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Grace Kelly: Still the reigning ice queen

Grace Kelly in a portrait from the early 1950s.

Getty Images

The world's been waiting for the next Grace Kelly since ... well, since the original boarded the S.S. Constitution in April, 1956, to sail into the arms of her Prince Charming, a.k.a. His Serene Highness Rainier III of Monaco.

At first, the quest for the next screen highness seemed moot – almost everyone expected Kelly to return to Hollywood sooner rather than later, not least the actress herself. Only 26 when she married, she'd starred in a mere 11 films. But with the birth of Princess Caroline, the comeback talk ceased, and the search for a replacement – a radioactively radiant, semi-aristocratic, leggy and vaguely (but not necessarily) blond beauty – began in earnest.

Diane Varsi, Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren were among the first (failed) wave of pretenders. More recently, Gwyneth Paltrow, Blake Lively and Jessica Chastain have been among those tasked with wearing that mantle.

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But there's never been sufficient consensus to declare us in a new state of Grace, and amazingly, for someone who's been dead almost 30 years, there hasn't been a biopic to force the issue – although a small film set during her time in Monaco is reportedly in the works.

As fans speculate as to who might play her highness, they can get a glimpse at the life of the real person at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox. Grace Kelly: From Movie Star to Princess gathers fashion and artifacts from two previous shows: The Grace Kelly Years at the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, in 2007, and Grace Kelly: Style Icon, at London's Victoria & Albert in 2010.

The show presents Kelly as an enduring cultural influence, both in her film oeuvre and in her personal style (Nicole Richie, Ivanka Trump and the recently minted Duchess of Cambridge have all tipped their trains to her example), and as bona fide royalty.

When Kelly, the third of four siblings in a wealthy Philadelphia family, entered showbiz in the late 1940s, acting was regarded, in her father's words, as "a slim cut above streetwalker." With her cool reserve, posh manners and trademark white gloves, she brought "a lot of class to the table," says Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan.

"The patrician quality … to her screen life sort of transcended Hollywood," he says. "She was 'one of us' for the New York/Philadelphia/Boston set."

Complementing the exhibition are two film series – Icy Blonde, a Hitchcock retrospective that includes the famous features Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, and On Screen, a celluloid six-pack of Kelly's other films, among them 1954's The Country Girl, where Kelly went wan and brunette to beat the heavily favoured Judy Garland for the best-actress Oscar. Kelly's appeal cut both ways: As one writer commented in her heyday, "She made husbands sigh and wives think enviously that they might look as good as Kelly if only they could afford a really good hairdo."

Cowan calls Kelly "the iconic blonde of the 1950s" – and a natural one at that. But there is, of course, another claimant to that title, whose busiest years as movie star (1953-57) paralleled Kelly's.

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Back then, Marilyn Monroe – voluptuous, bold, earthy – was presented "as the antithesis of everything Grace stood for," writes Donald Spoto in High Society, his 2009 biography of Kelly. Indeed, a 1955 Time magazine cover story on Kelly carried the tag "Gentlemen Prefer Ladies," a clear poke at Monroe (and the "dumb blonde" she'd played in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).

Today we know that Kelly off-screen had as active a sex life as Monroe, engaging in numerous affairs, according to Spoto and other biographers. Today, too, "Marilyn's sexuality on camera has come to be seen as sort of sweet and pretty benign," Cowan says, "whereas Grace's, certainly in films like Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, is seen as rather predatory, even a little threatening."

For Cowan, Kelly's "inheritors on the screen" aren't the likes of Paltrow, Lively and Chastain, but rather "pretty complicated characters" like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the Alien series and Sharon Stone's Catherine in Basic Instinct. Seductive, tough, resourceful, iron-willed and not a little icy.

Still, Laura Jacobs thinks we should forgo talk of "the next Grace Kelly" because "there never will be a next," just as there's no "next Audrey Hepburn." A long-time contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Jacobs wrote an epic cover story on Kelly to coincide with the Victoria & Albert exhibition.

Both Kelly and Hepburn, she said in a recent interview, "were one-offs. Both had the grace and carriage of the classical dancer because both studied ballet seriously. And both brought a feeling of culture to the screen, a world of art and history that framed their beauty."

As for the pretenders to the throne? "None of these other names you mention [Paltrow, Lively et al.]has anything like that," Jacobs snorted. "None of them even knows how to walk."

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