Defend This $#!%: Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (1954)
The Academy Awards recognizes the best Hollywood has to offer every year, an annual highlight of the film industry's achievements, highlighting significant cultural events worth of their place in the canon of all time great films.
Except for when they don’t.
Sometimes, films lose esteem that is related to their initial release and awards hype; other times they are outside of critical consensus, or out of step to larger cultural conversations of importance for the time they were released and the period that followed. But we here at Talk Film Society feel that some of these unpopular winners hold up to their initial acclaim, and are here to Defend This $#!%.
In 1955, everyone was convinced that Judy Garland would win an Oscar for her performance in the classic musical A Star is Born. So convinced of her victory, Garland had cameras in her hospital room so she could deliver her acceptance speech even though she was unable to accept the award in person. But Grace Kelly’s name was announced, and the cameramen left the hospital room in silence. Garland was humiliated since the media and the industry was positive she would take home the statue. Garland’s fans were disappointed and mad because A Star is Born had been Garland’s big comeback after a tumultuous period and it was a grand, epic performance. Perhaps unfairly, the narrative became that Grace Kelly “stole the award” from Garland, and a semi-feud between the two actresses was created.
Grace Kelly was known for her mysterious, striking beauty, and her knockout fashion sense. Kelly was an elegant movie star who would go on to become a real life Princess in Monaco, abandoning her film career. The Country Girl was an adaptation of a well-regarded Broadway play. Kelly lobbied hard for the part, hoping critics and audiences would take her seriously as a dramatic actress. One could even say that Kelly’s dowdy, de-glamorized performance was one of the first “beautiful actress goes ugly” Oscar roles.
Grace Kelly and Judy Garland were up against Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (the first African-American nominated for Best Actress), Audrey Hepburn for one of her most iconic roles in Sabrina, and Jane Wyman in the Douglas Sirk melodrama Magnificent Obsession. All five of these performances are terrific, and I could easily see any of them winning. Both Wyman and Hepburn had won previously, and unfortunately 1950s Hollywood would not award an African-American actress in this category. So basically the race was between Grace Kelly and Judy Garland.
A Star is Born is perhaps best known for its musical number “The Man That Got Away.” The song is one of Garland’s best-known numbers, and it was a major reason why she was an Oscar contender. The film had to be filmed twice, after Warner Brothers decided it should be filmed in Cinemascope. The rough cut was 196 minutes, and then it was trimmed to 182 minutes, then finally 154 minutes. The film lost many important scenes and some musical numbers, even though audiences had been extremely receptive to its previous cuts. While the film ultimately did well, it's rough production was hard for Oscar voters to ignore. A Star is Born got 6 nominations, many of them below the line. People wanted Garland to win for this epic comeback; she was a troubled star ready to bounce back into the limelight.
On the other hand, Grace Kelly’s 1954 was really something. The actress had no less than five films released that year, including the all time classic Rear Window. She was also in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Dial M for Murder, and Green Fire. This was the year she came into her own as an actress. Rear Window is an especially iconic role for Grace Kelly, delivering a sensitive, funny, layered performance in the Hitchcock thriller. The Country Girl is perhaps the more “Oscar friendly” role so it’s not a surprise that she campaigned under this performance. But her Oscar win was as much for The Country Girl as it was for Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, and the others.
That’s not to say that Grace Kelly was bad in the role or undeserving. Kelly plays the long-suffering wife to Bing Crosby, whose alcoholism threatens his career and their marriage. The film is further complicated by William Holden as a musical director. Kelly has to hide her husband’s alcoholism and suicidal tendencies from Holden, and the film reveals how their marriage turned sour and how Crosby turned to drink. Grace Kelly delivers some strong monologues, completely downplaying her charms as an actress. Instead of hiding her regal affectations, she distorts them. Her character probably used to be a classy, vivacious young woman, but life hasn’t quite shaped out the way she wanted. Grace Kelly brings conviction, ferocity, and urgency to the role, even if she might be too young for the role. She made up for her lack of life experience through sheer dedication and hard work. Kelly only made 11 feature films before her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco, but she developed as an actress considerably.
Personally I would have given her the Oscar for Rear Window over The Country Girl, but at this point in time Hitchcock’s films were seen as popular entertainments and not awards material. The Country Girl was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Director George Seaton won Best Adapted Screenplay. The Broadway production of The Country Girl won noted stage actress Uta Hagan the Tony Award for the same play. This role was already a heralded role for actresses, so it fit right into the Academy’s wheelhouse.
Grace Kelly won the Golden Globe for Best Actress-Drama (Judy Garland won the Comedy/Musical award), and the New York Film Critics Award for The Country Girl, Rear Window, and Dial M for Murder. Grace Kelly was being primed for the Oscar because of successful year and her winning the pre-Oscar precursor awards. The Country Girl was a respectable drama based on a much-praised play. Grace Kelly is quite effective in the role, even if it is not her most popular or iconic. While it is disheartening that a legend like Judy Garland never won Hollywood’s biggest award, I cannot deny that Grace Kelly deserved to win that year. But this might be an Oscar race that fans of the Oscars and old movies will continue to debate.