Friday, September 14, 2012

This Day in Film History (Grace Kelly, Star-Turned-Royal, Dies)

September 14, 1982—Nearly three decades after a film scene in which her character gave Cary Grant the willies with her hairpin turns in Monte Carlo, Princess Grace of Monaco—a.k.a. Grace Kelly—died at age 52 in an auto accident on a similar hilly road in the place where she turned from Hollywood royalty to actual royalty. Death brought a dramatic end to a life that had become boring, anti-climactic—anything but the fairy tale she had seemed to live, of the beautiful young woman who had married a prince.

Like those of Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood, Kelly’s death became unmistakably engraved on the consciousness of film fans. Her hold on the public was all the more extraordinary because her film career was only half the length of Monroe’s and only one-sixth of Wood’s.

Several years ago at a wake, someone asked a priest of my acquaintance if he had noticed a couple of rows up a striking young Irish-American woman whom he had baptized years before. He corrected the name used by the questioner: “You mean Grace Kelly,” he joked.

The producers of the award-winning cable TV series Mad Men had to be aware of that icon of beauty and style when they cast January Jones as the young suburban wife Betty Draper.  That same blond elegance and sense of cool remove were so noticeable that the editors at Oprah Magazine created a fashion spread in which the star of today emulated the looks of the Fifties actress.

To other characters who encounter Betty Draper in her role as helpmate to her husband, Madison Avenue prince Don Draper, she seems a thousand times blessed: handsome spouse, cute kids, wonderful house, and, of course, her own looks. Longtime viewers know that, like much else on that show, it’s a carefully manufactured illusion. Betty lives in a gilded cage, committed to a husband who disappoints her, suffocated by her own nagging sense of unfulfillment.

So, sadly, did Princess Grace feel in her final years. After fulfilling the duty of perpetuating the royal line of Monaco, she began to chafe at her stultifying life. Prince Rainier would openly yawn when observing his wife’s creative floral displays, and is said to have rejected any notion of her returning to the silver screen, in the 1977 ballet film Turning Point and, more intriguingly, in Marnie, where she would have collaborated with the director who most appreciated her allure (and, indeed, who might be said to have obsessed about it), Alfred Hitchcock. 

The odyssey of Betty Draper, fans might recall, begins with her auto accident, a signal to a select but largely uncomprehending few that all is not well with her world. In contrast, the odyssey of Grace Kelly ended with an accident.

Betty’s accident caused consternation because children were in the car when she crashed. Kelly’s crash took on a murkiness of its own, involving one of her children. An autopsy concluded that she had had a massive brain hemorrhage just before the accident. That would have accounted for how she lost control of the car.

But for nearly two decades after the tragic day, tabloid speculation swirled, first claiming that it was Princess Stephanie, not her mother, who had been driving—then, when that became harder to prove, that the 17-year-old wild child of the Grimaldi royal family had been arguing with Princess Grace.

It might be more correct to see Betty Draper as a Grace Kelly counterfeit than as a counterpart. Betty’s lack of fulfillment can only be partly ascribed to dismay with her marriage to the philandering, deceitful Don. She is one of the most abusive mothers in the history of television, and it seems to come from a spot in her psyche beyond accountable experience. While Grace Kelly adopted some of the methods of her own strict mother, abuse was not the default option for her. (The writer for the blog Mad for Monaco has an interesting piece on the princess’ supportive, complex, and completely individual relationships with her three children.)

No, I think we’ll have to look to other woman for parallels to Kelly, somehow who, in fact, was her exact contemporary: Jacqueline Kennedy.

One incident did, in fact, unite them briefly: After her husband, then a Senator, had painful back surgery, Jackie smuggled into his hospital room the movie star, dressed in this case as a nurse. Few people would have been more appreciative of the prank than JFK.

Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly were born in the same year. While Kelly married into royalty, Jackie helped to create her own legend of royalty, relating, in a famous interview with Theodore H. White, how her late husband had loved Camelot. Each woman was, if you will, a Catholic American Princess.

Each woman also had, for want of a better phrase, father issues. Though their fathers' personalities were diferent, their clear failings affected how their daughters approached life. John Bouvier earned his nickname “Black Jack” for his dark tan and playboy image. It is hard not to see Jacqueline finding in the rising politico from Massachusetts someone who reminded her more than a little of her father. John Kelly, a hugely popular Olympic oars champion, had gone on to earn a fortune as a Philadelphia contractor. But his opinion of his famous daughter was blunt and off-putting. After Grace won the Best Actress Oscar for The Country Girl, he told reporters that she was the last of his daughters he would have expected to win such an award.

Each woman, after marriage, bore three children (the Kennedys’ third, Patrick, was stillborn in 1963). Each, after entering her high position, threw herself into causes (Jackie, the arts and beautification of the White House; Kelly, also a patroness of the arts, as well as the Red Cross and numerous other charities).

Each woman became an icon of beauty and fashion, but they were also distinctive for their voices. In a thousand days in the White House—particularly in the televised tour of the President’s house—Jackie’s breathy voice left a lasting impression on Americans. Kelly’s was one the actress had to work at. In acting school, she listened to thousands of recordings and practiced for hours dropping her voice, until the cool, cultured tones made her a kind of American aristocrat.

Above all, Kelly had more in common with Jackie Kennedy than with Betty Draper because of her strong will and sense of self-possession. She was talented, intelligent, and ambitious. Her fate—confinement to her gilded cage at Monaco—might not have been the happiest, but it was, indisputably, hers, one she had chosen, like a Hollywood version of Henry James' Isabel Archer, encountering her destiny in an environment and with a husband she knew all too little about beforehand. 

And, like Kennedy, she exerts a continuing fascination because she was content to let others gossip about her life--not condescending to feed the media or even acknowledge its existence. (After her death, a number of members of the Hollywood community opened up--one might say opened fire--about her string of affairs with older and/or married co-stars, including Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Ray Milland, and Bing Crosby. According to Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Hell Is in It, one of these alleged conquests, Jimmy Stewart, acknowledged his feelings about kissing her in Rear Window: "Waall, I'm married, but I'm not dead!") She kept something in the deepest part of herself that remained not only private, but inviolate.

You can find a fine career retrospective on Grace Kelly in this post by the Austin, Texas freelance writer Leah Churner on the blog BAM 150. 

(The photo of Kelly accompanying this post was part of a publicity release for Rear Window in 1954.)

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