Best Actress 1954: Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl"
“So the award for the best performance by an actress… Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.”
Cheers and applause from the audience.
And in just a few seconds, Oscar legend was born. Grace Kelly’s win for Best Actress is probably among the most discussed and, yes, most disliked Oscar wins ever. Few seem actually have seen her performance but the fact that the by now legendary work by Judy Garland in the musical A Star is Born did not win the gold is almost always called an outrage, a shock, a scandal – apparently by everybody. How many myths surround this win – Grace Kelly won by only 7 votes, she slept with every Academy member, Judy was too unpopular in Hollywood, her movie and her performance butchered in the editing room. A lot of scenarios try to be found to explain this shocking upset – but was this really an upset? Let’s have a quick look at the facts.
Grace Kelly – a beautiful, popular and new star at the peak of her career, shows her range by hiding her beauty and takes a challenging character role that wins raves from the critics, appears in no less than 4 movies in 1954, wins awards from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics and the Golden Globes, stars in a movie that is nominated in all the major categories and followed her Best Actress nomination with a nomination for Supporting Actress just the year before. Judy Garland, popular child actress, makes a triumphant comeback in a role that offers her the possibility to impress with drama and singing and that critics call the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history, wins the Golden Globe and the admiration of her peers but A Star is Born isn’t the financial success people thought it would be and fails to be nominated for any major awards except Actor and Actress at the Academy Awards.
So, even with her outstanding reviews – to call Judy Garland an overwhelming frontrunner is to rewrite history, something that is so often done whenever a past win, from today’s point of view, seems surprising. Judy Holliday was just as much a favorite for the Oscar as Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson in 1950, but today, her win has been changed into a ‘shocking upset’. Looking at the facts back in 1954, Grace Kelly certainly must have had the edge for the win in what was probably a close two-horse-race – and expectedly won in the end. As for all the legends surrounding this win – not even Hedda Hopper could have known the outcome of the race and the number of votes each nominee received. The re-editing of A Star is Born – this might actually have done some damage since apparently crucial dramatic scenes were cut out but the remaining two and a half hours surely had still enough screen time for Judy Garland, especially compared to Grace Kelly whose movie was considerably shorter and featured three equal leads. And whoever thinks that Grace Kelly slept her way to an Oscar can’t be taken seriously…
So, these were my two cents on the whole race. I’m sure that everybody looks at the circumstances differently but personally, I refuse to believe that Grace Kelly’s win came out of nowhere as the TV-movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows or countless internet sites would make us like to believe.
Interestingly enough both Grace Kelly and Judy Garland (and also Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Dandridge, Giulietta Masina, Julie Harris and Marilyn Monroe) lost the BAFTA for Best Foreign Actress that year to Betsy Blair in Marty. So, not everyone focused the race between these two…
Grace Kelly is often accused of Oscar-begging with her role but I doubt that she seriously had awards in mind when she lobbied for this part. For her it was clear that Georgie Elgin would help her to be finally taken seriously as an actress and to be recognized for more than just her gorgeous face. Looking back on her career, there was no actual need for Grace Kelly to prove herself with this unusual role – because she had already shown her talent with performances in Mogambo, Dial M for Murder or Rear Window. But it’s still a testament to her determination as a serious artist that she tried to expand herself to new territories. The role of Georgie Elgin is often mentioned for not primarily focusing on Grace Kelly’s loveliness – it’s certainly true that her appearances in Rear Window or To Catch a Thief may be mostly remembered today for her almost unfathomable beauty but if there is one thing that Grace Kelly cannot be accused of as an actress is that she ever relied on her looks in her work. Instead, she always did her best to expand her role beyond the written word and, yes, her glamorous face and used her strong screen presence always with great effect even in parts that benefited from her beauty. But what made Grace Kelly such a fascinating screen presence? She didn’t possess the same angel-like quality as Audrey Hepburn or the extraordinary exoticism of Greta Garbo but she projected her surreal beauty in a way that allowed her to make her characters surprisingly deep and mysterious – because this beauty prevented her from captivating the audience immediately as Audrey Hepburn did because she almost perfected the image of the ‘cold blond’ which means that she is fascinating too look at but one doesn’t fall in love with her immediately just because of that. Instead, there appears to be something mysterious and dangerous about her, sometimes even off-putting before she begins to build a connection to the viewer thanks to her creation of a character beyond the surface. Maybe that’s why her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are the most memorable of her career and her undeniable signature work. Her Lisa Fremont combines everything that Grace Kelly so exquisitely offered on the screen – beauty, class, elegance and a character that appears almost to be cryptic and distant at the beginning but has turned into a real three-dimensional person at the end. Few other actresses in Hollywood’s history displayed such a spellbinding beauty on the screen but Grace Kelly was always able to captivate with her play just as much as she did with her looks or her personality. She was not a perfect actress, certainly not, but she knew how to pick her roles and how to use this combination of talent, screen presence and personality to fill them.
In 1954, Grace Kelly stepped out of her comfort zone to portray Georgie Elgin, the suffering wife of an alcoholic Broadway actor, played by Bing Crosby who also tried to show the audience that he was capable of more than singing “Tura-lura-lural” to Barry Fitzgerald. It’s not hard to understand why Grace Kelly was so keen on playing this role – Georgie Elgin is a juicy role even though she may not have the same showy scenes as the character of Frank Elgin who suffers from self-hate, self-doubt and much more. But Georgie Elgin’s presence, almost the only female presence in this backstage-drama, so often changes and dominates the tone of the story and makes it easy for an actress to steal the show. After all, Uta Hagen won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance. And also Grace Kelly achieved to craft her version of Georgie Elgin in a way that provided the most interesting moments in The Country Girl. She is lingering above the proceedings like a ghost, William Holden’s character suspects her behind close doors and when she is not onscreen, she is mostly the topic of conversation. In this aspect, the characters of Georgie and Frank are very synonym – both characters are revealed step by step though the work of the actors and the conversations that are constantly held about them. Whatever the viewer learns about Georgie is through Grace Kelly’s work and what Frank and Bernie discuss about her. Georgie Elgin is also the only character who really seems to have more inside her than initially shown – there is a reason why the play and the movie are called The Country Girl even though her character doesn’t seem to be the central one at first. Only bit by bit it becomes clear how domineering her role really is, how she handles both her husband and his director and constantly communicates between them – so many words are spoken in this movie but still everyone seems constantly to beat about the bush when it comes to the truth. In this backstage-drama, Grace Kelly has even a more ‘backstage-role’ than anyone else – unlike Judy Garland in A Star is Born she doesn’t share her husband’s profession. The ‘suffering wife’ seems to be all that there is for her and she is almost trapped in the background of the background. But she never loses her influence over the proceedings and contact to the story.
The suffering wife is a role that seems impossible to play in a way that doesn’t please the Academy. Luise Rainer in The Good Earth, Shirley Booth, Jennifer Connelly, Marcia Gay Harden – all of them stood by their men even if they only caused them pain and trouble. It’s a noble view on troubled marriages that can only survive thanks to the strength and the courage of the wife. Grace Kelly’s portrayal also belongs into this group but what remains very fascinating about her is that a lot of times Georgie seems to make as much problems as she solves. She is her husband’s biggest fan but also his biggest critic, she supports him endlessly while showing that she comes to the point of not caring anymore, she is his wife, his mother, his grandmother all in one, a loving support and a prison guard. She is acting just as much as she is reacting – she is caught between being the power that influences her husband and being influenced by him herself. There are a lot of aspects hidden in the character of Georgie Elgin while she has to deal not only with her husband but also with Bernie Dodd, a theatre director who casts Frank in his newest play – and almost right from the start dislikes Georgie and sees her as the main reason for Frank’s poor condition.
Grace Kelly is often accused of being miscast in the role because of her age and her beauty. But these accusations are debatable. Yes, Grace Kelly was too young – at age 25, she is clearly not in the position to tell Bernie Dodd that she took care of ‘a cunning drunkard for ten years’. But this is strangely not a real problem – I know that women don’t like to hear that they look older than they really are but there was something incredibly mature in Grace Kelly’s looks and work that, even in her earliest performance, her young age was never visible. She surely didn’t look old but she didn’t look young and naïve either.
The complains about her beauty actually don’t make a lot of sense to me. Nothing in the movie suggests that Georgie is supposed to be unattractive – rather she is presented as a woman who once possessed a lot of style and grace but the years of taking care of her husband have made her stop caring about her looks. She lives in a small, cheap apartment and understandably sees no sense in dressing like a fashion model but at the same time, she doesn’t actively try to look unattractive. In this way, Grace Kelly’s looks work very well for her characterization which also builds a lot on the sexual tension between Georgie and Bernie Dodd and also makes it understandable why he is having such struggling feelings about her.
Grace Kelly displays her ability to capture the audience right from the first moment when she opens the door of her flat and appears for the first time. She effectively demonstrates that Georgie hates the superiority of Bernie Dodd who has his own ideas about what is going on, telling Georgie how to dress, acting as if he knows more about Frank than his wife does. Grace Kelly wonderfully shows how much she rejects him immediately for this presumptuousness since in reality he doesn’t know anything at all. When she tells him that she is just a girl from the country she immediately creates a distance between herself and him and perfectly anchors the tone of the story to follow in those moments. She also finds a great way to reject Bernie Dodd as a person and an admirer of her husband. The look on her face when she lets Bernie play a record of his idol which turns out to be a banal jingle shows how much Georgie is already caught in her own misery. She clearly wants Frank to be a success again but at the same time she knows what he can do and what he can’t – and she is not sure if Bernie is the right person to bring him back on the stage even though she later admits that he likes his statement about ‘no pity’ for Frank.
Georgie Elgin is a role that could be played and interpreted in many ways and Grace Kelly risked a lot by not going the easy route by showing Georgie as a helpless victim of her husband’s addiction – instead, she was not afraid to demonstrate how sick she seems to be of the man she shares a little flat with. She is surprisingly mean-spirited in a role that usually asks for the audience’s sympathy in every frame of the picture. She constantly does her best to help him, acting out of habit, but she very often does it with a noticeable annoyance and anger. If there is one word that can describe the character of Georgie best it’s exhausted. Exhausted of watching her husband like a little child, constantly trying to get him going while also having to suffer the accusations and suspicions of Bernie Dodd. Grace Kelly shows these sides of Georgie very convincingly – her hanging shoulders, her exhausted face, her depressed walk appear very natural and never seem like an attempt by Grace Kelly to demonstrate her skills. But besides these moments of exhaustion, there are also her constant fights with Frank. She clearly wants him to work again – for her own sake as much as for his. She wants him to get out of his depression and start his life anew which would also give her the possibility to star anew herself – maybe without him. It seems as if it is only a sense of duty that is causing Georgie to stay with Frank – but when she tells Bernie later that she has already left him twice and returned each time, it becomes clear that there is more connecting these two persons. There is still love underneath it all and Grace Kelly’s and Bing Crosby’s wonderful chemistry makes this very believable since it never appears illogical that these two spend their lives together. Grace Kelly never overdoes her feelings of dislike towards Frank and instead lets Georgie constantly shift in her own emotions. This way, she constantly keeps the viewer guessing about her character’s intentions. Because of that, she becomes a character that is fascinating to speculate about – which works well for and in Grace Kelly’s performance but at the same time a closer look at her work makes it clear that she also benefits a great deal from the writing which helps her performance often look better than it actually is. But at the same time it is Grace Kelly’s dedication to the role and her cold and mysterious screen personality which can so easily captivate the viewer’s attention that helps her to add a lot to the interpretation of the role. Just as Georgie Elgin helps Grace Kelly to appear better than she really is, Grace Kelly also helps Georgie Elgin to appear more interesting than she otherwise might be. There are so many aspects of Georgie Elgin that seem to be unspoken of or suppressed by herself. Even though the part is mostly (also by me) reduced to the suffering wife who has to live with her husband’s addiction, Grace Kelly shows more – she demonstrates how Georgie doesn’t only seem to suffer from her husband’s guilt, but also from her own grief. The whole story never mentions Georgie’s role as a mother – it completely focuses on Frank’s guilt but how did Georgie react to the death of her son? Did she ever get the chance to grief herself? It seems that she is caught in a situation where her own life is dominated by the problems of her husband and overshadows even her own role in this tragedy. She has to take care of the man who was in some way responsible – did she ever blame him for what happened? On the other side, Grace Kelly also works very well with William Holden – she uses the sexual tension between them to show how much Georgie has already suppressed every kind of sexual feeling inside her. When William Holden kisses her, it’s the second real contact between them – following another scene in which she slapped him. Up to this point, it seems as if Grace Kelly’s Georgie rejected her own feminity – it seems impossible that she and Frank ever made love since the accident of their child and when she tells Bernie that she didn’t inform him that Frank was away all night because he might have been with another woman, Grace Kelly delivers the line in such a matter-of-fact way that another one of her lines, that nobody ever looked at her as a woman, becomes much more memorable because this surely also includes her own husband.
As mentioned, the viewer learns only about Georgie by Grace Kelly’s performance and the conversations about her. And Grace Kelly’s performance works very well in harmony with this dialogue since the stories of Frank and the accusations of Bernie turn Georgie into an almost impossible woman and Grace Kelly’s Georgie adds to these speculations by never revealing her true character. She constantly tries to fight with Bernie about Frank but at the same time she doesn’t seem able to stand up for herself in these moments. She always has to take the blame for everything that Frank wants or does since he is so keen on being loved by everyone that he is even willing to let his wife be hated by everyone. Grace Kelly’s work with the dialogue of Georgie is very often thrilling in her moments of defeat, especially when she is reduced to tears in a dark alley and Frank tells her that all the others finally have respect for him. Georgie affirms his thoughts but Grace Kelly’s delivery of the line ‘Yes, they have respect for you’ magnificently also hints at the unspoken truth – that nobody has respect for her. She also finds the exact right tone for the question ‘When did you get these, Frank?’ after Georgie finds two empty bottles of Whisky – her voice is completely rid of any emotion or energy and Georgie’s exhaustion and inability to fight him anymore has never been more obvious.
What Grace Kelly did most effectively in her performance was not to work too much against her usual acting style. She obviously tries to do something different but at the same time Georgie is a woman who has more in common with her other movie characters than visible at the first moment. Because of that, Grace Kelly both hides and uses her usual acting style in this role. While she is usually a symbol of elegance and grace, there is also always something remarkably down-to-earth in all her performances – which works particularly well in The Country Girl. The flashback-scenes make clear that Georgie used to be a woman like the ones she usually plays – but her personal story didn’t go on the way she expected. In the movie version of The Country Girl, Georgie Elgin is like Lisa Fremont or Frances Stevens – if Lisa or Frances had married Frank Elgin. Grace Kelly always seems to play women who know either too much or too little – Georgie Elgin somehow falls in the middle of this spectrum. That’s why the casting of Grace Kelly makes actually much more sense than usually acknowledged. She doesn’t really play against type but combines her usual screen-technique with a new dimension of silent suffering.
So, as mentioned above, Georgie and Grace form a very strong connection in which they both help each other and achieve a higher level. But ultimately, it must be said that Grace Kelly benefits more from Georgie than the other way around. The character is difficult without being ‘too difficult’ (Georgie Elgin is certainly no Blanche DuBois) that many actresses, even average ones, could still score very high. Grace Kelly clearly understands the thoughts and feelings of Georgie but she sometimes seems to suffer from the writing which can’t always make up its mind about Georgie and the dialogue that is often very heavy-handed. Georgie often changes from being strangely distant and cold to helpless and worried in a few seconds and while it does seem to make sense that she is a prisoner of her own feelings of love and hate for Frank and of passion and hate for Bernie which makes her constantly shift her mood, sometimes Grace Kelly doesn’t seem able to fully express what she wants to express. Like Anne Baxter, she suffers from having great instincts for a part but lacking the necessary overall level of talent to convey them. Grace Kelly’s great instincts, her personality which she uses so wisely in this role, and her dedication to the part help her to achieve a lot – but her performance is not flawless.
While Grace Kelly acted surprisingly intense and unobtrusive at the same time, her performance still also finds various downs to go with her ups – often in one scene, often in just a few seconds. Grace Kelly can be brilliant and adequate in the same monologue and she can deliver her lines with a gripping determination or an almost amateurish undecidedness. Grace Kelly’s probably greatest achievement in this role is the fact that she remains captivating and intriguing even in her less satisfying moments thanks to her dedication, her use of her screen presence and her grip on the character of Georgie whom she clearly understands – but just like Grace Kelly was not a perfect actress, this is not a perfect performance. As mentioned, she sometimes lacks the ability to express herself in the right way – her performance mostly suffers from a lot of the usual melodramatic acting style that is so visible in performances from the 50s. But in a year when Marlon Brando won the Oscar for On the Waterfront, Grace Kelly’s acting feels rather dated very often – the way she constantly moves her hands, as if she doesn’t know what to do with them, stares into the open space or closes her eyes and speaks with an affected whisper. But these scenes are such a stark contrast to the flashback-scenes in which she is so natural that Grace Kelly may be praised for showing the change in Georgie’s body language – does she show a woman unable to fully communicate her own feelings and those of her husband, a woman who tries and tries and still achieves nothing? Her hands do seem to speak of a certain desperation. Is it brilliant acting or simply an actress not knowing how to handle a scene? Grace Kelly makes it hard to answer this question but she is somehow able to let her performance appear strong even when it is weak…but is this because of the strength of the part or because of her strength as an actress? It’s a performance that both seems like a logical Oscar choice because of its moments of brilliance but also appears to be right out of a high school drama club at the same time. Grace Kelly seems to explore her talents while she is acting, as if she isn’t sure herself how far she can go. She also often feels misdirected, especially in her more dramatic scenes. After the kiss between Georgie and Bernie she turns to the camera and talks into open space, with half-closed eyes and a voice that booms with melodrama – it’s one of her weakest moments that probably could have been done much better, even by Grace herself if she had been allowed to move more natural.
What does the most harm to an overall wonderful performance is unfortunately Grace Kelly herself – she has the right instincts for the part, she doesn’t try to change herself as an actress and is obviously dedicated to achieve high results. But sometimes, this dedication makes her go too far. Grace Kelly’s active downplaying of Georgie Elgin is unfortunately a slight exaggeration and often plays against her overall interpretation and the presentation of Georgie by the script. Grace Kelly often tries too hard in her efforts to be dramatic – she appears to put Georgie Elgin on a pedestal and worships her at her feet as the ultimate coronation of artistic creation. Grace Kelly doesn’t make the mistake of taking herself too seriously – but unfortunately she takes Georgie too seriously. That’s why her performance feels rather standard a lot of times because she seems to act her in the way that she thinks she is expected to. She tries to live up to the drama of the role and threatens to delivery every line with a milking for dramatic effect, always afraid to let Georgie down. That way she missed to insert more life into her, even a lighter touch could have been needed sometimes. Because of this, her work feels too unoriginal very often and her gestures too anticipated.
The arguments that Grace was either too young or too beautiful for this role may make no sense to me but I can understand another argument that is often used against her – her inexperience. Grace Kelly did attend acting school, she had worked with directors like Fred Zinnemann, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, had appeared on the stage and on television but this still cannot replace years of experience and learning-by-doing. She didn’t have time yet to fully develop as an actress, especially when she enters new territory. Grace Kelly did a lot remarkably right in her performance and exceeded all expectations but there’s no sense in denying that a more seasoned actress still could have done a lot more.
But these negative aspects shouldn’t distract from the overall very positive effect of Grace Kelly’s work. Her melodramatic style, even if dated, surprisingly doesn’t feel too out-of-places in the structure of TheCountry Girl and her instincts helped her overall to achieve a very impressive and unforgettable performance. Grace Kelly also managed to combine all the various Georgies she is playing – her frumpy Georgie, her elegant Georgie in the flashback and her combination of both at the end never feel disjointed but are always connected in Grace’s play.
I realize that I have written much more than I would usually do on a performance like this. Grace Kelly is neither among the best performances in this category which would make me praise her in detail nor is she among the worst performances which would make me explain my dislike in detail. It’s my urge to defend this performance because even though there are faults, Grace Kelly is still much more impressive than she is usually given credit for.
Grace Kelly was always a fascinating actress on the screen – in The Country Girl, she is also be fascinating but most of all, she is interesting. It’s a very strong performance that realized all of the part’s possibilities and successfully showed new facets of Grace Kelly’s talents and personality. Oscar has certainly done much worse than awarding this performance which gets