by Sharon and Alan Waldman
England's Deborah Kerr–particularly in her heyday during the 1950s and 1960s–was an immensely talented actress who went from being cast primarily in prim Englishwoman roles to excelling in a wide range of character parts. These included the terrified governess in THE INNOCENTS, the repressed spinster of SEPARATE TABLES, the earthy country wife in THE SUNDOWNERS, the sophisticated fashion designer in BONJOUR TRISTESSE, the witty traveler in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER and the sexy adulteress in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.
Kerr was the only person who was ever nominated for six Best Actress Academy Award nominations and lost them all (although Thelma Ritter had six Best Supporting Actress nods), but she was justifiably rewarded with a career achievement Oscar in 1994. Her acting Oscar noms were for EDWARD MY SON (1949), FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), THE KING AND I (1956), HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON , SEPARATE TABLES (1958) AND THE SUNDOWNERS (1960).
During her highly successful 46-year career, Kerr received nine other major awards and 17 additional nominations for 12 of her 53 movies and TV projects, as well as several important stage honors. Three of her four BAFTA Best British Actress were for THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955), TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956) and THE CHALK GARDEN (1964). She was nominated for the Best Female Performance Golden Laurel Award for THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) earned the 1947 New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress Award for BLACK NARCISSUS and I SEE A DARK STRANGER. Near the end of her career, Kerr was nominated for the 1985 Best Supporting Actress Emmy Award for A WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE.
Kerr performed several foreign accents flawlessly in her films, including American, Irish and Scottish.
To accurately recommend our five favorite Kerr films to you, we recently had the pleasure of watching (or re-watching) 15 of them, ranging from dramas to tear-jerkers to comedies. Some of the films were better than others, but Deborah Kerr was always fascinating in them, bringing great feeling, detail and nuance to all her work.
Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer was born in Helensburgh, Scotland on September 30, 1921, the daughter of Kathleen Smale and Arthur Kerr-Trimmer, a naval architect and civil engineer who, as a soldier, had been gassed in World War I. An insecure, shy child, she gained confidence by staging and performing plays for her family. She originally trained as a ballet dancer, performing at Sadler's Wells in 1938. Deborah also trained at a Bristol drama school run by her aunt. After appearing on stage and reading children's stories on the BBC, Kerr signed a contract with legendary British director Michael Powell, who described her as "a plump little dumpling who was obviously going places." Powell initially cast her as a hat-check girl in CONTRABAND, but her two-line role was cut from the final film.
Kerr gained notice by playing three roles in Powell's delightful 1942 movie THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. According to Hollywood legend, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer saw her in BLIMP during its 1945 American run and exclaimed, "That girl's a star; get her!"
Mayer brought her and first husband Anthony Bartley to Hollywood, where she played a society widow opposite Clark Gable in THE HUCKSTERS, which was quite successful. Her third American role, as the alcoholic wife of Spencer Tracey in EDWARD, MY SON (1949), earned her first Oscar nom.
SHARON'S FAVORITE KERR FILMS ALAN'S FAVORITES
1. THE KING AND I (1956) 1. THE KING AND I
2. THE INNOCENTS (1961) 2. SEPARATE TABLES (1958)
3. NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) 3. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1961)
4. AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1958) 4. AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER
5. TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956) 5. THE SUNDOWNERS (1960)
In many of her first 30 roles, Kerr played cool, dignified, proper, reserved English ladies, whom Sir Laurence Olivier called "unreasonably chaste." She once reflected, "I wore a halo of decorum and was just about as exciting as any oyster."
But in 1953 she changed agents, and her new guy, Bert Allenberg, told her, "Deborah, for years now you've been playing the insipid English virgin, but I think I can get you the kind of roles you ought to have."
Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn had wanted Joan Crawford to play the sexy, adulterous wife who has an affair with Burt Lancaster in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, but negotiations with her collapsed after she disapproved of her wardrobe and cameraman. Allenberg suggested Kerr for the role, and Cohn initially resisted, but the agent insisted, "that she offered a new type of sexuality, as a character "who looks like a lady but acts as a harlot." Director Fred Zinnemann and producer Buddy Adler convinced Cohn that casting Kerr against type was a brilliant idea, and they were right. The film was a big hit and was nominated for 13 Oscars, winning eight, including Best Picture. Kerr lost Best Actress to Audrey Hepburn's performance in ROMAN HOLIDAY. ETERNITY won 12 other major honors in five countries.
The torrid, prone, full-body embrace and kiss between Kerr and Lancaster, amid pounding Hawaiian surf, became one of the most memorable (and most copied and spoofed) scenes in film history. It was so daring for the period that parts of it were snipped from the movie. "I don't think anyone knew I could act until I put on a bathing suit," Kerr later quipped.
I (Alan) thought the film was excellent and that it holds up well in 2008, even in today's very different moral climate. There are fine Oscar-nominated performances by Kerr, Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra (who won best supporting actor) and Donna Reed (who took the supporting actress statuette). Daniel Taradasch's Oscar and WGA award-winning script is excellent. And Ernest Borgnine makes a very creepy villain.
I (Sharon) agree that FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is still a powerful film, and the passionate beach scene still sizzles. Kerr is surprisingly good as a sexy blonde, but the film really centers on Lancaster and Clift.
THE KING AND I is both of our favorite Kerr film. Its brilliant Rogers & Hammerstein musical score, its dazzling presentation in wide-screen Cinemascope and De Luxe color, and its Oscar-winning costumes (Irene Sharaff), art direction and set decoration, leading actor (Yul Brynner), music scoring and music recording make it a true joy. Four other Oscar noms went to Kerr as best actress, Walter Lang as director, Leon Shamroy as best cinematographer and producer Charles Brackett for best picture. The film and Kerr won Golden Globes, and Ernest Lehman's script took the Writers' Guild best-written musical honor.
Brynner, who had played the king of Siam on Broadway for four years, insisted on Kerr for the female lead onscreen. Although her songs were actually dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also did Julie Andrews' tunes in MY FAIR LADY and Natalie Woods' in WEST SIDE STORY), Kerr was magical in the role for which she has always been best remembered. The film justifiably remains one of the all-time boxoffice champs.
(Alan): I loved this wonderful musical at age 11 and went around the house singing the songs–particularly "Something Wonderful" and "It's a Puzzlement." Watching it 51 years later, I was again dazzled by its colorful spectacle, magnificent music and fine performances by Kerr and Brynner.
(Sharon): I couldn't agree more. I loved it! It's beautiful and touching in every way, and so are Kerr's and Brynner's performances.
Back in 1954, Kerr had starred on Broadway in Robert Anderson's highly praised play TEA AND SYMPATHY, winning the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance, and she successfully reprised the role of a schoolmaster's wife who leads an insecure boy (John Kerr–no relation) into manhood in Vincente Minelli's film two years later, earning a BAFTA Best Actress nom.
(Sharon): TEA AND SYMPATHY is one of my favorite Kerr films, and it's one I've always remembered. The subject of a sensitive young boy being persecuted by jocks because he's not macho enough is as compelling today as it was in the '50s. Kerr plays a wife neglected by her athlete husband. She feels sympathy for the mistreated boy, then finally beds him, saying the line that became famous: "Years from now, when you talk about this–and you will–be kind." She ends up leaving her husband. This was groundbreaking territory for women of that era.
"I suppose the part nearest me is Laura Reynolds in TEA AND SYMPATHY," Kerr once said. "Of course playwright Bob Anderson didn't know it, but Laura Reynolds happened to be me. This was the ideal coming together of a part and an actress: the same attitude to life, a certain shyness and a deep compassion for people who are being persecuted for anything."
In 1957, Kerr starred in one of the most memorable romantic movies in cinema history, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. (Alan): Although this is widely regarded as the quintessential weepy "chick flick," its brilliantly sophisticated first half–featuring extremely witty byplay between shipboard lovers (engaged to others) Kerr and Cary Grant, is still extemely entertaining and enormous fun. The two stars are really electric, and they reportedly improvised some of the best lines, enhancing the outstanding Leo McCarey-Delmer Daves script. The melodramatic last half of the pic doesn't have much punch for me today, but at the time there apparently wasn't a dry eye in the house.
(Sharon): This is still a gloriously romantic film, enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography and charming relationship of the stars. However, in the second half, Kerr's character's decision not to reveal her handicap to Grant, but to suffer in silence, is incomprehensible to the women of today. Call him and tell him, girl!
Kerr was Oscar-nominated and won her second New York Film Critics award as a nun stranded on a Pacific island with marine Robert Mitchum in 1957's HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON. When filming started, Mitchum feared that Kerr would be too much like the prim characters she'd often played before, until she swore at director John Huston–and Mitchum laughed so much he almost drowned.
Alan thought Kerr was outstanding as a repressed spinster who is dominated by her mother in the 1958 film melding of two popular Terence Rattigan plays, SEPARATE TABLES, which was nominated for seven Oscars (including one for Kerr), winning for David Niven and Wendy Hiller. Also outstanding in this compelling pic were co-stars Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth. Rattigan and John Gay (MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY) were nominated for their solid, highly literate script.
SHARON: SEPARATE TABLES wasn't that interesting to me, and I disliked seeing Kerr as such a homely, repressed character. To her credit, she is so believable in the part that you barely recognize her.
In 1960, Kerr married screenwriter Peter Viertel (THE AFRICAN QUEEN, SABOTEUR, THE SUN ALSO RISES, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA). They remained together for 47 years.
Kerr earned her final Oscar nom for one of her greatest performances, as the matriarch of an Australian sheep-driving and -shearing family, in THE SUNDOWNERS (1960), once again alongside Mitchum. She performed the tough, earthy role entirely without makeup, revealing her great natural beauty. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and took three other major honors.
(Alan): Kerr, Mitchum, Peter Ustinov and Oscar-nom Glynis Johns were terrific in this rich, surprising epic shot in great Aussie locales. It was both poignant and funny, with lots of engaging minor characters and a good script by Isobel Lennart (FUNNY GIRL).
(Sharon): I was surprised at how detailed and insightful a film about Australian sheep drivers could be! The strong performers make it very entertaining, especially Kerr as the stern but loving wife who holds the family together.
Sharon loved Kerr's governess in the creepy 1961 drama THE INNOCENTS, taken from Henry James' classic novel THE TURN OF THE SCREW. (Sharon): This film was terrifying to me when I first saw it in 1961, and it's still effectively chilling today. Kerr's vulnerability, good humor and warmth toward the children make her character so likable that we see the events through her eyes. As she takes step by frightening step trying to uncover whatever is menacing her, we wonder whether she is hallucinating or whether the children really are possessed by sinister forces.
Finally, Sharon admires 1964's NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, which was nominated for four Oscars and 11 other honors. Based on the acclaimed Tennessee Williams play, it also starred Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. (Sharon): This intense film contains three superb performances by Kerr, Burton and Gardner. Each has bravura moments in which their facades are stripped away and the agonized person underneath is revealed.
Kerr worked steadily throughout the 1960s, but often in secondary roles, such as the wife. After 1969's THE ARRANGEMENT flopped, she retired from the screen and moved to Switzerland. She continued to work in television and on stage, however, until 1986.
In 1994, three years after accepting a special BAFTA Award, Deborah made her final public appearance, accepting a Career Achievement Oscar from Glenn Close. After the audience was treated to a montage of her movies, a frail Kerr emerged from behind the screen to a standing ovation from her peers.
"I have never been so terrified in my life," she declared, "but I feel better now, because I know I am among friends. Thank you for giving me a happy life."
From 1992 until her death, Deborah Kerr was the patron of the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection.
In 2002, it was announced that she was suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Her fans sent her tons of supportive letters, and later her doctors declared that this massive outpouring of love had slowed her degeneration.
Deborah Kerr died at age 86 in Suffolk, England on October 16, 2007. She was one of the most beloved and respected actresses of the second half of the 20th Century, and, happily, many examples of her rare talent exist in her movies.
TWO KERR QUOTES
"When I was under contract to MGM, the cinema's job was solely entertainment, and it served that public need. Now the cinema functions as psychiatrist, politician, message maker, money maker and, incidentally, entertainer. But I suppose it's no good regretting that things are different." (1969).
"All the most successful people seem to be neurotic. Perhaps we should stop being sorry for them and start being sorry for me–for being so confounded normal."
© Alan Waldman and Sharon Waldman (February 4, 2008)
About Alan and Sharon Waldman
Multiple-award-winning journalist and funster Alan Waldman and widely beloved personal historian/sex-symbol Sharon Waldman live happily with their mischievous tuxedo cat Winky in rainy Corvallis, OR. They have been married for 30 years–13 of them to each other. At local Linn-Benton Community College, Sharon teaches courses in "Writing Your Memoirs" and "How to Remain Adorable After 60," while Alan teaches "Writing Salable Articles" and "How to Pass for Being Solvent."