The rare beauty and stunning self-possession that propelled Grace Kelly into the Hollywood pantheon, onto the Best-Dressed List, and ultimately to Monaco’s royal palace were more than captivating – they were completely genuine. As London’s Victoria and Albert Museum unveils an exhibition devoted to Kelly’s style, which still inspires fashion from Hermès to Tommy Hilfiger to Mad Men’s costumer Janie Bryant, the author looks at the intertwined qualities of an icon: white-gloved ingénue, elegant goddess, passionate – and frankly sexual – romantic.
It may be the softest kiss in film history. The sun is setting over West Side rooftops, the sky persimmon. A man, his leg in a cast, sleeps near an open window, undisturbed by a neighbor singing scales. Just after the highest note is reached, a shadow climbs over the man’s chest, shoulder, and chin. We see a face: blue eyes, red lips, skin like poured cream, pearls. Then he sees it. The kiss happens in profile, a slow-motion hallucinatory blur somewhere between myth and dream, a limbic level of consciousness. The director, Alfred Hitchcock, liked to say he got the effect by shaking the camera. In truth, this otherworldly kiss comes to us by way of a double printing. Has any muse in cinema been graced with such a perfect cameo portrait of her power?
“How’s your leg?” she murmurs. “It hurts a little,” Jimmy Stewart answers. Another soft kiss, more teasing questions. “Anything else bothering you?” she asks. “Uh-huh,” he says. “Who are you?”
Who, indeed! In 1954, when Rear Window premiered, Grace Kelly had been in only four films. She was hardly known to the public, and then she was suddenly known – a star. In her first film, Fourteen Hours, she played an innocent bystander, on-screen for two minutes and 14 seconds. In her second, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, she co-starred
as the pacifist bride of embattled sheriff Gary Cooper. In her third movie, John Ford’s Mogambo, she was the prim wife of an anthropologist (Donald Sinden) and Jane to big-game hunter Clark Gable’s Tarzan. It was a steep and impressive learning curve, straight to the top. By the time Hitchcock got his hands on her, figuratively speaking, casting himself as Pygmalion to her Galatea, Grace Kelly was ready for her close-up. Hitchcock gave her one after another, in three films that placed her on a pedestal – Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief – enshrining her as an archetype newly minted. “A snow-covered volcano” was how he put it. She was ladylike yet elemental, suggestive of icy Olympian heights and untouched autonomy yet, beneath it all, unblushing heat and fire. By 1956, two years, six films, and one Academy Award after Rear Window – while the country was still wondering, Who are you, Miss Kelly? – she was gone, off to Europe to marry a prince, whence she would become Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.
The appearance and then sudden disappearance of gifted, beautiful blondes is not unknown to Hollywood. Before Grace Kelly’s five-year phase of radiance in the 50s, there was Frances Farmer, whose brilliance roused the industry for six years, from 1936 to 1942. Like Kelly, Farmer was intelligent, her own person, and a serious actress wary of binding contracts. In 1957, only a year after Grace Kelly’s departure, Diane Varsi took the baton, making a big impression as a sensitive ingénue in Peyton Place. Varsi, too, was both smart and skeptical of Hollywood, and fled the industry in 1959.