Nicole Kidman stars as actress Grace Kelly in a film that tells the story of her transition from Hollywood royalty to actual royalty as the Princess of Monaco. How much of the film is true? That’s what we’ll find out in this episode.
About Grace of Monaco
You don’t have to be a big movie buff to have heard of the Cannes Film Festival, or just Cannes as many refer to it. Cannes kicked off just after World War II on September 20th, 1946. Each year the invite-only film festival in Cannes, France boasts a long list of celebrities as they watch some of the best films that year.
A lot of movies even make their debut at the festival.
That was true for the movie we’ll be looking at today, Grace of Monaco, when it kicked off the 2014 Cannes festival. It wasn’t in the running for competition, but at the time it was a highly anticipated film for many.
With a budget of about $30 million, Grace of Monaco made its way into the headlines long before release. You see, the movie was supposed to come out before the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. After a couple years of production, it was slated for a 2013 release.
But as the film was being edited, the director, Olivier Dahan, seemed to get in some sort of a fight with the movie’s producer, Harvey Weinstein. Not in a physical blows kind of way, but in a blackmailing kind of way.
At least, that’s what Olivier said when he publicly said this to The Guardian in October of 2013:
It’s right to struggle, but when you confront an American distributor like Weinstein, not to name names, there is not much you can do. Either you say ‘Go figure it out with your pile of shit’ or you brace yourself so the blackmail isn’t as violent … If I don’t sign, that’s where the out-and-out blackmail starts, but I could go that far. There are two versions of the film for now: mine and his … which I find catastrophic.
It’s got hardly anything to do with the film. It’s only about the money, the release strategy, millions of dollars and stuff like that. It’s got nothing to do with cinema. I mean, of course it’s about cinema, but the business side. They want a commercial film smelling of daisies, taking out anything that exceeds that which is too abrupt, everything that makes it cinematic and breathe with life. A lot of things are missing.
So I think it’s safe to say Olivier wasn’t too happy with the cut of the film that Harvey Weinstein seemed to be pushing. However, it was apparently Olivier’s editorial cut that debuted at Cannes in 2014.
We’ll never really know how much that had an effect on the final film, but the movie was released with less than stellar reviews. I’ll make sure to put a link to that article in The Guardian and plenty more of those reviews in the show notes over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
But perhaps the most scathing review for the mrovie came from Grace Kelly’s son, Prince Albert II of Monaco who, among other things, stated that the filmmakers ignored their requests for changes to the script and ultimately denounced the film saying in a statement, “Therefore, the royal family wishes to stress that this film in no way constitutes a biopic.”
All of that was before the movie was even released and resulted in the royal family refusing to attend the movie’s premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival despite usually being attending members at the festival.
With all of this controversy before the movie was even released, that begs the question—just how accurate is Grace of Monaco?
I’m Dan LeFebvre.
And this is Based on a True Story.
The true story behind Grace of Monaco
It seems that despite, or maybe because of, all the controversy before the movie was even released, the filmmakers decided not to go with the traditional “based on a true story” line. Instead, the movie opens with some text that says, “The following film is a fictional account inspired by real events.”
Not a very promising start.
Nor is the quote we see next which says, “The idea of my life as a fairytale is itself a fairytale.”
As far as I can tell, everyone seems to agree that’s a quote from the real Grace Kelly, however, there’s not a lot of ways to prove this. By that what I mean is that quotes are one of those things that are next to impossible to prove. There’s so many misattributed quotes and it’s not like everyone issues some sort of documentation for the things they say—that makes it tough to validate. Unless, of course, it’s caught on video or audio in some way we can all point back to it. And it’d seem that quote isn’t so easily validated, so we’re not off to a great start here.
Going back to the movie, it’s the first time we see Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Grace Kelly on screen, and we see her as a movie is coming to an end. The movie never really says what film is wrapping up on screen, but all we hear is “Cut! That’s a wrap!” from the director, and everyone seems to be super happy with Grace’s performance as she drifts through the crew to what we can only assume is her trailer…or maybe it’s not a trailer because it doesn’t seem to look like one. But it’s one fluid shot, so she’s going to somewhere on set.
It’s in here that the movie sets up a bit of the back story.
We’re in Los Angeles in 1956 and, according to an announcer on TV—or maybe it’s from the radio, we don’t really see where the voice is coming from—explains that Philadelphia-born actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco after a chance meeting at the Cannes Film Festival ended up with the two getting married.
All of that is true, but there’s quite a bit more to the story here.
Let’s start with the movie that we see Nicole Kidman’s version of Grace Kelly acting in during the opening sequence.
In 1956, the real Grace Kelly starred in two different movies. One of them was The Swan and the other High Society. Even though the movie doesn’t mention which is the one we’re seeing there, we can guess that it’s High Society because that was Grace Kelly’s final film—a film that saw her star alongside musicians such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.
And it is true that Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco after meeting him at the Cannes Film Festival. Well, sort of.
Grace Kelly was in Cannes, France for the internationally-renowned film festival in 1955. Grace was, at the time, already one of the biggest stars in Hollywood thanks to the Oscar win for her performance in the 1954 film The Country Girl.
That’s one of the films competing in the film festival, so that’s why Grace Kelly was in town.
While in Cannes, Grace Kelly agreed to take a photo with Prince Rainier for a magazine called Paris-Match. That photo shoot was something set up as a last-minute idea by another Oscar-winning actress named Olivia de Havilland.
According to Olivia, who recounted the story to People magazine many years later, her husband worked as an editor for Paris-Match and with Grace Kelly in town she thought it would be a great chance for a photo opportunity. She picked Prince Rainier because her husband had connections in Monaco.
For a bit of geography, Monaco is located about 34 miles, or about 55 kilometers, to the northeast up the coast from Cannes. Between Cannes and Monaco is Nice, France, where Olivia’s husband was born and raised.
So as Olivia told it, the meeting was really a last minute meet-up that Grace agreed to do as long as MGM Studios, the company financing her trip, agreed to it. They did, and that’s how Prince Rainier III met Grace Kelly.
Although, while the movie seems to imply it was love at first sight, and it very well might have been, there’s one important fact the movie fails to mention.
That’s the simple fact that Prince Rainier was looking for someone to continue the royal line. He was actively looking for a wife.
To understand this, we have to dive 37 years further back into history to the year 1918.
If you’re a student of history, you’ll know that in 1918 is when World War I came to an end. That was on November 11th, 1918. But for the purposes of our story it all has to do with the succession of the royal line.
With the end of the war imminent, the French government had a problem with the line of succession in Monaco. The problem, in the eyes of the French, was that the current ruler in Monaco, Prince Albert I, was just a couple days away from his 70th birthday at the end of World War I.
So it was only a matter of time before his successor would take the throne. The issue with that was that his son, Prince Louis II, himself was 48 years old when World War I came to a close and he had no wife, no children and no prospects.
That would mean if something didn’t change, after both Prince Albert I and Prince Louis II passed, the throne of Monaco would go to Wilhelm, the Second Duke of Urach.
Although Wilhelm was born in Monaco, he lived in Württemberg. In fact, you might’ve seen pictures of his castle, Lichtenstein Castle, in Württemberg. It’s often referred to as a fairytale castle and when you see pictures of it you’ll see why. I’ll make sure to include some of those on my Instagram feed over @basedonatruestorypodcast.
Wilhelm’s place of residence was an issue for France because Württemberg became a part of the German Empire in 1871.
Remember that Monaco is located along the southern French coast, so you can imagine why the French wouldn’t want someone with ties to Germany being the ruler on their southern border.
On the other hand, Monaco was almost entirely beholden to France. I think there’s a couple points in the movie that imply this, but it’s completely true that Monaco themselves don’t really produce anything. Because of their small size—Monaco is only about two square kilometers—that’s less than one square mile—in size, they don’t really have any room for things like growing crops. So almost everything comes from France, which borders Monaco on all sides that aren’t the Mediterranean Sea.
In July of 1918, Prince Albert I traveled to Paris to sign a treaty that essentially meant that if the royal dynasty would end, then Monaco would become an autonomous state under French protection. It also gave France the power to approve or disapprove Monégasque sovereignty.
Basically, France could say “no” to Wilhelm taking over.
This is the official line of text from the treaty. The term “Principality” is referring to the official designation of Monaco as a principality, basically a city-state:
Measures concerning the international relations of the Principality shall always be the subject of prior consultations between the Government of the Principality and the French Government. The same shall apply to measures concerning directly or indirectly the exercise of a regency or succession to the throne, which shall, whether by marriage or adoption or otherwise, pass only to a person who is of French or Monégasque nationality and is approved by the French Government.
Still, Prince Louis ended up having a daughter by the name of Charlotte. Her mother was a woman named Marie Juliette Louvet and was a laundress of Prince Louis II’ regiment in the French army. As you can probably guess, the two weren’t married, but Louis II officially recognized Charlotte as his daughter and, on May 15th, 1911, Charlotte was officially admitted into the Grimaldi dynasty.
If you’ve been paying attention to the timeline here, that’s before the treaty we learned about just now with the French. So that gives you an idea of how certain the French were of the stability of the Grimaldi dynasty, even with Charlotte.
Oh, and the House of Grimaldi being the surname for the royal family of Monaco.
Charlotte, now the Monégasque Hereditary Princess, married Pierre the Duke of Valentinois, making him Prince Pierre of Monaco. Their son was Rainier.
When he turned 21, in 1944, Charlotte renounced her claim to the throne so Rainier could become the direct heir to the throne.
When Prince Louis II passed away on May 9th, 1949, the throne didn’t pass to Charlotte but instead passed to Prince Rainier III.
And with that brief history, we have a better idea of why Prince Rainier III, who’s played by Tim Roth in the film, was trying to find a wife.
Since they were still bound by the treaty of 1918, if Prince Rainier III couldn’t maintain the royal line, Monaco’s succession would be held up in the air. And there could be a good chance that the French would simply absorb Monaco. While there’s no way to know for sure if that would’ve happened, it’s not like Prince Rainier wanted to find out.
So he was on the look-out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Grace Kelly was his ideal candidate for a wife. I say candidate like she’s applying for a position—it was a marriage. But it was also a position. Being the Princess for a throne that didn’t have an heir meant it was up to Prince Rainier to ensure his future wife would be able to provide an heir if he wanted the dynasty to continue.
There are some historians who believe that Prince Rainier subjected Grace to tests by doctors to ensure she could bear children—tests that Grace certainly agreed to do—but if nothing else, all of this evidence suggests that it’s clear that succession was on Prince Rainier’s mind.
That leads us into the next bit where, according to the movie, the marriage between Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Grace Kelly becomes the century’s biggest wedding in the world’s smallest state.
I think we can give the movie a bit of a pass here because that’s clearly very opinion-related, but it’s still worth pointing out that there’s been a lot of big weddings that get referred to as the wedding of the century.
Some of those were royal weddings. For example, Charles, Prince of Wales, married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
But it certainly is true that, at the time, the wedding between Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly was a big deal. It was reported by media around the world as Grace Kelly transitioning from Hollywood royalty to actual royalty.
So the wedding was a big deal.
But what about the movie’s claim that it was happening in the world’s smallest state?
Well, Monaco certainly is small. As we learned earlier it’s less than one square mile, or two square kilometers. But that makes it the world’s second-smallest state with the Vatican undercutting it at only 0.17 square miles or about 0.44 square kilometers.
The next major plot point in the film happens, according to the movie, in December of 1961 when Alfred Hitchcock arrives in Monaco to deliver the script for a movie called Marnie. He offers Grace the lead role, thereby spinning a major conflict in the film. Should she return to the silver screen as Grace Kelly the Oscar-winning actress? Or should she turn away from Hollywood and devote herself fully to being Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco?
While there are elements of truth in this, it’d seem a lot of the details in here were fictionalized for the film.
What is true is that Grace Kelly was offered a role in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Marnie.
But some historians suggest the reasons for Princess Grace of Monaco’s turning down the role were quite different than what the movie makes it seem.
While it is true that Alfred Hitchcock traveled to Monaco to offer the role, of course, we don’t know a lot of what happened behind closed doors at the palace in Monaco. So we don’t know a lot of what the real Grace Kelly was thinking at the time.
According to Patricia Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter, she recalled that both her father and mother went to Monaco to pitch the script to Princess Grace—who, along with Prince Rainier, were both friends of the Hithcocks. In the documentary called The Trouble with Marnie, Patricia went on to explain that Grace was tempted by the offer.
In his book called Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes, author Steven De Rosa explained a few other reasons why Grace Kelly might not’ve accepted the role.
First, the movie is correct in stating that Marnie was being distributed by Universal Pictures. But Grace Kelly was under contract with MGM Studios, and because she got married so quickly, she apparently didn’t finish off her contact with MGM. So if she was to return to Hollywood, she likely wouldn’t have even been able to star in a Universal movie without plenty of legal work.
But even more than that, the Monégasque people didn’t seem to be too fond of the idea of their Princess starring in a role where she’d have to play what some reviews of the film would end up referring to as a sexually disturbed thief.
That probably wouldn’t paint Monaco in a very good light with the rest of the world.
Going back to the movie, this brings up the next major plot point—taxes in Monaco. According to the film, Monaco doesn’t tax their residents and France’s president, Charles de Gaulle, is putting pressure on Prince Rainier III to start doing that. There’s also a few mentions of an increase in businesses in Monaco in the movie, although briefly.
Bits and pieces of that are true, but there’s more to the story that the movie doesn’t mention than the bits and pieces that it does.
We don’t really know what the treasury was like for Monaco when Rainier took over the throne, but a lot of people believe it was…well, not too great. The country wasn’t doing so well financially. Because Monaco doesn’t really have anything to export, in 1863, Prince Charles III built a casino in Monte Carlo.
That casino grew over the decades and, again, we don’t really have the documentation of exactly how much the casino pulls in, but many people believe that was Monaco’s primary source of income. All of that changed when World War I hit and again when World War II hit. The two wars essentially back-to-back really hurt the casino. Not many people in Europe had extra spending money to gamble after their funds were depleted in the war.
When Prince Rainier III took the throne, some historians have estimated that gambling accounted for about 95% of Monaco’s income. But on the heels of the war, that income wasn’t doing so well. So Rainier had a brilliant idea for how to help bring more money into the country without relying on the casino.
To do that, he put steps in place to turn Monaco into both a tourist destination and a tax haven. The latter of which attracted a ton of businesses to Monaco in an effort to, well, avoid having to pay taxes.
This is the same sort of thing a lot of countries and cities do even today. For example, in the past few decades, Vancouver, Canada has lured a lot of feature film visual effects companies to their city thanks to favorable tax laws for that industry.
Of course, they still have to pay taxes—those are just tax benefits.
In the case of Monaco, the benefit was not having to pay taxes at all. And, as we learned earlier, since Monaco was almost completely surrounded by France, that meant a lot of the businesses who set up shop in Monaco came from France.
Essentially, it was a legal form of tax evasion.
As you can probably guess, this didn’t make France too happy. All of a sudden, they lost a bunch of tax dollars. Well, not all of a sudden—it wasn’t something that happened overnight—but over the span of just a few years, since Prince Rainier III took the throne, until the events in the movie, more and more businesses took advantage of the tax haven bordering France.
As a little side note, if you’ve heard of the Cayman Islands and how many of the world’s richest people use the Caymans as a way of evading taxes, that’s basically what Monaco was for many of Europe’s richest.
Something else the movie suggests through various conversations we hear is that the French are at war in Africa. So they’re putting pressure on Monaco to match French taxes so, in turn, businesses wouldn’t leave France and they’d be able to help fund the war.
At least, that’s the story according to the movie.
And again, there’s some truth in that.
The movie doesn’t really mention what the war is other than saying it’s in Africa, but looking at history we can assume the film is referring to the Algerian War which spanned over seven years from November of 1954 to March of 1962.
While tensions between France and Monaco really did start to heat up in 1959, it was mostly because of something the movie doesn’t mention—Prince Rainier III decided to suspend part of Monaco’s constitution.
That, in turn, happened because of something the movie doesn’t really focus on at all. I’m referring to the power struggle of sorts between Prince Rainier III and one of the world’s wealthiest men at the time—Aristotle Onassis.
His name might ring a bell even if you haven’t heard of him. His first name for obvious reasons—everyone knows who the Greek philosopher Aristotle was. While Aristotle’s first name sounds familiar, if Aristotle Onassis’ last name sounds familiar it’s probably because you might’ve heard of Jackie Onassis. Aristotle married Jackie Kennedy in 1968 about five years after her husband, the President of the United States, was assassinated.
Aristotle, who does have a part in the movie as he’s played by Robert Lindsay, owned a shipping business. He had made his way to Monaco before Prince Rainier took the throne and invested in the
Société des Bains de Mer de Monaco. And I’m sure I butchered that so we’ll just call it by its initials, SBM.
SBM is the publicly traded company that runs the casino and three of the biggest resorts on Monaco. By the time Prince Rainier took the throne, Aristotle was already a major investor.
With Prince Rainier having a similar vision for Monaco, the two couldn’t really seem to get along. It was a power struggle that found its way into the public eye when something happened that was the inspiration for something else in the film.
By that I’m referring to the big ending in the movie where we see the plot the traitor—Princess Antionette. She’s played by Geraldine Somerville in the film and according to the movie she and Jean-Charles Rey team up to conspire against Prince Rainier.
Jean-Charles Rey is played by Nicholas Farrell in the film.
While there certainly could’ve been some dealings with the French, in reality the tension between Rainier and the French started to peak after Rainier hit his breaking point on a different front. I’m referring to when Princess Antionette, who really was Rainier’s older sister, sided with Aristotle Onassis to publicly oppose Rainier’s plan to build a lab. That lab was for one of his friends, Jacques Cousteau, who had recently become the director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco in 1957.
That was the last straw for Rainier who already was at odds with Aristotle. On January 29th, 1959, he made an announcement via the radio that he wouldn’t tolerate the attempts to undermine his rights. He decided to suspend the constitution and dissolve the National Council—the council that Aristotle was on which had opposed his laboratory.
That escalated tensions with France who were already not happy with the lack of taxes in Monaco. Getting rid of the constitution, or even just parts of it as some reports claim, didn’t make that better.
So it is true that the French President Charles de Gaulle applied pressure on Monaco because of the taxes. Things just didn’t quite happen because of the reasons we saw in the film.
There’s even some truth to the blockade we saw the French set up in the movie.
But that blockade was set up in October of 1962 while, as we just learned, the French-Algerian War ended in March of that same year. So while the events are true, the filmmakers shifted things around a bit for their narrative.
Speaking of the blockade that, too, was adjusted for the narrative. By that what I mean is that it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as the movie made it seem. In the film we see what looks like spikes laid across the road to pop anyone’s tires who try to leave, soldiers or police officers of some sort and even some barbed wire.
According to the October 13th, 1962 edition of the French newspaper Le Monde, the blockade seemed to be more of a prank. There were only six custom officials from France who blocked the road between Monaco and Nice. While it did cause traffic jams, there was no mention of the barbed wire or spiking tires.
The final scene in the movie is at a gala where Nicole Kidman’s version of Princess Grace has a very emotional speech. At the end, the American Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, turns to President de Gaulle saying something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t bomb Grace, would you, Charles?”
None of that is true.
Well, most of it isn’t true.
It is true that the Red Cross holds an annual ball in Monaco—some of the big names who have performed in previous years were Ella Fitzgerald in 1959, Sammy Davis, Jr., in 1961 and not to get too far ahead of our story but Frank Sinatra in 1980, Elton John in 1984 and so on. So some big names.
But for the 1962 ball, which saw Charles Trenet performing, Charles de Gaulle was not in attendance like the movie shows.
There’s also no evidence that suggests Princess Grace had any sort of sway on the resolution of the tensions between France and Monaco.
The truth, in true political fashion, is much less interesting. Really it was a compromise between France and Monaco that allowed French citizens who lived in Monaco for less than five years subject to being taxed by the French government.
Basically, they couldn’t just run to Monaco to avoid being taxed.
Which is a big deal because, at least as of 2014, about 30% of the citizens in Monaco are millionaires. I realize that’s not 1962 numbers, but I couldn’t find the number of millionaires in 1962—I’d venture to guess it was a lot. Maybe not 30%, but it doesn’t have to be that high to be a lot of tax money.
At the very end of the movie there’s a bit of text on screen that says Grace Kelly never acted again.
And that’s true.
Grace Kelly’s acting career started in 1950 and ended in 1956 after she married Prince Rainier. Despite only being active for six years, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8th, 1960.
On September 14th, 1982, Princess Grace was driving in Monaco when she suffered a stroke, lost control of the car and crashed. She never recovered. She was only 52.
Prince Rainier III never remarried and continued to rule in Monaco until he passed away on April 6th, 2005. He was 81. His death was overshadowed in Europe at the time by the news of Pope John Paul II’s death just four days earlier.
At the time of his death, Prince Rainier was the longest-reigning monarch in Europe at 56 years from Europe’s longest-ruling royal family—the movie was correct in giving the year 1297 when the House of Grimaldi took control in Monaco.
After Rainier passed away, his and Princess Grace’s son, Prince Albert II, took the throne.
Before he passed away, though, in 2002, Monaco’s constituion was amended to change the succession laws. Even if Prince Albert didn’t have an heir, the Grimaldi family would stay on the throne.
In 2011, Prince Albert followed in his father’s footsteps by marrying a star from another country. This time it was the former Olympic swimmer from South Africa, Charlene Wittstock. Since then, the couple has had a set of twins—ensuring that the Grimaldi family will reign for yet another generation in Monaco.
Then it was just last year that Prince Albert II spent $754,000 buying the childhood home of his mother, Grace Kelly, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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