Nicole Kidman refuses to read the vitriol over Grace of Monaco

Nicole Kidman took a gamble when she agreed to play the role of Princess Grace in the movie Grace of Monaco, but she's not worried by the negative reaction, writes Stephanie Bunbury.

Nicole Kidman doesn’t Google herself and barely knows what Twitter is. It’s a strategy of self-protection she says she would recommend to anybody – ‘‘to someone who wasn’t famous, too; I just don’t think in this world that’s a healthy thing to do’’ – and it is certainly coming into its own right now in Cannes, where her film Grace of Monaco is on every front cover.

Has she seen the vitriol being heaped on it? ‘‘I have not read all of it,’’ she says, ‘‘but I’ve been told it was pretty extreme. At the same time, I’ve had many extreme situations in my life.’’ We all remember them, as she well knows; in Australia in particular, as she points out, there are journalists who have been interviewing her since she was a teenager. She has grown up over a series of magazine spreads.

A good likeness: Nicole Kidman in the title role in the movie <i>Grace of Monaco</i>.
A good likeness: Nicole Kidman in the title role in the movie Grace of Monaco

‘‘But that’s what I do,’’ she continues cheerfully, the Mediterranean – where she has swum that morning, despite the fact the alluring blue water is still winter-chilly – twinkling behind her. ‘‘I’m an actor, I go out there and try stuff. And you go ‘come on, it’s just a film and just a performance! And there are 300 [Nigerian] girls who have been taken, right at this moment, and that is probably a bigger story. So once you put that into proportion, you just move on.’’

As she says, she doesn’t have to work. Her declared approach is just to jump in when she finds something that interests her and give it a go. Sometimes it doesn’t work ‘‘and I have to live and die with the consequences’’. It’s curiosity that drives her, she says. In the case of Grace of Monaco, she wanted to see if she could perform ‘‘the high-wire act’’ of becoming Grace Kelly. ‘‘A lot of this is ‘let me see if I can put on this skin and put on this character and see if I can pull it off’. She was pretty formidable, you know, in what she undertook. She was a movie star who had won her Oscar, she was 25 and suddenly she was European royalty. That’s a big life.’’

Graceful: Nicole Kidman stars in <i>Grace of Monaco</i>.
Graceful: Nicole Kidman stars in Grace of Monaco

For serious filmmakers, first-timers and even for the Hollywood studios, the Cannes Film Festival can be the best launching pad in the world. Behind the scenes, producers spend a lot of money and do as much jockeying as is decently possible to have their films seen and hopefully selected, while the studios have often shown or given vast parties for films that would never be shown as part of the official program, but may be illuminated by the festival’s reflected glory: this year, the biggest party of the festival celebrated the third episode in the Hunger Games franchise. There are practical advantages, too. If you want to do blanket press, it makes sense to go to the one place where you will find 4000 journalists primed for action. If a film flops in Cannes, however, it flops very, very loudly. Grace of Monaco did exactly that.

The problem here is that antipathy is at least as contagious as enthusiasm: those 4000 handy hacks can be remarkably of one mind in a way that they would never be if they were all back home in Buenos Aires or Ulan Bator, calling each film as they saw it. By the end of the first press screening, they were collectively aflame with righteous fury.


The fact that Grace of Monaco was the opening film in Cannes meant that it was particularly exposed, of course, although Cannes has opened with some truly squawking turkeys in the past – The Barber of Siberia comes to mind – that nobody even bothered to notice. Grace of Monaco was also the subject of a juicy dispute - juicy to film journalists, anyway – between a much-lauded French director Olivier Dahan, whose previous film La Vie en Rose broke through the language barrier to win an Oscar, and the notoriously domineering American art-house mogul Harvey Weinstein, who had made no secret of the fact he wanted to cut the film his way. A fight is always interesting. But most importantly, there was the star: the mercilessly scrutinised Nicole Kidman, whose fascination among the glossies fuels a mean variety of personal criticism other actors don’t get.

To an extent, that scrutiny is built into the film itself. Asked whether he was concerned about the fact that Kidman is 14 years older than Princess Grace was at the time the film is set – while she was wrestling with the temptation to return to acting with Alfred Hitchcock in Marnie and Monaco was engaged in a dispute with France over its unique status as an independent tax haven – Dahan says he regarded her age as an advantage.

As she was: American actress Grace Kelly who retired from films in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
As she was: American actress Grace Kelly who retired from films in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.  Photo: Getty Images

Kidman’s physical resemblance to Grace Kelly, which at times is so strong in the film the casual magazine-reader would be hard-pressed to tell them apart, is something he passes over as incidental. ‘‘I was trying to speak and talk about the kinds of choices you have to make in life so if the actress was too young, it wouldn’t work. I needed the experience, I needed it because I wanted to have not only a portrait of Grace but a portrait of Nicole at the same time.’’

After the similarly vicious critical drubbing given to Naomi Watts in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana, you have to wonder if royal stories are inherently dangerous territory. But are they? Judi Dench was loved as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown; critics were generally surprised by their own enthusiasm for The Young Victoria, directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee and starring Emily Blunt as a feisty and, indeed, suspiciously modern version of the famously prim monarch; and Colin Firth carried all before him as George VI in The King’s Speech. So perhaps it is just fairytale princesses within living memory who present such difficulties.

It is hard to know why they are such difficult subjects, given the endless appetite for stories about them and pictures of their daily doings while they were alive and the sustained interest in both of them after their respective untimely deaths. Perhaps it is because they were so constantly on display in real life that the imitation on the screen seems almost offensively superfluous. A portrayal of Diana or even of the more distant Princess Grace is so obviously an image of an image: it’s at least one refraction too far. Given this, probably nobody in the world could have pulled off being Diana, even in a better film than Hirschbiegel’s with a less risibly camp script, because the features of the most photographed woman in the world were simply too familiar and too widely adored.

Princess Grace is a different case. She is familiar too, especially from the films she made before marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco when she was just Grace Kelly, movie star. She remains a very particular movie star, in fact, in that the three films she made with Alfred Hitchcock - Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and Dial M for Murder - still screen regularly in repertory cinemas and have been absorbed by new generations. What set her apart in those roles and in her subsequent role as a European princess, however, was her icy glamour. The essence of her public persona was that she was forever unknowable.

''I wanted to have not only a portrait of Grace but a portrait of Nicole at the same time.’’

Director Olivier Dahan

Both films aim to show something of the private woman, but it is thus either never quite enough of an insider tell-all – especially given that their awkward scripts are underscored by the audible rub of kid gloves – or more than anyone really wanted to know. Icons are admired, after all, precisely because they are beautifully gilded and stay in frame. Or perhaps it’s both at once: too much and too little. Kidman thinks about the princess problem for a moment and decides she is not the person to ask. ‘‘That’s probably for you to say because you are more on the exterior of it. For me, it’s still very subjective rather than objective. I could probably answer that question in a year.’’

Dahan’s idea of Princess Grace – the truth of the character, as he saw it – was of an artist who chose to give up her art. He certainly didn’t want to wave a flag for the right to evade taxes; the political situation in Monaco interested him only as far as it illuminated the princess’ decision on her path in life. ‘‘Because I am interested in Grace, I am speaking about an artist in the middle of that shit. I’m not defending any kind of business. Maybe that is the problem.

‘‘I tried to make a portrait of an artist who is about to quit, and ask how you can quit your job without losing the biggest part of yourself. The princess is a metaphor, nothing else than that. She had to make a choice and when you have to make a choice, you have to make it in a certain situation. The choice is not free from anything, it is grounded. If it was another kind of woman it would be another background.’’ Although, he adds, he didn’t make it up: her unhappiness at the time is well documented.

Kidman, as she says herself, has never had to make that kind of choice. ‘‘I can pretty much do what I want to do, with no ramifications from a palace or anything,’’ she says. However, if her family life, which she repeatedly stresses is ‘‘the thing that gives me greatest happiness’’ required it for some reason, she says she would give up acting ‘‘in a heartbeat’’. She would, in other words, scrap what Dahan regards as ‘‘the biggest part’’ of herself, even if she certainly does not see it that way: she would probably write, she says, before revealing that she is ‘‘writing something’’ now.

Whether a princess’ choices can effectively be a metaphor for anyone else’s is questionable, but a movie star of Kidman’s stamp is a kind of princess. Dahan says that when he first talked to her about playing the part – a two-hour Skype conversation that, he says, barely touched on the film itself – he was struck by the similarities between their lives. Not the public lives of perpetual scrutiny, but their personal lives. But he doesn’t say any more about that because, of course, that’s private.

Grace of Monaco opens on Thursday.

As yet another biopic galvanises critics, Jake Wilson and Philippa Hawker nominate the best and worst examples of a perilous genre.


Max Ophuls’ 1955 masterpiece – his last film, and his only one in colour – deconstructs the entire biopic genre. Lola the showgirl, played by the glacial Martine Carol√, does virtually almost no dancing on screen, instead appearing in a circus where she stands like a waxwork while the oily ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) recalls the highlights of her ‘‘scandalous’’ career. The richly embroidered style masks a central emptiness, as if the film were mourning the loss of something gone even from memory. JW

Photographer Anton Corbijn√ knew and photographed the subject of his movie debut, Ian Curtis, the singer and songwriter for Joy Division, who took his own life at the age of 23. Perhaps that proximity helped Corbijn understand both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of Curtis, and allowed him to avoid all the lurking cliches about art and suicide. Instead, Control is an empathetic, bleak and lyrical evocation of pressures, yearnings and responsibilities, with a powerful central performance from by Sam Riley. PH

Joseph von Sternberg’s incomparable cycle of films starring Marlene Dietrich culminated in 1934 with this ultra-decadent biopic of Catherine the Great, who begins as a naive young Prussian – Dietrich’s wide-eyed pantomime of innocence registers as a joke shared with the viewer – and ends as absolute ruler of Russia, with an unbridled lust for both power and men. Sternberg’s characteristic expressionist imagery is at its most outlandish and sinister: flickering candles and grotesque statues make the imperial palace look more like a crypt. JW

This is an old-school, epic embrace of the biopic, a spectacular account of a historical figure who is understood as a myth, constructed in part by the media and used expediently by the British Army and the government. But the man behind the myth is presented in the most intriguing terms by director David Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt, and incarnated memorably by Peter O’Toole. He is absurdly handsome and frequently bordering on the hysterical: obsessive, fragile, full of doubts and certainties, horrified by bloodshed but also appalled by the moment when he found himself enjoying the taking of a life. PH

Frank Perry’s 1981 adaptation of a tell-all memoir by the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford remains the template for every subsequent lurid expose in which a beloved star is revealed as a monster behind the scenes. Faye Dunaway’s extraordinary performance is less akin to impersonation than to some form of demonic possession and, although the film is sometimes seen as a camp classic, laughter seems a weak defence in the face of this rampaging display of narcissism, neediness and rage. JW


Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning 2002 portrait of the mathematician John Nash√ (Russell Crowe) goes straight for every troubled genius cliche in the book. The screenplay by Akiva Goldsman√ has one interesting idea – tricking the audience into thinking that Nash’s schizophrenic hallucinations are real – but even this falls flat, since the psychological drives underlying his delusions are barely explored. Crowe’s mannered performance, which suggests a failed audition for The Big Bang Theory, is one of his worst. JW

Not so much a biopic, more a bungled Mills & Boon. Naomi Watts does a pretty fair job of creating Diana as a presence, whether she is on duty or at home with her feet up, but that is nowhere near enough to sustain the movie. It is hard to imagine what an interesting, satisfying portrait of Diana would look like, admittedly, but it would have to avoid the fatal reverence of this film and its drippy, earnest, join-the-dots vision. PH

Australia’s favourite bushranger suffers a fate worse than death in this 1970 fiasco, awkwardly directed by British dilettante Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). Wildly miscast in the lead, Mick Jagger sports a straggly chin-strap beard, attempts an Irish accent and does a good deal of standing around with his mouth open. Hokey ballads sung by Waylon Jennings dominate the soundtrack, while the muddled script cannot decide whether to paint Ned as a crazy mixed-up kid or an outback Che Guevara. JW

Martin Scorsese’s cinematic sensibility seems well suited to the biopic, and his Raging Bull is a powerful and innovative example of the genre, which is why The Aviator is such a disappointment. It is a big, glossy, hollow production, with Leonardo DiCaprio, as flawed, flailing billionaire Howard Hughes, running amok at its centre. The frequent, deliberate echoes of Citizen Kane seem oddly like admissions of defeat. PH

An This attempts at to encapsulate ing the life and work of director Alfred Hitchcock through a reductive account of the making of one of his most controversial and risky works, Psycho. Sacha Gervasi’s crrct film, which presents Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) as a manipulative voyeur haunted by the ghost of a serial killer – a particularly clunky move – also doubles as a heavy-handed tribute to his long-suffering wife and collaborator, Alma Reville crrct (Helen Mirren). PH