Elegant movie star Grace Kelly was not just a stunning beauty but a gifted performer, so some might be surprised to learn that her film career lasted just five years. During those years, the regal blonde won an Oscar and worked with Alfred Hitchcock three times, in “Dial M for Murder,” “To Catch a Thief” and “Rear Window” — perhaps her signature role.
Hollywood’s big question when she married Prince Albert Rainier of Monaco in 1956 was whether she would continue to act. Fans and the media all wanted to know what would happen, but it seemed unlikely — after all, Rita Hayworth had found being a princess incompatible with being a movie star and her marriage to Prince Aly Khan lasted just a few years.
Americans are most familiar with the monarchs of Britain, thanks to generations of media coverage. But for several decades, Yankees faithfully followed another royal family, the Grimaldis of Monaco, because of Kelly.
Two years after her Oscar-winning performance in “The Country Girl,” she left Hollywood in what seemed like the perfect fairy-tale romance of the 1950s. Of course fairy tales aren’t real, but it was exactly what the public needed.
Born in Philadelphia on Nov. 12, 1929,, Kelly faced opposition from her parents when she caught the acting bug but showbiz was in her blood: Her uncle Walter was an actor and uncle George Kelly was a Pulitzer-winning playwright.
She made her Broadway debut at age 20 in Strindberg’s “The Father,” starring and directed by Raymond Massey. The Nov. 23, 1949, Variety review said Kelly and other supporting players were “acceptable.”
That wasn’t an auspicious start, but her performance led to being cast in the title role of Sinclair Lewis’s “Bethel Merriday,” on NBC’s “Philco TV Playhouse” and Variety praised her “fine thesping.” That led to even more work.
Kelly appeared in dozens of television shows in the next few years, including playing Dulcinea in “Don Quixote,” with Boris Karloff in the title role, directed by Sidney Lumet. There was also adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s “The Swan,” in which she gave a “masterful” performance, according to Variety.
She made her film debut in the 1951 “Fourteen Hours.” It was a small role, but Gary Cooper liked her and picked her for the iconic 1952 Western “High Noon.” She earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination for the 1953 “Mogambo,” directed by John Ford and starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, which Variety described as “a socko romantic adventure.”
Her breakthrough year was 1954, when she starred in five films, including two for Alfred Hitchcock: “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window.” Her “Rear Window” character was the classic Hitchcock star: a cool beauty who has a successful career and proves surprisingly resourceful.
Kelly was cast against type in “The Country Girl,” playing the dowdy and downtrodden wife of Bing Crosby. Variety enthused “Grace Kelly is resolute to the hilt, conveying a certain feminine strength and courage that enable her to endure the hardships of being the boozer’s wife.”
Fans of Judy Garland in “A Star is Born” cite Kelly’s win best actress win for “The Country Girl” as one of Oscar’s big outrages, but it was clearly Kelly’s year: Aside from those other three films, she also starred in “Green Fire” and “Bridges at Toko-Ri.” Theater owners named her the No. 2 box office attraction for the year, behind “Rear Window” co-star James Stewart.
She reunited with Hitchcock for “To Catch a Thief,” playing opposite Cary Grant. Like her contemporary Audrey Hepburn, Kelly was often cast opposite leading men who were 20 to 30 years older, such as Grant, Gable, Cooper, Stewart and Crosby.
In the book “Hitchcock,” the director told interviewer Francois Truffaut, “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense.” He said in “To Catch a Thief,” he at first photographed Kelly in profile, “looking very distant.” The character seems uninterested in Grant until he escorts her to her hotel room. Without saying a word, she wraps her arm around his neck, kisses him, then gives a seductive look and closes the door. It’s blatantly sexual, yet 1950s discreet.
She met Prince Rainier III on May 6, 1955 while serving as part of the American delegation at the Cannes Film Festival, broke her engagement to fashion designer Oleg Cassini and became engaged to the prince.
A week before the wedding, under the headline “Kelly a Riddle: Is She or Is She Ain’t Gonna Act?” Variety said she was evasive about her career, but Rainier declared that her acting days were over.
MGM capitalized on the wedding for the 1956 releases “The Swan” (in which she played a princess in a bigscreen adaptation of the Molnar play she’d done on TV) and “High Society,” with Crosby and Frank Sinatra in a musical version of “The Philadelphia Story.”
The wedding, one of the most spectacular and avidly covered of the century, took place over April 18 and 19 in Monaco, first with a civil ceremony and a 3,000-person reception for Monaco residents, then a religious ceremony the next day, with 700 guests.
Variety said news organizations had agreed to pool coverage, due to lack of space in the cathedral for media companies. “American newsreels are sparing no expense to get the film back to the U.S. in a hurry,” meaning overnight delivery. “A waiting helicopter would take footage to the Nice airport, then flown to Paris, then New York.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Hollywood reassigned stars to films that had been targeted for her including “Designing Woman” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” She had wanted to be in “Giant,” but it was a conflict of timing.
The births of her three children also generated enormous publicity; Princess Caroline was born in 1957, Prince Albert in 1958, and Princess Stephanie in 1965.
While pregnant with Caroline, she was frequently photographed discreetly holding a Hermes purse, which came to be known as a Kelly bag.
Hollywood tried to lure her for a comeback, but never successfully. Among the pitches were playing the Virgin Mary in “King of Kings” (1961), the title role in Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” plus leads in “Nicholas and Alexandra” and “The Turning Point.”
Though Kelly narrated ballet documentary “The Children of Theatre Street” 1977), her participation in films was minimal. She devoted herself to numerous causes; she founded AMADE Mondiale, a Monaco-based non-profit dedicated to helping children. She also created the Princess Grace Foundation in 1964 to support local artisans. (After her death, the Princess Grace Foundation-USA was established.)
Kelly had a stroke on Sept. 13, 1982 while driving in the mountains above Monaco with daughter Stephanie. Both were injured and Kelly’s injuries at first seemed minor, but she died the following day of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Rainier was buried alongside her in 2005.