She made just 11 films and died nearly 35 years ago – and yet Grace Kelly still fascinates us today. Just two years ago the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition of her clothes drew record crowds. And now another film, with Nicole Kidman playing Grace, has brought her life centre stage again. Controversy rages around the film – mainly over the truth of how she is portrayed. But here we celebrate the true legacy of Grace Kelly. The woman of whom co-star and friend Jimmy Stewart said at her funeral, “she brought into my life, as she brought into yours, a soft, warm light every time I saw her.”
The film star
The camera loved Grace. According to photographer Cecil Beaton she had the perfect face for camera angles – square but with delicate features, so her small nose, “it hardly existed at all in profile” didn’t cast awkward shadows. She seemed to glide, rather than walk across the screen, more princess than mere mortal – no wonder Prince Rainier was intrigued. And there was that voice that sounded like nobody else’s. As a childhood sufferer of asthma and sinus problems she had always had a thin, high and reedy voice. Her slow delivery with slightly elongated vowels was the result of long work to bring down her voice pitch and create a more powerful sound.
She made three classic films with Alfred Hitchcock who called her ‘a snow-capped volcano’. They got on splendidly and he made the most of her unique ‘elegant sexiness’. In 1962, when she had been a princess for six years, she planned a film comeback and was the first choice to play the heroine in Hitchcock’s Marnie. Although she had originally given up films at the behest of her husband (who banned them from being shown in Monaco), Prince Rainier was said to have agreed to her returning to filming again. But the people of Monaco were so against it that she eventually turned it down.
But she was more than just beautiful. It’s significant that Cary Grant, who played opposite Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman among others, said, she was his all-time favourite actress: “She had serenity.”
The fashion icon
Her classic understated style became known as ‘the Grace Kelly look’. She was in films at the height of Hollywood’s elegance and was lucky to have many of her clothes designed for her by Hollywood’s best – Edith Head, who was responsible for the costumes on both Rear Window and To Catch A Thief. Edith paid Grace the compliment: “I’ve never worked with anybody who had a more intelligent grasp of what we were doing.”
Grace’s fairy-tale wedding dress, with its fitted lace bodice and bell-shaped skirt was the epitome of romance and still influences designers today. Her literal legacy is a certain leather bag, made by Hermes, that she carried throughout her first pregnancy, probably to shield herself from the camera. It made the bag so popular it was named The Kelly Bag.
The charity worker
Grace founded the charity AMADE Mondiale, to help protect vulnerable children around the world, work which the current President, Grace’s daughter Princess Caroline still maintains. She also set up The Princess Grace Foundation to help young talent in film, theatre and dance; it is still active today.
The celebrity Princess
Grace Kelly was the first true celebrity princess – but just like Princess Diana, her marriage was the subject of gossip and speculation. Many say Princess Grace regretted giving up her freedom and felt stifled. There are also rumours of early unhappiness, cruelty and infidelity on the part of Prince Rainier.
Diana and Grace met in 1981 – the evening Diana wore the notorious strapless black gown that caused a press furore. Grace comforted Diana when, in private, she broke down in tears at all the attention. Grace told her gently but with a smile, “It will only get worse”. Diana had found a kindred soul – and when, the following year, Grace was tragically killed in a car crash aged just 52 – Diana insisted on going to her funeral. Who could have foreseen that Diana’s own life would be cut short in the same terrible way, and that, as with Grace, hundreds of millions worldwide would watch her funeral, too.
Grace’s top five films
Dial M for Murder (1954)
This tense thriller was originally offered to Deborah Kerr, but she was unavailable. There were rumours that Grace had an affair with co-star Ray Milland.
Style highlight: the stunning red lace dress with fitted bodice she wears when she meets her lover. Sizzling!
Rear Window (1954)
Co-star and friend James Stewart said of her at this time that she was “Too talented. Too beautiful. Too sophisticated.” She gave one of her best performances in this murder thriller.
Style highlight: the ‘New Look’ white-tulle cocktail dress with fitted black bodice, designed by Edith Head.
To Catch A Thief (1955)
Grace and Cary Grant were voted number eight in the Top 25 Sexiest Movie Couples Of All Time for their performance in this stylish crime caper set on the Riviera.
Style highlight: the Edith Head-designed gold masquerade ball-gown (right). Over the top in the best possible way.
The Swan (1956)
She played a Princess torn between duty (Alex Guinness) and love (Louis Jourdan). The film premiered on Grace’s actual wedding day!
Style highlight: all the Helen Rose outfits – see how they echo Grace’s real wedding dress, which she also designed.
High Society (1956)
This was her last film – made after she had accepted Prince Rainier’s proposal. She wore her own engagement ring throughout the film.
Style highlight: the Helen Rose designed pleated white wrap that turned Grace into a Greek goddess.
Picture courtesy of Everett Collection/REX