The timeless, classic beauty of the actress who abandoned Hollywood stardom to become a princess is celebrated in a new exhibition at the V&A Galleries
Jack Watkins reviews Grace Kelly: Style Icon.
Alfred Hitchcock would have hotly disagreed, but Grace Kelly was a prime example of how, in cinema, style can so often count for more than substance. Here was a limited actress, beautiful enough and certainly classy, but whose emotional range ran, as Dorothy Parker might have said, from A to B and all the way back again. Yet for a while in the1950s, she appeared to hold the attention of the world. She had, it seemed to audiences at the time, an intriguing, glacial mystery about her, with hidden depths of emotion concealed beneath a cool demeanour that, with a voice as composed as her features, created little jewel-like moments of film magic.
There’s a new bout of Grace Kelly fever at large at the moment. As well as a recent biography by Donald Spoto, who knew her personally, a new exhibition at the V& A celebrates her status as a ‘style icon’. Throughout June, a season at the National Film Theatre is screening every one of the films in which she starred in her fleeting six year career before her retirement and marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Looking at the gowns and the photos and the newsreel clips at the V&A show, the thought suddenly strikes of how shabby the fashion and celebrity world has become in the years since she died at the wheels of her car, aged 52, in 1982. Watching her regally waving to the adoring crowds who lined up to cheer her on her engagement and subsequent arrival in Monaco, there’s something quite cringe-inducing about her knowing ‘the camera’s-on me’ airs, her fake Cheshire cat smiles and the ossified rituals that became part of her life once she departed for Monaco. Yet her timeless elegance is undimmed.
Perhaps it’s hard to imagine people of today getting so worked up about an actress who’d played so many upper crust types in films and then floated off to become a real-life princess on an insignificant island. But, depressingly, you then recall that our contemporary style ‘icons’ are supposed to be Posh and Becks. Suddenly you may find yourself longing for someone with a dash of Grace Kelly’s well-bred glamour and restraint.
The V&A exhibition is located in the museum’s fashion galleries. It’s not something that’s calculated to appeal to film buffs, unless you are an absolute Kelly freak or a sucker for anything remotely connected with Hitchcock, the director who did most to uncork her singular appeal. Through the display of her costumes and accessories – Kelly apparently kept her dresses ‘like old friends’ – it follows her life through its three main phases, from her discovery by Hollywood, to her Monaco marriage and then her later years as Princess Grace. Especially notable among the exhibits are the Grecian-style bathing robe and the evening gown she wore in the musical High Society, and gowns and dresses worn in Rear Window and The Swan.
The show also examines how she was an ambassador for classically simple American women’s fashions and a pioneer wearer – along with Jackie Onassis and Brigitte Bardot – of sunglasses. When she was continually photographed carrying a Hermès handbag, it quickly became a key status symbol, with a consequent impact on its retail price. Unsurprisingly, haute couture soon cottoned on to the wider value of Kelly’s custom and she worked regularly with fashion houses like Christian Dior over the years, while never losing sight of the essential fact that, as she put it, “it is important to see the person first and the clothes afterwards.”
The reality of Grace Kelly’s later life is that, unless you’re the sort of person that reads Hello perhaps, it isn’t desperately interesting. There’s no attempt at the V&A to probe the mystery of Kelly’s allure. Was it all down to self-awareness and shrewd marketing? This was certainly a woman who seems to have known what she was doing from early in her career. Edith Head, costume designer on Rear Window, in which Kelly played a Park Avenue socialite, once remarked “I have never worked with anybody who had a more intelligent grasp of what we were doing”, and one can imagine Kelly approaching her life in the same manner.
The NFT season will offer a better opportunity to re-assess her big screen appeal. Her first big part came opposite Gary Cooper as his Quaker bride in the classic western High Noon, in 1952, a part far removed from her later image. She was, at least, self critical enough to offer this assessment: “You look into his (Cooper’s) face and see everything he is thinking. I looked into my own face and saw nothing. I knew what I was thinking but it didn’t show.” This inscrutability actually became intrinsic to her legend, but it needed a good director to bring it out. Hitchcock cast her in Dial M for Murder, (opposite Ray Milland), Rear Window (James Stewart) and To Catch a Thief (Cary Grant).
It was said that she was the perfect blonde that Hitchcock had been looking for for years to cast in his thrillers. He once explained why, in a famous series of interviews with the French director Francois Truffaut. Grace Kelly, he said, appealed to him because her sex appeal was indirect. When Truffaut countered that the more carnal types such as Sophia Loren, Jane Russell and Bardot tended to prove more popular among film audiences, the old sage replied: “That may be true, but that sort of actress generally makes bad films because without the element of surprise the sexuality becomes meaningless.”
Hitch was almost certainly right, though Kim Novak (Vertigo) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie) are arguably far more interesting Hitchcock blondes than the glacial Kelly. High Society – perhaps the most quintessential of her films, in terms of her image, was actually not directed by Hitchcock, and was the last film she made before her retirement in 1956. A musical re-make of The Philadelphia Story, with songs by Cole Porter, in it she is serenaded by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and, as a spoilt upper-class bitch, very good in her role – so long as you forget that in the original, her part was taken by a true Hollywood great, Katherine Hepburn.
But Kelly the clothes horse was never lovelier. In her scenes with Sinatra there’s a real on-screen chemistry, a sense that the iceberg could indeed melt if the temperature was steamy enough. I still find myself impervious to the charms of Grace Kelly, but I imagine a lot of people will go along to the V&A exhibition, or watch the films at the South Bank, and find themselves succumbing once again, just as they did all those years ago.
Grace Kelly: Style Icon runs at the V&A to 26 September. See www.vam.ac.uk for details.
The National Film Theatre’s Grace Kelly season runs from 2 to 29 June. See www.bfi.org.uk for information.