4.20.2008

Grace Kelly in Mogambo (1953) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Film acting is a curious craft, one often disparaged as less than an art because -- in cinema -- the actor-artisan does not finally craft the work. Indeed, the actor is most typically excluded entirely from the post-production work involved in actually shaping the contours of the "finished" performance. This, I think, is part of why I'm so drawn to actressing at the edges, as well as the women who work so hard while knowing that much of what they're crafting will likely never make it into the finished film. I adore the continuities that emerge between these glimpses and glances at the edges of the final frames. Perhaps I'm thinking about this today because I'm reminded that brilliant glimpses are not, in and of themselves, enough to make a brilliant performance. Such is the conundrum of...

...Grace Kelly in Mogambo (1953).
approximately 36 minutes and 56 seconds
30 scenes
roughly 32% of film's total running time
Grace Kelly plays Linda Nordley, the dutiful yet adventurous wife/helpmeet of a British anthropologist undertaking a risky safari into gorilla country.
The film itself is an obtuse melange of several torrid midcentury genres, each of which requires Kelly's Linda to perform a distinct but necessary generic function.
On the one hand, Mogambo is a moral parable of the British colonial/imperial era, in which Kelly's Linda is the proper (but plucky) emissary of the civilizing virtues of white womanhood...
On the other hand, Mogambo is a pulpy, overwrought, romantic soaper in which Kelly's Linda is the woman caught in the roiling stew of her own forbidden passions...
On still another hand, Mogambo is an adventure saga set in deep, dark Africa in which Kelly's Linda is the creature imperiled by the rapacious desires of the men and beasts who inhabit this savage land...
Yet, just as the film struggles to maintain the equilibrium of these competing narrative imperatives, so too does Grace Kelly's performance. While Kelly's Linda begins the film as a woman confident of her purpose and place in the world, this confidence is shaken to its fundament by her ostensibly shocking attraction to the big game hunter contracted to act as her husband's guide.
After several confrontations with this man (in which her civilized propriety proves no match to his masculine practicality), Kelly's Linda becomes rapturously entranced by this brash specimen of American manhood, and the two begin an illicit courtship. Thus placing Kelly's Linda squarely on the horns of a dilemma.
Should Linda stay with her increasingly annoying (not to mention -- effete, intellectual, boyishly exuberant and British) husband? Or should Linda make a wholly improper go of it with the big game hunter, competing as necessary with the American tart (Ava Gardner in a fascinating but awkward performance) who won't seem to get out of her way?
What, pray tell, will Linda do? Will she maintain some stiff upper lips and do what British propriety and privilege expects? Or will she succumb to her passions and give everything for the love of this fascinating man? Or will she be abducted by a monkey?
Alas. Kelly's Linda is not abducted by a monkey. And the actress is left to maneuver between propriety and passion as her character endeavors to resolve her internal conflict.
Grace Kelly offers herself with luminous vulnerability to the role, her uncommon beauty and presence radiant in nearly every shot. Director John Ford captures the young actress's extraordinariness with attentive reverence and, together, the actress and director elicit some genuinely affecting glimpses into this troubled, naïve woman's heart. Unfortunately, however, neither the actress nor the director are able to stitch these disparate glimpses into an effective characterization. Kelly does well amplifying Linda's elemental struggle between instinct and etiquette but her performance becomes a defensive one, all deflection and submission with little hint of what actively drives Linda to take the risks she does. Indeed, for all Kelly's often electrifying presentness, the performance retains a curiously subservient reserve -- a quality that stunts the effectiveness of the astonishing final confrontation.
Grace Kelly's performance, then, emerges as a memorable turn of occasionally heartstopping visual beauty but without the necessary emotional infrastructure to make the performance -- or the film -- truly work. If only she had been abducted by the monkey...

5 comments:

JS said...

And that's exactly how I like my Grace Kelly: abducted by a monkey. Or rather, taken over by a much greater force that will make her commit truthfully to playing her character in one decision.

whip-smart said...

I found this performance to be not much other than "good". I enjoyed the film a lot simply because it was so trashy, although I do appreciate that they used mostly genuine African locations.

I loved Ava Gardner in the film, though, she was great.

Rural Juror said...

Hmmm . . . never seen this. Don't know if I ever will.

Michael said...

I haven't seen this, but I just saw Red Dust (of which this is a remake) with Mary Astor divine as usual in the Grace Kelly role. I'm not sure that film gives the character any more help being not simply defensive, but things happen so much faster that perhaps it doesn't stand out as much as you say it does here (I haven't seen this version yet).

RBurton said...

I can't get over her voice in this. It hurts to listen to.