“I think that women can do anything they decide to do.” – Grace Kelly
American actress Grace Kelly has been immortalised in film history thanks to her brilliant performances in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Although she abandoned her acting career in order to become princess consort of Monaco in 1956, Kelly’s enduring legacy has continued to dazzle newer generations of viewers to this day. On her 91st birth anniversary, we revisit the life of the actress in fond remembrance of her talent.
Born on 12 November 1929 in Philadelphia, Kelly grew up in a highly affluent family. When she was young, her mother was a successful model who later became a famous athletic coach and her father, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, owned a successful brickwork contracting company. However, Kelly was primarily influenced by her uncles, Walter C. Kelly and George Kelly. Walter, a vaudeville star who also made films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures, and George, a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, screenwriter, and director, sparked Kelly’s interest in the performing arts from a very early age. She participated in school plays and community productions, occasionally modelling with her mother and her sisters as well. When she was rejected by Bennington College because of her low scores in mathematics, Kelly decided that she would try to make her dream of being an actress a reality. Even though she faced resistance from her family, her uncle George encouraged her to pursue a full-time acting career and mentored her.
George helped her get into American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York where she worked diligently towards becoming a better artist and practised her speech by using a tape recorder. She worked her way through school as a commercial model, making $400 per week and appearing in a variety of advertisements. Kelly made her Broadway debut in Strindberg’s The Father, alongside Raymond Massey and continued to look for Broadway openings after graduating but the aspiring actress found it difficult to make the cut. Don Richardson, one of her directors and teachers, later said, “She would never have had a career in the theatre,” because she had “great looks and style, yes, but no vocal horsepower” but it was her work in The Father that impressed Henry Hathaway, director of Fourteen Hours (1951), enough to offer her a minor role, opposite Paul Douglas. Her co-star Douglas was so taken with the young actress that he said:
“In two senses, she did not have a bad side– you could film her from any angle, and she was one of the most un-temperamental, cooperative people in the business.”
Fourteen Hours helped establish a national “Grace Kelly Fan Club” with multiple local chapters but it did little to help her acting career because her performance was neglected by many critics. She followed it up with a starring role in Fred Zinnemann’s1952 film High Noon alongside Gary Cooper who was 28 years her senior. Although the film went on to win four Academy Awards, Kelly’s performance was dismissed by critics and even the great Alfred Hitchcock later reflected that the actress would only show her true potential in her later work. After High Noon, Kelly was determined to make it as an actress so she came back to New York and took private acting lessons. She appeared in a few dramas in the theatre, and in TV serials but her big break came when John Ford cast her in 1953 film Mogambo where she played Linda Nordley, a contemplative English wife with a romantic interest in a big-game hunter (Clark Gable) in Kenya. Kelly later revealed, “Mogambo had three things that interested me: John Ford, Clark Gable, and a trip to Africa, with expenses paid. If Mogambo had been made in Arizona, I wouldn’t have done it.” Kelly was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
Shortly after, in 1954, Kelly turned down an opportunity to star alongside Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront so that she could work with her mentor Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window. She plays the role of elite socialite Lisa Fremont who does not fit into the minimalistic worldview of her photojournalist lover but they work it out while solving a murder mystery together and what is undeniably classic Hitchcock. She went on to collaborate with the legendary director on two more films: Dial M for Murder (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), winning National Board of Review Award for Best Actress for her performance in the former. The actress once said: “It was thanks to Alfred Hitchcock that I understood that murder scenes should be shot like love scenes and love scenes like murder scenes.”
The highlight of her film career undoubtedly came in 1954. For her wonderful work as Bing Crosby’s long-suffering wife in George Seaton’s The Country Girl, Kelly ultimately won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She also received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actress for her performances in her three big movie roles of 1954: Rear Window, Dial M For Murder, and The Country Girl. Kelly’s final role was in 1956 when she portrayed the main character Tracy Lord, opposite Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm in the 1956 remake of The Philadelphia Story which was first released in 1940.
When Kelly was asked to join the United States Delegation Committee at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival in France, she was already one of the highest-paid and most respected actresses in the world. That is where she met her future husband: Prince Rainier III. Kelly and the Prince were in a traffic jam because of a worker’s strike that day but the Prince’s frustrations disappeared when he finally met the glamorous actress. After six months of writing to each other, the Prince came to the US to seek her parents’ permission for their marriage. Often called “the wedding of the century”, Kelly and the Prince got married on April 19, 1956, in a very public and ornate ceremony at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Monaco, where approximately 700 guests, including celebrities Cary Grant and Aristotle Onassis, were in attendance. Kelly became the princess consort of Monaco, giving up her American citizenship. Her royal husband also banned her films in Monaco.
As the Princess, Kelly had to turn her back on her acting career and focused on philanthropic work instead. She became the patron of Red Cross of Monaco and Rainbow Coalition Children, an orphanage run by Josephine Baker. After she witnessed the horrors of the Vietnamese War, she also founded AMADE Mondiale, a Monaco-based non-profit organisation recognised by the UN. Kelly also supported local artists by forming the Princess Grace Foundation in 1964. From there, she also helped found the Princess Grace Academy, the resident school of the Monte Carlo Ballet in 1975. Although she was approached by Hitchcock to star in the 1962 film Marnie, she had to turn the opportunity down because the people of Monaco did not want to see her play the role of a kleptomaniac. Later, her husband dismissed the idea of her working with Herbert Ross in 1977 effort The Turning Point. However, she did return to the arts with poetry readings on television and narration jobs. To round off a quite remarkable career, Kelly joined the board of the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation in 1976 as one of its first female members and pioneered yet more cinematic history.
Kelly passed away in September of 1982 after suffering a stroke while driving back home and drove down the mountainside. Her husband did not remarry and was buried alongside her in 2005. The actress will be forever remembered for her contribution to the world of cinema and her unrelenting charitable efforts. She was awarded her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was listed 13th among the American Film Institute’s 25 Greatest Female Stars of Classical Hollywood Cinema in 1999. After all these years, it seems like one of her wishes has been granted by history:
“I would like to be remembered as a person who did her job well. An understanding, kind and decent human being.”