Icon Versus Actor

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All the talk this week over James Dean’s likeness has given me much to think about regarding how certain actors become icons of pop culture. For those who aren’t aware, it was announced earlier this week that Dean’s likeness would be used, recreated via CGI and unused footage, for an upcoming film, in which he’d be a secondary character.

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Forgetting the debate over CGI resurrections, I’ve always wondered if Dean, had he lived, would’ve continued to be as great an actor as he was in his sole three movies. The performances he gave were mesmerizing and ushered in a new form of acting that represented the disenfranchised youth at its most modern. But were those performances just a phase? Would Dean have been able to expand beyond his performances of teenage angst?

I often wonder the same thing about Grace Kelly. Like Dean, her career was short-lived – but just like Dean, the circumstances of her life transformed her into a cultural icon. From her debut in High Noon and onwards, Kelly made a trope of her roles. She was the cool, icy blonde. Elegant, but also distant, and it would take the course of the film for someone (usually a man) to melt that icy heart.

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Grace Kelly in High Society (1956)

Kelly was phenomenal in all these roles. The way in which she slowly gets roped into Jimmy Stewart’s neuroses in Rear Window pays off in a thrilling climax; the charm and wit she portrays in To Catch a Thief shows that she could very well be the next Cary Grant, as fashionable, witty, and charming; then there is High Society, she is the ultimate ice queen in this 1956 picture – three men fall for her, but her own haughty personality makes it impossible for her to see past her own upturned nose.

Then there is Kelly the style icon. Last year, I wrote a post about the Kelly bag. All the Technicolor gowns, all the Edith Head wardrobe, all the splendor of her composition and composure – all of these things create a fashion icon who catapults herself further into the limelight when she becomes a real-life Princess. Is it any coincidence that the very same year she married Prince Ranier, Kelly played a European princess in The Swan?

Grace Kelly made eleven pictures between 1951 to 1956. (For reference, Daniel Day-Lewis made seven pictures between 1997 and 2017.) There is something to like about Kelly in every single one of her pictures, and there’s always something to dissect, but I do wonder if Kelly had continued making films into the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, would she have blossomed beyond the ice-queen roles?

Many of her peers certainly did. Audrey Hepburn, who began with gamine roles, found movies that allowed her to expand her acting potential, branching out into pictures as anti-Hepburn as Wait Until Dark. Kelly’s favorite actress, Ingrid Bergman, found unexpected freedom in Italy with neorealism before returning to Hollywood with a new kind of intensity as seen in Murder on the Orient Express.

In the early days, actors were known for playing a certain role. John Wayne the Cowboy, Jimmy Stewart the All-American, Katharine Hepburn the Career Girl. But actors of Kelly’s generation wanted to study their craft, use those skills in theater companies and apply them to the silver screen. Kelly went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Jason Robards and Don Rickles, her uncle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and she acted in nearly 60 live television programs. (James Dean also began in television anthology shows.)

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Andy Warhol, Grace Kelly, 1984

In this classic film buff’s humble opinion, with all the training and cultivated talent that Grace Kelly had, she could have indeed grown beyond the roles of her short career had she continued. She had the talent, the drive, and the professionalism that would’ve made her the next Ingrid Bergman. Her status as a cultural icon may have replaced her humanity with symbolism and discussions of mass media consumption, but it would be foolish to call Kelly’s body of work insubstantial. There is something very wonderful about it, something that endures. If she were any other actress, that would not be the case.

But she was Grace Kelly, and (to quote Cary Grant) she was serenity.


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To read the other blogposts celebrating Grace Kelly please click here and follow The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon co-hosts The Wonderful World of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, Musings From a Classic Film Addict!

 

When Hubert Met Audrey

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It began on Roman Holiday. Audrey Hepburn was new to film and Edith Head was the de facto queen of costumes. She was not, as some would mistakingly call her, a fashion designer; Edith Head was a costumer. She made wardrobes that looked right on the big screen – that were framed right, shot right, lit right.

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Head’s dissatisfaction with Audrey Hepburn’s physique was immediate. She thought the starlet too gangly. That her shoulders were too narrow, neck too long, arms frail, legs knock-kneed, waist obscenely slim, teeth too big. She believed in the post-WWII return to sensual allure. It was the hourglass figure, ample bosoms, and provocative skin of Dior’s New Look that Head honed onscreen. Grace Kelly was Head’s idea of the nonpareil. In the costumes of Roman Holiday, all these “imperfections” were covered by jewels, scarves, and long skirts. Her costumes weren’t meant to be fashionable or trendy, they were meant to be timeless – timeless in an unremarkably un-couture way.

On Sabrina, director Billy Wilder decided that Sabrina Fairchild needed a true Parisian designer if her transformation was to seem realistic.

Continue reading “When Hubert Met Audrey”

History of the Kelly Bag

Grace Kelly – Hermes Kelly bag

Now an expensive status symbol, such was the popularity of Grace Kelly in the 1950s that the luxurious Hermès bag she carried with her everywhere became rechristened with her name, ensuring the late Hollywood actress-turned-princess a lasting legacy in the fashion world. It would make Grace Kelly, an actress of only seven professional years, a cultural icon.

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The Sac à dépêches bag, as it was then known, was created in 1935, eleven years after the invention of the first leather handbag. Its earlier incarnations included high handles and smaller designs than most handbags of the day. It wasn’t until Émile-Maurice Hermès’s son-in-law Robert Dumas redesigned the bag that it became the Sac à dépêches we know today. With a little more glamor, a memorable trapezium shape, and studs on the bottom allowing the bag to stand, the Sac à dépêches was born.

Its uniqueness laid in its craftsmanship. Each bag is hand-designed, quite literally, by a single artisan, requiring a total of 18 to 25 hours of over 2,500 hand-stitches. For that reason, the Kelly bag holds its high retail price.

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It was Alfred Hitchcock who introduced Grace Kelly to the Hermès bag. In the ’50s, she became his new muse – and he sought to use Kelly to bring elegance into his thrillers. With enough guidance from Edith Head, the Sac à dépêches bag became Kelly’s weapon of choice in To Catch a Thief, the picture that made Kelly fall in love with Europe. Her choice of preference was crocodile skin, either brown or navy blue, the two most popular colors to this day.

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It was the birth of paparazzi. Elio Sorci was photographing Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Years later, Marlon Brando would punch Ron Galella in the jaw. Grace Kelly was no exception to high-profile scrutiny. Her engagement to Prince Rainier III was the talk of the town. She would be the first American princess – famous in her own right. She used her handbag to shield her pregnant belly from the paparazzi. In 1956, Life magazine featured such a photograph of her bag, and so iconic was that image that the public began referring to it as the “Kelly” bag.

And the name stuck.


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To read the other blogposts celebrating Grace Kelly please click here and follow The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon co-hosts The Wonderful World of Cinema & The Flapper Dame!

 

 

The Lovely Haute Couture of Liza Minnelli

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This Wednesday, I went to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills to check out Love, Liza: The Exhibit, a showcase of over 1,000 items by showbiz entertainer Liza Minnelli. It would be a disservice to the skills of the lovely Liza to boil her down to “actress”, “singer”, or “performer”. As the kind of shooting star who lights up the screen with her very presence and attitude, Liza Minnelli is nothing less than a born entertainer, regardless of career or medium.

Continue reading “The Lovely Haute Couture of Liza Minnelli”