Though her acting career was short-lived compared to her role as the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly was certainly one of the top stars in Hollywood in the mid-1950s. Starting in live television and transitioning to Hollywood roles—and ultimately winding up as an Oscar-winning, Hitchcockian ice-blonde cool girl—the myth of Grace Kelly loomed large over Hollywood lore long after she’d traded her scripts for tiaras.
Today, we’re going to look at Princess Grace’s time as the Hollywood Princess.
Her first role, a small part in the thriller Fourteen Hours, led to her being cast as Gary Cooper’s Quaker wife in the Western High Noon. Though she was the first to admit that she wasn’t overly impressed with her performance in the film, it became a classic—earning Gary Cooper his second Oscar—and led to wider recognition for the actress.
She took acting classes to refine her craft and signed a contract with MGM Studios for seven years that would provide $850 per week. Grace was a good negotiator though, and had it written into her contract that she could take time off “one out of every two years” to work in the theatre and that her main and permanent residence would still be Manhattan—she wouldn’t make a permanent home in Hollywood.
After High Noon, Grace was cast in a remake called Mogambo starring Clark Gable (who’d starred in the film on which this was based, 1932’s Red Dust). Grace would be playing the character originally played by Mary Astor opposite romantic rival Ava Gardner (playing the role originated by Jean Harlow). Both were vying for Gable’s character’s affections, though Grace’s character was married.
Mogambo filmed in Nairobi in 1952. Grace told Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that “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.”
Grace was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, in the Best Supporting Actress category, though she lost out to Donna Reed for From Here to Eternity. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe in the supporting category and won.
Perhaps most famously, Grace appeared in a trio of now-classic Hitchcockian thrillers: Dial M for Murder in 1954, Rear Window, also in 1954, and To Catch a Thief in 1955.
Speaking to Hollywood biographer Donald Spoto for his biography of Grace called High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, Hitchcock said of Grace’s performance in Dial M for Murder that “…I think that Grace conveyed so much more sex than the average movie sexpot. With Grace, you had to find out – you had to discover it.”
Dial M for Murder was her first true leading role, and she was also the only woman in the cast. In it, she played the role of Margot Mary Wendice—an adulterous wife who is framed for the murder of her lover by her vengeful husband after she thwarts his plan to murder her.
After filming ended, Grace retreated back to the safety of New York City, though she told an interviewer that “Working with Hitch was wonderful for me, but there was very little about Hollywood that I liked. The only value out there seemed to be money…”
In New York, Grace learned from her agent that Hitchcock had already arranged with the studios for her to be loaned out to film Rear Window, and that if she was interested, she would need to return in late November for wardrobe fittings. The next day, she received the script for On the Waterfront with an offer to play Marlon Brando’s girlfriend, and was faced with a tough choice: working with Alfred Hitchcock or with Elia Kazan.
Grace found it tough to choose: On the Waterfront was going to be filmed in New York, but she loved working with Hitch, who’d shoot Rear Window in Hollywood. Her agent gave her an hour to decide. She chose Rear Window.
Eva Saint Marie ultimately won the role of Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress—and a slew of other awards—for her performance.
Rear Window paired Grace with actor James Stewart, beloved for his roles in classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Philadelphia Story, for which he won an Oscar.
In the thriller, Grace played Lisa Fremont: a high-fashion model who wants to settle down with Stewart’s character, a nature photographer who is wheelchair-bound with a broken leg following an accident. He begins watching the people in the apartment tenement across the courtyard and eventually requires Lisa’s help when he suspects that one of the apartment dwellers murdered his wife.
Grace and Stewart became close friends on the set and their friendship endured until Grace’s death. Stewart gave a eulogy at a memorial service in Hollywood for Grace, saying that “I really loved Grace Kelly. Not because she was a princess or an actress or a friend, but because she was just about the nicest lady I ever met.”
Her third Hitchcock movie was filmed in a place that would become like a second home to Grace later in life: the French Riviera. In To Catch a Thief, she played the cool Frances Stevens, a cool socialite who plays a cat-and-mouse game with Cary Grant’s retired cat burglar character while a real jewel thief is on the loose.
Her performance was well-received, with the New York Times finding her “cool and exquisite and superior.”
Returning to her dramatic acting skills, Grace lobbied for the leading role in The Country Girl, where she’d play the dowdy and longsuffering wife of Bing Crosby’s alcoholic actor looking for a comeback following tragedy. In the role, she also butts heads with William Holden’s producer, who blames her for Crosby’s alcoholism.
MGM was reluctant to loan out Grace to Paramount for the film, but she ultimately threatened to quit her contract and return to the theatres of New York City unless they did so. They ultimately agreed and on March 30, 1955, she was presented the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in the film.
Grace, overcome with emotion, gave a brief acceptance speech: “The thrill of this moment keeps me from saying what I really feel. I can only say thank you with all my heart to all who made this possible for me. Thank you.”
Grace also won the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama, the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress (also shared for Rear Window and Dial M for Murder), the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (again, also shared for Rear Window and Dial M for Murder), and was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
However, her Oscar win wasn’t without controversy: she was nominated against Judy Garland’s now-iconic performance in her comeback film, A Star is Born, and the rumours persist—though they’ve never been verified by the Academy—that there were just six votes that separated the two.
Groucho Marx sent Judy Garland a telegram saying that Grace’s Oscar win was “the biggest robbery since Brink’s” in 1950. Even Grace’s own father was surprised by the win, reportedly saying that he couldn’t believe she’d won.
Most of Grace’s films are now classics, but there were some that didn’t land at the box office or with critics, including: The Bridges at Toko-Ri in 1954, where she played William Holden’s longsuffering wife; and Green Fire in 1955, where she played a coffee grower in Colombia who falls in love with a man who discovers an emerald mine.
Grace’s performance in The Bridges at Toko-Ri wasn’t well-received by critics, with one calling her performance “vanilla.” And Grace was not enthused about having to make Green Fire—a contractual obligation in order to make The Country Girl at Paramount.
“Green Fire was not the kind of picture I became an actress to do. I had to accept it for the chance to make The Country Girl, and it taught me a lesson—never agree to a role before accepting a script,” Grace said later to Donald Spoto.
In a prescient quirk of fate, one of Grace’s last films showed her playing a princess from a European royal house. In The Swan, Grace plays Princess Alexandra, a young princess who is being pushed to marry her cousin, a crown prince, and who develops a romance with a tutor played by Louis Jourdan. The tragic tale doesn’t have a happy ending for Grace’s character.
The Swan was her last film before she became engaged to Prince Rainier and was purposely held so that it could premiere on the same day as she became a real-life princess: 18 April 1956.
Following her engagement to Prince Rainier in December 1955, Grace returned to Hollywood to film her final movie: High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story.
In High Society, Grace played Tracy Lord, a young woman on the eve of her second wedding who finds herself in a love triangle with crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who play her ex-husband and a gossip reporter sent to cover the wedding.
In the film, Grace wears her real-life engagement ring. She was also given all of the costumes after filming as part of her trousseau. She would later reflect on the making of High Society as one of her “most enjoyable experiences.” She said that “I was in love, I was engaged, I was singing a song called ‘True Love’—and it was all wonderful, and I remember the cast as a group of amiable professionals.”
Grace attributed her own ease in the role as knowing that the end was in sight. “Maybe because I was about to leave Hollywood, I felt relaxed and could just let the character have her way—I didn’t impose myself on her.”
Following her wedding, Princess Grace retired from the screen. It was hoped and rumoured many times throughout the late ‘50s and the ‘60s that Grace would return to Hollywood, but despite a controversial announcement that she would indeed film another movie with Hitchcock—Marnie in 1962—the public outcry from the citizens of Monaco led to her turning down the role, and Grace never appeared in films again unless they were documentaries she was participating in.