Along with the marvelous character actress Thelma Ritter (with whom she worked) and now Glenn Close, she is the most Oscar-nominated actress without a win. In her later years and in poor health, she made, I believe, her last public appearance on the Oscar telecast to collect a special Oscar for her long and distinguished career. Amen to that.
The auburn-haired Scottish lass was already a star in Britain when she was summoned by Hollywood. The film that brought her much recognition was Michael Powell's 1947 Black Narcissus, starring as a troubled nun. She was offered a contract with MGM, which she readily accepted. She was no fool. The worldwide recognition she desired would be a long time in coming without extensive work in American films. Louis B. Mayer hoped the pronunciation of her last name wouldn't be a barrier so he was quick to publicize her as
Deborah Kerr... it rhymes with star.
Right off she became the leading lady to such Hollywood heavyweights as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. She would come to work with Robert Mitchum, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Yul Brynner, David Niven.
She offered to Americans what they thought the quintessential Englishwoman should look like and act like... beautiful, poised, charming, well-spoken, reserved and always, always a lady. Perhaps it's a bit of the nun thing. When an actress dons the robes (and Kerr did so more than once), she is certainly never going to be confused with a roller derby queen. You are a lady. Period.
Her earliest American films did nothing to change this. Year after year in the early 50's she made costume dramas such as King Solomon's Mines, Quo Vadis?, The Prisoner of Zenda and Young Bess. She really had to put on her acting cap for 1953's Julius Caesar; she was dying to do Shakespeare and get away from big dresses and tiaras. In 1953 she did a light-hearted comedy and her first of three films with Cary Grant, Dream Wife. It did nothing to change anyone's opinion of her white gloves, pearls and lady-like demeanor.
"How would you like to play Karen Holmes?" her new agent asked her over the phone. She would have loved to play the role of an army captain's sexually-frustrated, adulterous wife in From Here to Eternity. It was a hugely popular book and Kerr knew the role was not only what she was looking for, but would forever change her career. She also knew no one would give it to her.
Joan Crawford also had the role in her big pockets but there became a dispute over wardrobe (does an army captain's wife in 1941 Hawaii have sequined gowns with big shoulder pads and CFM pumps?) and now Crawford was saying aloha. What Kerr didn't know at the time was that director Fred Zinnemann had decided he wanted to go against type to cast Karen, in much the same way he would hire Donna Reed (!!!) to play a hooker. So both actresses joined a cast that included Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine.
This was a controversial novel and a daring film for 1953 with its frank depiction of loose morals and unfavorable look at the army. Kerr bleached her hair blonde, put on a tight sweater with the seemingly-built-in cone-shaped bra, adopted a sassy attitude and wiped perspiration off her face after love scenes with the equally sassy and virile Lancaster. Their rolling around in the sand with those waves crashing was the stuff of a publicist's dreams.
She received an Oscar nomination (her second... the first being for Edward My Son opposite Tracy). In fact, all five of the lead performers received Oscar nominations. There's one for trivia buffs. The fact that she and Montgomery Clift didn't win is one of Oscar's great injustices. I love the two who did win, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, but neither was better than Clift and Kerr.
There's good news and bad news for Kerr. The good is that she indeed pulled off Karen Holmes. She was raw and sexy, snotty and wilful. She got us all to realize her arsenal of talents was larger than we thought. The bad news? She would still always be that lady. Like I said... it's forever.
In my piece about William Holden, I purred that the 1956 film The Proud and Profane that he and Kerr made, was a special pleasure of mine. Both were cast against type. He was a bit of a jerk and he usually didn't go there. She was moody and suspicious and virtually didn't smile throughout the entire proceedings. They had a turbulent love affair as a recently-widowed nurse and a bitter major during WWII. For me, what she started in Eternity, she more than developed in this one. This is probably one of her least-known American films which I think is a shame.
Nineteen hundred fifty-six also brought two more highly-acclaimed Kerr performances. In Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I she more than held her own opposite Yul Brynner who delivered one of filmdom's most iconic performances. Her singing was dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon and the songs were glorious. My favorite part of the film and one of my favorite musical numbers in any film is Shall We Dance. Watching a barefoot Brynner whirl Kerr in that voluminous gown around the polished floor for a rousing polka always gets to me. When they stop the singing and the orchestra hits those high points, I turn up the volume and am lost in my reverie. Both received Oscar nominations... he won, she didn't.
A few years earlier Kerr had appeared on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy to rave reviews and she and John Kerr (pronounced Cur) and Leif Erickson all repeated their roles for the film. It was said that John Kerr as Tom was having a problem at school and with fellow students regarding his masculinity. It would be said a little differently if remade in 2012. She was the sensitive coach's wife who helps him with his problem. Years from now when you talk about this... and you will... be kind.
She co-starred for the first time with Robert Mitchum, who would become a lifelong buddy, in the John Huston-directed WWII drama, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. She is again a nun and he is a marine and they are stranded on an island waiting out the end of the war. They respond to one another in loving and thoughtful but not physical ways, although he is sorely tempted. It was enormously successful and did much for both stars' careers. Another Oscar nomination.
If one thinks Mr. Allison was highly successful, we don't even begin to contemplate the popularity of An Affair to Remember. It had been made earlier and has been done since but the Kerr-Cary Grant version is the one to beat. It plays well today and does so all the time today, proof of its timelessness... an endearing love story and a great tear-jerker. If you can paint, I can walk.
I loved Bonjour tristesse (1958), despite it not being a critical or much of a public success. I don't get it. It was quite a delightful movie, set gorgeously in the south of France, about a widowed father and teenage daughter and their romantic escapades and their touching relationship. David Niven co-starred in the first of five films with Kerr. Otto Preminger directed and the rest of the world wasn't always on Otto's team, so maybe the film's naysayers were more about leaving a message to Otto. He tried to shove Jean Seberg down the public's throat (he had started that a year earlier with St. Joan) and maybe that is part of the problem here. But sorry, Seberg was perfection here, too. Kerr had the more dramatic part in a film that is basically light as a family friend who has a problem with the father-daughter's way of life. She was all glammed up, looking every inch the movie star.
That all seriously changed for Separate Tables, where she played a dowdy spinster under the thumb of her controlling mother. Based on Terrence Rattigan's play about guests at an English hotel, the cast was dazzling. Former Kerr co-stars David Niven and Burt Lancaster checked in, as did longtime real-life friend and friendly rival Wendy Hiller and still-gorgeous Rita Hayworth and the indomitable Gladys Cooper. It's play-like atmosphere put the entire cast in close proximity and it was like sitting in the audience at some great acting class. Kerr was again rightfully Oscar-nominated while Niven and Hiller won.
In 1959 she made Beloved Infidel, the story of the tempestuous love affair between novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and movie columnist Sheila Graham. I have previously mentioned that one day while hoofing it through Malibu, I came across the empty director's chairs with Kerr and Gregory Peck's names on them. How I wish I could have met them or at least seen them. Pity. This film has been savaged (because of Peck's mis-casting) which I think is a bit overkill. Kerr turned in an emotionally wrecked performance.
In 1960 she made two more movies with Mitchum. The first was the wonderfully written and marvelously acted The Sundowners, about an itinerant Australian sheep drover family. She captured another Oscar nod for the family matriarch, sans makeup or any vestige of Hollywood glamor, who wants to settle down while her husband wants to keep moving. This was a wonderful film helmed by Fred Zinnemann, her From Here to Eternity director.
I just mentioned The Grass Is Greener in my piece on Kerr friend, Jean Simmons. Reunited the third time with Simmons and Mitchum and Cary Grant, it must have been old-home week. It did not perhaps get the full credit it deserved but all were delightful in this tale of marital infidelity tucked in and among British class and manners.
In 1961 she made The Innocents, here first bona fide thriller. She played a governess (the type of role she was born to play... along with those nuns) to two children in a house she believes is haunted. She is uptight and paranoid.
Next she was again a governess, this time to Hayley Mills, in The Chalk Garden. This was another moody little piece with Kerr, mired down in secrets, taking on a disturbed teenager. I thought there was much to admire. Kerr's roles in these years were in playing formidable if flawed characters and she was always letter-perfect.
I think her last truly great role was in 1964's The Night of the Iguana. It was based on a play by the great Tennessee Williams, directed by giant in that profession, John Huston and co-starring two legendary actors, Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. The latter played a boozy innkeeper, Burton was a lecherous, sex-driven, defrocked preacher and Kerr a prim and proper spinster accompanying her elderly poet-father. Sounds like a lot of typecasting to me. All the forces came together for this one... it is a great film.
She was married twice. Her first husband, Tony Bartley, was the father of her two daughters. She was then married for 47 years to writer Peter Viertel. He was likely the role model for the Robert Redford character in The Way We Were. Deborah Kerr died in 2007 of complications of Parkinson's Disease and Viertel died some 20 days later. They say he couldn't live without her.
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