princess for life, and never again would she play another part.

Grace Kelly's incredible story and all-too-brief time in Hollywood only make the films that survive her that much more alluring and fascinating to watch. And her best work, while standing on its own merits, provides a significant measure of comfort and solace to the millions of fans who loved her and miss her to this day.

High Noon (1952) -- Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is set to retire with his young Quaker bride Amy (Kelly) when word comes that outlaw Frank Miller and his gang are arriving on the noon train to settle an old score with Kane (he put Miller away). Everyone, including Amy, tells Kane to leave, but he knows he can't. When Will asks his supposed friends and neighbors to stand beside him against the fierce Miller, everyone turns him down. As the clock ticks its way towards noon, Kane realizes he must face the outlaws alone. Fred Zinnemann's stark revenge tale, told in real time, packs enough intensity into eighty minutes to carry two movies. It's suspenseful, but also a morality tale, powerful in its simplicity, about the courage to make difficult, principled choices, even when those around you take the easy way out. This offers obvious parallels to the prevailing McCarthyism of the time (writer Carl Foreman was indeed blacklisted), but symbolism aside, this remains a trim, altogether brilliant western, with veteran star Cooper creating the quintessential authentic Western hero, and Grace more than holding her own in her first major role.

Dial M For Murder
(1954) -- Set in the posh preserves of London, "Dial M" delivers the recurring Hitchcock theme of evil found in unexpected places and people, often close to home. Ray Milland plays smooth, conniving Tony Wendice, a husband who wants philandering young wife Margot (Kelly) out of the way, and pays someone to attempt the job, which is botched. Will dogged Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) find a way to expose the wily Wendice, who has not given up on his mission? Re-made several times, (most recently as "A Perfect Murder" with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow), Hitchcock's original has never been surpassed. The casting is inspired, with Milland the essence of oily smugness as Tony, and Williams blandly British as Hubbard. Hunter and quarry thus play off each other perfectly. And then there's the lady who causes all the fuss: Grace, in her first of three roles for Hitchcock. She is so stunning here that the very concept of doing away with her seems like a particularly egregious crime. Robert Cummings is also on hand as Mark Halliday, the other man, who strategizes with Margot and Hubbard on how to implicate Tony. Don't miss that ending!

Rear Window (1954) -- After breaking his leg on the job, photojournalist Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart) must pass the sweltering New York summer looking out his apartment window--into his neighbors' windows-and his natural nosiness causes him to study a battling couple across the courtyard. When the woman disappears, Jeff suspects her husband, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), of foul play, and enlists his adoring, high-society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Kelly) to help him investigate. One of the most celebrated suspense films in history, this classic takes its time, but once the tension starts building, it doesn't stop until the heart-pounding conclusion is upon you. This was a new peak for Hitchcock in blending the story of a crime that may have happened with the dark side of human obsession--in this case, voyeurism. The movie marks a high point for both Stewart, who would be remembered as Hitchcock's most human and vulnerable hero, and Kelly, who would henceforth remain his signature heroine. Here's one "Window" worth looking into.

The Country Girl (1954) -- When Broadway director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) loses his lead for a musical set to open in three weeks, he takes a chance on washed-up alcoholic singer Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby). Though Dodd is committed to boosting his shaky leading man's confidence with a combination of pep talks and tough love, he feels constantly thwarted by Elgin's cold, cynical wife, Georgie (Kelly), whose manipulations threaten to deep-six his production. Adapted from the Clifford Odets play, George Seaton's searing, melodramatic story of a twisted menage à trois boasts three superb performances: Crosby as the self-loathing, destructive crooner, Kelly as his morose, long-suffering wife, and Holden as the strapping, misogynistic director who slowly learns the truth about both of them. Crosby rightly earned an Oscar nod for his convincing turn as a sad-sack boozer, but it was Kelly who took home a statuette for her radically unglamorous role as Georgie, a part first intended for actress Jennifer Jones. "Girl" is a poignant backstage drama that remains true to its tortured heart.

The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1955) -- Set in the Korean War, navy flyer Harry Brubaker (William Holden) has an enviable problem: he's too good at what he does. Having manned a bomber in the Second War, Harry aches for family and home, and his beautiful wife Nancy (Kelly) wants him back too. Still, it seems there is one sensitive flying mission only Harry is equipped to handle: to blow up the bridges at a strategic spot called Toko-Ri. Will Harry succeed, and make it back to tell the tale? Mark Robson's handsome film is equal parts war movie and romance, with gorgeous Technicolor and an A-list cast. The macho, magnetic Holden fits his part like a glove, and his love scenes with Kelly pack real heat (the on-set romance was real). The always stellar Fredric March projects both authority and humanity as Rear Admiral Tarrant, a man keenly aware that he's sent too many young men out to die. And look for the irrepressible Mickey Rooney in a fun, feisty turn as Mike Forney, a pint-size sailor who can't stay out of love-or fights.

To Catch A Thief (1955) -- On the sun-drenched French Riviera, someone is relieving rich women of their precious jewels, and all the evidence points to retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant). Reluctant to sit still for questioning, "The Cat" evades investigators who show up at his luxe villa and-with the help of London insurer H.H. Hughson (John Williams)-cozies up to wealthy American widow Mrs. Stevens (Jesse Royce Landis), who he believes may be the thief's next victim. Robie's only hope for clearing himself will be to expose his imitator, that is if Mrs. Stevens's knock-out daughter Francie (Kelly) doesn't distract him too much! Filmed in VistaVision by Oscar winner Robert Burks, Hitchcock's swanky, breezy suspense film takes a simple idea-one cat burglar on the tail of another-and spins it into cinematic gold. With his customary wit and sexual innuendo, the director positions tanned star Grant on a collision course with the resplendent Kelly, who never looked more ravishing as spoiled heiress Francie, especially in a wide-brimmed white sun hat and bathing outfit Jackie O might have coveted. When they kiss, there are literally fireworks on-screen, a technique Hitch used to keep the censors from snipping his film. You'll have a lot of fun catching this "Thief." (Note: Paramount's new "Centennial Edition" offers re-mastered audio and crystal-clear color.)

The Children Of Theatre Street (1977) -- Princess Grace narrates this intimate look at the world's most famous school of dance, the Kirov Ballet School in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, and the young children who dedicate their minds and bodies to the rigorous training required to master classical 19th-century techniques. Peering into the corridors and classrooms of this illustrious institution, we glimpse the hopes, fears, and heartaches of three fledgling professional dancers and their instructors, many of whom are former ballet stars themselves, all while examining the grand tradition of the school itself, which matriculated Nijinsky, Nureyev, and many other notables. This candid, lovingly made tribute to the Kirov strivers who make big sacrifices to attend the legendary training ground of Balanchine is a sheer delight from both a narrative and aesthetic perspective, shedding light on a highly disciplined world of pure art where expectations are high and the weight of tradition almost oppressive. With warm, vivid narration from Princess Grace, we watch as 20 students out of 1000 are carefully selected according to predetermined physical requirements, then spend close to a decade mastering their dance skills. You can't help feeling a mix of anxiety and excitement watching one graduating ballerina make her heart-fluttering debut on the Kirov stage after months of punishing practice. "Street" is a tremendously enjoyable, behind-the-scenes look at greatness in the making.

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