Thursday, December 11, 2014

Grace Kelly's Greatest Performance

Bernie (William Holden): Does your wife really want you to play this part?

Frank (Bing Crosby): Yeah, she's all for it.

Bernie: I was just wondering. The day I met her, she seemed a little difficult about terms and rather domineering, I thought.

Frank: She wasn't always like that.

Bernie: Oh I know, I know. They all start out as Juliets and wind up as Lady Macbeths.

For a woman as beautiful as Grace Kelly was, it seems ironic that she won her only Oscar for portraying a rather plain woman.

It proves how versatile she was as an actress — and how much the world lost when she gave up her acting career to marry and raise a family.

It wasn't so much that her character was a plain woman. You could see in her face traces of the once–beautiful young girl her character had been. After all, you could only do so much to Kelly's natural beauty, and Kelly herself was only 25 when "The Country Girl" premiered on this day in 1954. Making her look truly plain would have been an Oscar–worthy makeup achievement — if makeup had been honored by the Oscars at that time.

Maybe her character wasn't so much older than Kelly. Maybe it was just that she had grown bitter from her life's experiences. She struggled to keep her marriage to an alcoholic actor (Bing Crosby) afloat while he was trying to resurrect his career.

But he was weak.

And William Holden, as a young director and fan of Crosby's, intervened. At first, he was convinced that Kelly's character was the problem. But he came to realize that Kelly had been the one keeping Crosby going.

No, Grace Kelly was much more than a pretty face. In "The Country Girl," she proved she could act, too.

That really shouldn't have surprised anyone. Even though her prior roles emphasized her youth and beauty, her performances were good, too. They were just overlooked. It was often forgotten that she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress the year before, but she wasn't nominated for her work in Alfred Hitchcock's movies — and she appeared in three of them — nor was she nominated for her work in "High Noon."

It came as a huge surprise to a lot of people when Kelly won Best Actress. The smart money said Judy Garland would win for "A Star Is Born," Garland's cinematic comeback. So certain, in fact, was NBC (the network that carried the Oscars in the 1950s) that a camera crew was dispatched to Garland's hospital room to broadcast her reaction when she won. Garland had just given birth to her son.

But Kelly won, and the camera crew had to silently pack up and slip out of the hospital. I've heard that many of them had left Garland's room before Kelly made it to the stage to accept her award.

Some people will still tell you that Garland deserved the award, but let me tell you this. I have seen both movies, and I am convinced that Kelly really deserved the Oscar that year. If Garland had beaten Kelly, that would have been a P.R. triumph, a case where the Oscar voters were bullied into voting for a particular nominee, not a case of the best actress being recognized for her performance.

I am sure that sort of thing happens from time to time. Thankfully, it did not happen 60 years ago. "The Country Girl" probably was Kelly's greatest performance in a career that, while short, was loaded with great performances.

Kelly wasn't the only one nominated for an Oscar. The movie was nominated for Best Picture, George Seaton was nominated for Best Director, Bing Crosby was nominated for Best Actor, Seaton was nominated for Best Story and Screenplay, and the art and set crews were nominated for Best Art Direction. But, other than Seaton (who won for Best Story and Screenplay), Kelly was the only one who won.