Grace Kelly: Film legend who promised more than she delivered

There was less to her than meets the eye, argues Geoffrey Macnab

What is the fuss about Grace Kelly? That may seem a strange question to ask given Kelly's status as "screen legend", "fashion icon", "one of the most beautiful women in the world", and "fairytale princess". Kelly (whose first film with Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder, has just been re-released) is the subject of a new biopic starring Nicole Kidman. She has inspired biographies, exhibitions and documentaries. Since her death in 1982, her lustre hasn't diminished in the slightest. Nonetheless, look at her actual film career – the basis of her reputation – and what is jarring is how few movies she actually made and how small her roles were in many of them.

It is ironic that no one today talks about the film that won Kelly her Oscar. The Country Girl (1954), adapted from a Clifford Odets play is her least characteristic, most downbeat film and she is strangely cast in it. Still in her mid 20s, she played the wife of an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck, middle-aged actor (Bing Crosby.) The film is in black and white. Her character Georgie Elgin wears spectacles and dowdy cardigans. She reads Dreiser and Balzac novels. Stuck in a cramped one room apartment with her self-pitying husband, Georgie is a very long way from the high society that we associate with Kelly. The theatre director (William Holden) who gives Frank a job blames Georgie for filling him with guilt and making him utterly dependent on her.

Kelly beat off formidable opposition (Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones) to win her Oscar. She gives a very strong performance that rekindles memories of Ingrid Bergman as similarly long-suffering heroines in films such as Stromboli and Voyage to Italy. There is nothing glamorous or ingratiating about her character (although inevitably Holden eventually falls in love with her). Georgie's greatest quality is her loyalty to a husband who is steadfastly dragging her down with him.

The Country Girl proved that Kelly was a capable actress with surprising range. The problem with her career is that she was rarely stretched and didn't seem to enjoy making movies anyway. "I never really liked Hollywood," she told biographer Donald Spoto. "I found it unreal – unreal and full of men and women whose lives were confused and full of pain."

Whether as the prim, Quaker bride in High Noon (1952) or as the young wife wrongfully imprisoned after herself surviving a murder attempt in Dial M for Murder (1953), she is essentially a supporting player – the foil to Gary Cooper's marshal or Ray Milland's smooth, well-spoken psychopath.

Hitchcock's admiration for Kelly is well chronicled. "The subtlety of Grace's sexuality – her elegant sexiness – appealed to me," the English director once commented. "Grace conveyed much more sex than the average movie sexpot. With Grace, you had to find it out – you had to discover it." Even so, Hitchcock never gave her roles that matched in intensity those that Ingrid Bergman played for him in Notorious or Tippi Hedren in Marnie and The Birds.

Kelly is tremendous in Hitchcock's Rear Window, showing both a comedic touch and real gumption as the beautiful socialite who turns action heroine to help James Stewart's wheelchair-bound photographer to solve a murder. She showed her glamorous and playful side in her later films like To Catch a Thief, The Swan and High Society. However, her screen career lasted only six years and comprises fewer than a dozen movies. On that basis, the much- repeated claim that she was one of America's all-time great movie stars simply doesn't stack up.

'Dial M for Murder' is in cinemas now. 'Grace of Monaco' will be released early next year