Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Grace of Monaco (Stone Angels, YRF Entertainment, Umedia, Weinstein Company, Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a more-or-less “original” movie on Lifetime, one that had a singularly star-crossed journey on its way to an audience: Grace of Monaco, a 2011 theatrical film which never got shown theatrically, at least in the U.S., because director Olivier Dahan and producer Harvey Weinstein got into an artistic hissy-fit about it and Dahan refused to allow the film to be released in Weinstein’s cut. The title suggests a biopic about Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman — ironically, a far better and more sophisticated actress than the real one she was playing!) and her abandonment of Hollywood stardom for a real-life Cinderella story, marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco (Tim Roth) — whom she rather disconcertingly calls by the nickname “Ray” — and settling in there for a life that seemed to consist of nothing else than waving from palace windows, making public appearances at grand balls and bearing him two children, Princess Caroline (Candela Cottis) and Prince Albert (Roméo Mestanza). The film actually focuses on only about a year or so in Grace’s life, 1961, when Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) arrived in the principality bearing a script for the film Marnie to offer it to Grace as a comeback role. (The copy of the script we see bears the name of Jay Presson Allen as the screenwriter, but that’s an error; the version of Marnie Grace Kelly Grimaldi got offered was an earlier one adapted by Evan Hunter, and Allen came on board only after Grace turned it down and Hitchcock tapped ‘Tippi’ Hedren for the role.) Grace Kelly’s potential return to the screen was ballyhooed worldwide, but it never took place; the version I’d heard before this movie — the one in John Russell Taylor’s biography of Hitchcock — was that someone in Monaco read Winston Graham’s novel Marnie, on which the film was based, and decided it was inappropriate for the wife of the reigning monarch of Monaco to make a movie in which she would play a kleptomaniac who was frigid with men until her husband and a therapist (two separate characters in the novel but combined into one for the film) figured out how to cure her. So he launched a public referendum, the citizens of Monaco voted overwhelmingly against Grace Kelly’s return to the screen in such a role, and though the referendum was non-binding she acceded to the people’s wishes and never again sought an acting career.

The version told by Arash Amel in the script for Grace of Monaco is considerably darker and more convoluted than that, and the real villain of the piece is French president Charles de Gaulle (André Penvem). It seems that de Gaulle, already in the middle of public controversy over the French army’s attempt to keep Algeria a French colony (de Gaulle got dumped on by French anti-imperialists by trying to keep Algeria by force and then, when he agreed to its independence, got dumped on and nearly assassinated — an event that’s a key plot point in Amel’s script — by Right-wingers who didn’t want to see France lose yet another of its overseas colonies), decided to go after Monaco because a lot of French companies were dissolving their French corporations and reincorporating in Monaco since it had neither a personal nor a business income tax. (The more things change … ) At least according to this script — not being particularly “up” on recent Monegasque history, I have no idea whether this was true — de Gaulle served notice on the Monaco government that they must not only impose personal and business income taxes but turn over all the revenue from them to France, or else France would impose economic sanctions on Monaco (which, given that virtually everything Monaco needed came to it via France, would quickly cripple their economy) and mass French troops on the border for a takeover. Our Heroine is naturally aghast about this, but the French propagandists use the fact that she’s considering playing a kleptomaniac for Alfred Hitchcock as one of the reasons they claim Monaco is being governed by irresponsible people and the French need to take over for the Monegasques’ own good. Grace of Monaco has a promising opening — Hitchcock arrives to deliver Grace the script for Marnie and her lady-in-waiting gives him a long and pompous list of protocols he is to follow when they meet, only as soon as he enters her room she says, “Hitch!,” greeting the director of her three greatest films as the old and dear friend he in fact was and showing a total lack of formality — and the first half-hour or so is marvelously entertaining, but the dizzying array of plots and counter-plots, leading to the disgrace of Rainier’s sister Antoinette (Geraldine Somerville), and the long scenes between Grace and her confidant, Father Francis Tucker (Frank Langella), who appears to have been the priest who married her and Rainier, eventually become quite boring.

Grace realizes that the only way she can save Monaco’s independence — earlier she’d attempted to goose up Rainier’s morale by pointing out to him that both Louis XIV and Napoleon had tried to conquer Monaco, and she wasn’t about to let de Gaulle succeed where they had failed— is to go through with the Monaco Red Cross’s annual charity ball, even though earlier on she’d tried to get the Red Cross to abandon the ball and instead come up with more funding for an appallingly dirty and ill-kept children’s hospital. Accordingly she hosts the ball, invites de Gaulle to attend, and in his presence makes a stirring speech defending Monaco’s independence, which eventually gets de Gaulle to back off his threats. The movie is also remarkable for including Aristotle Onassis (Robert Lindsay) and Maria Callas (Paz Vega — beautifully made up to look uncannily like the real one) in the dramatis personae — Onassis was Monaco’s biggest private investor until he and the Grimaldis had a bitter falling-out and he pulled his interests out of there — though all Paz Vega gets to do is perform at the big ball, lip-synching to the recording of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi made by the real Callas in 1954. Grace of Monaco had an ill-starred development and release history, winning a position on the 2011 “Blacklist” (a recent phenomenon in which an organization gives prizes for the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood in hopes some enterprising producer will buy and make them) and being completed and shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Harvey Weinstein bought distribution rights but then wanted director Olivier Dahan to re-edit the film for a 2013 U.S. release. When Weinstein and Dahan couldn’t agree on a version of the film to release, Weinstein gave up any hope of a theatrical release and dumped it on Lifetime instead, where it was heavily promoted (after all, it isn’t every day that Lifetime gets to show a movie with an “A”-list star like Kidman in a role that, despite the longueurs in Amel’s screenplay, is a virtual tour de force for her) but came off as merely a somewhat better version of their usual sludge.