A Book Review by Anthony Uzarowski.
In the 1950s female movie stars were expected to be more than human. For a price of a cinema ticket one could sit in the dark, gazing at the world’s most beautiful people. In some cases, viewers might even expect to witness the divine, for some of the exquisite creatures onscreen certainly closer resembled goddesses than mere mortals. Grace Kelly was perhaps the most divine of them all – so distantly perfect, so cool and effortless in her bearing, that even watching her today, particularly on the big screen, the viewer can’t be certain that she hadn’t stepped down from the clouds or emerge from the sea foam. The fact that her movie career was so brief and so spectacular only adds to this fantastical aura which surrounds her. Of course she had a whole other life, that of Her Serene Highness, the Princess of Monaco (from 1956 onward), but it is Grace Kelly the movie star that is forever frozen into cinematic iconography, a celluloid goddess for the ages.
There have been numerous books written on Grace Kelly, from in-depth biographies to stunning coffee table albums and salacious exposés. A new work by veteran film writers, Jay Jorgensen and Manoah Bowman, is perhaps the first book to pay homage to Kelly’s career as an actor, a career which she worked very hard to develop. On the surface Grace Kelly: Hollywood Dream Girl (HarperCollins, 2017) is another glossy, beautifully illustrated volume on one of the great classic movie stars. It is certainly that, but it is also much more. Jorgensen and Bowman bring us closer to understanding this complex and ambitious woman, who worked hard and overcame countless obstacles on her way to creating her image and to develop the skills which led to her winning the best actress Oscar for her performance in 1954’s The Country Girl.
What emerges is a surprising portrayal of a woman who was by no means an overnight sensation. Even her staggering beauty wasn’t immediately obvious, and although hard to believe while admiring her photographs, early in her career Kelly was often viewed as plain and unremarkable. Born into Philadelphia’s high society, Kelly was overshadowed by her more outgoing siblings. She was never considered the beautiful one – that distinction belonged to her older sister Peggy. Neither was she particularly athletic, a quality which her father expected from all his children. In effect she was shy and often withdrawn, escaping into the world of fantasy and make-believe. She was naturally drawn to the theatre, not a popular choice of career for well-to-do young ladies. On her application to drama school Grace wrote: “I hope to be an accomplished dramatic actress.” Her drive and ambition surprised her family and friends. She was determined to make it, moving to New York on her own, earning her way by modelling and appearing in commercials. Jorgensen and Bowman chronicle Kelly’s early experiences in theatre and television, where she was slowly and shrewdly discovering what her strengths were. But what is perhaps most impressive about the book is the incredible, visual landscape of the industry which the authors invite us into through the magnificent array of behind-the-scenes photographs, costume sketches, studio publicity portraits, promotional materials, memos, and many other artifacts.
What we are given is a privileged glimpse into what it was like to be a female movie star in the 1950s, but also what it was like to be a cinema goer, a consumer of what Hollywood had to offer. Jorgensen and Bowman present a portrait of a working actress, her artistic environment, the careful and precise process of creating and nurturing a star, and all the advantages and limitations which came with it: the burdens of the image and the fame, the hardships of being a woman in the harsh, male dominated industry, the loneliness. Under the surface of the patrician coolness, Kelly was fragile and passionate, ambitious for success but also longing for companionship. And while the book is by no means a definitive biography, the authors manage to covey the multi-layered persona which hid behind the glamorous façade.
The book also offers a complete, detailed, and intelligently analysed look at all of Kelly’s Hollywood films. From her early supporting roles in such classics as High Noon (1952) and Mogambo (1953), to her finally emerging as a major star in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Dial M for Murder (both 1954), to achieving her ambition of being a serious dramatic actress in the critically acclaimed The Country Girl.
It is perhaps no surprise that Grace Kelly: Hollywood Dream Girl is so unique and well crafted. Jay Jorgensen and Manoah Bowman have a long track record of impressive books on various aspects of film history – from Bowman’s brilliant volumes on Fellini and Natalie Wood to Jorgensen’s first-of-its-kind look at the history of Hollywood costume design and a stunning book on Edith Head. In joining forces for Grace Kelly, the authors brought us a book which is much more than a collector’s item for fans of the iconic star – scholars and film aficionados interested in stardom and the star machine, the Hollywood studio system, and the visual history of cinema will not want to miss out on this one.
Anthony Uzarowski is a Film Studies MA graduate from University College London. His first book (co-authored with Kendra Bean) is Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press, 2017). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Gay Times, Queerty, Turner Classic Movies, and Film International. His main research interests are classical Hollywood and star studies in relation to the representation of women in film and queer studies. Anthony is currently working on his second book.