Kerr, Deborah (1921—)

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Kerr, Deborah (1921—)

English actress who received an honorary Academy Award in 1994 for being "a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance." Name variations: christened Deborah Kerr-Trimmer, always acted under the name Deborah Kerr, and kept her maiden name through two marriages. Pronunciation: CARR. Born Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer in Helensburgh, Scotland, on September 30, 1921, but grew up mainly in England; only daughter of Arthur Kerr-Trimmer (a civil engineer and architect); trained as a dancer at her aunt Phyllis Smale's drama school in Bristol; granted a scholarship to Sadler's Wells ballet school; married Anthony Charles Bartley (an aviator), on November 28, 1945 (divorced 1959); married Peter Viertel (a writer), in 1959; children: (first marriage)Melanie Jane Bartley; Francesca Bartley .

Made BBC radio debut (1936); made London stage debut (1939); shot first film (1941); shot first Hollywood film, The Hucksters (1947).

Selected filmography:

Major Barbara (UK, 1941); Love on the Dole (UK, 1941); Penn of Pennsylvania (Courageous Mr. Penn, UK, 1941); Hatter's Castle (UK, 1941); The Day Will Dawn (UK 1942); The Avengers (UK, 1942); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943); Perfect Strangers (Vacation from Marriage, UK, 1945); I See a Dark Stranger (The Adventuress, UK, 1946); Black Narcissus (UK, 1947); The Hucksters (1947); If Winter Comes (1948); Edward, My Son (1949); Please Believe Me (1950); King Solomon's Mines (1950); Quo Vadis (1951); The Prisoner of Zenda (1952); Thunder in the East (1953); Young Bess (as Catherine Parr, 1953); Julius Caesar (1953); Dream Wife (1953); From Here to Eternity (1953); The End of the Affair (UK, 1955); The Proud and the Profane (1956); The King and I (1956); Tea and Sympathy (1956); Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957); An Affair to Remember (1957); Bonjour Tristesse (UK, 1958); Separate Tables (1958); The Journey (1959); Count Your Blessings (1959); Beloved Infidel (asSheilah Graham , 1959); The Sundowners (1960); The Grass is Greener (1960); The Naked Edge (1961); The Innocents (1961); The Chalk Garden (1963); The Night of the Iguana (1964); Marriage on the Rocks (1965); Eye of the Devil (1967); Casino Royale (1967); Prudence and the Pill (UK, 1968); The Gypsy Moths (1969); The Arrangement (1969); A Woman of Substance (1984); The Assam Garden (1985); Reunion at Fairborough (1985); Hold the Dream (1986).

In the early years of her movie career, British actress Deborah Kerr played the part of distinguished ladies, and she was a staple figure in the historical epics of the 1950s. Occasionally, she was cast against type and demonstrated that she was an actress of genuine range and ability. One of her most notable roles was as the adulterous officer's wife in From Here to Eternity (1953). Her famous frolic in the surf with Burt Lancaster tested Hollywood's skittishness about sex, and paved the way for bolder sensuality in the future, so that by the time she acted in film roles in the late 1960s she was required by some scripts to appear naked.

Deborah Kerr-Trimmer was born in Scotland on September 30, 1921, but grew up mainly in England, having an unhappy childhood at joyless boarding schools but conceiving early the ambition to be an actress. Her father was a disabled veteran of the British army who had lost a leg in the trenches of the First World War and worked as the inventor of mechanical gadgets; he died when she was only 16. From her dismal boarding school, she went to a much more likeable drama school run by her aunt Phyllis Smale in Bristol in 1936; the same year, she was auditioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation as a reader. Her polished elocution won her a position reading children's stories on the air for the next few years. In 1938, then in her late teens, Kerr studied ballet at the Sadler's Wells Company in London, but at 5'7" she was too tall to become a prima ballerina. She realized, besides, that she did not have the kind of outstanding talent and dancing ability necessary to make her a star.

Kerr's radio work helped her make contacts in the theater world, however, and she had her London stage debut in 1939, moving to the prestigious West End the following year in Heartbreak House. Staying in London despite the hazards of the German bombing, then at its height, she met a Hungarian film director, Gabriel Pascal, who gave her a small role in his superb film of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara (1941). Her role was that of Jenny Hill, a morally resolute Salvation Army woman; to prepare for the role, the director told Kerr to spend a few weeks working with the real Salvation Army. She found their work serving food and giving shelter to the destitute of London inspiring, but found her own religious inclinations better served by Christian Science, which she studied ardently in the early 1940s.

Major Barbara was a success, and Kerr spent the rest of the war years acting in other films by Pascal and his friends. Her second role was as Sally Hardcastle in Love on the Dole, based on a popular novel about life in Britain's industrial north during the Great Depression. Other roles followed, including Hatter's Castle (1941), where she was matched with James Mason, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), in which she proved her versatility by playing three different roles. While filming The Day Will Dawn, where she had the unlikely role of a Norwegian seacaptain's daughter, she and Rex Harrison, who had joined the cast for a social drink at the end of a day's work, were almost killed by a German bomb. Despite a terrible scare and concussion, they emerged with nothing worse than scratches and a coating of dirt from the adjacent vegetable garden where the bomb had exploded. In the last year of the war, Kerr joined a theater company which performed Gaslight at British army camps in Western Europe following the D-Day invasion. In 1945, she married Anthony Bartley, a Royal Air Force squadron leader and hero of the Battle of Britain, who had shot down 15 enemy planes. By then, she was fully established as a major figure in British film and theater.

In Rumer Godden 's Black Narcissus, her first postwar film, Kerr played the Sister Superior at a bewitched convent in a remote part of the Himalayan mountains, where one of her flock falls in love with an Englishman who lives nearby. The film traces the Sister Superior's transition from spiritual pride to genuine humility. Acclaimed by many American critics, the movie won the New York Film Critics Award and prompted Louis Mayer, head of MGM, to offer her a Hollywood contract. Not all American reviewers were impressed. The acerbic James Agee wrote: "The head nun, Deborah Kerr, just makes Sisterly sheep's eyes at [the man] as he lunges around the sanctuary in his shorts."

Kerr and her husband, who was willing to give up his job as a test pilot and aviation promoter to accompany her to stardom, emigrated from England during the bitter winter of 1946–47, when wartime rationing was still in force. She was dazzled by the opulence of New York, the luxury of the trains, and the splendid way of life in Hollywood, and said she had not eaten so well in all her life. Mayer, sure he had found a money spinner, began paying her $3,000 per week, which he later raised to $7,000. Her first MGM role was as an advertising executive's wife in The Hucksters (1947), where she played alongside Clark Gable, Ava Gardner , and Sydney Greenstreet. Kerr followed with If Winter Comes (1948), and then Edward, My Son (filmed back in England, 1949) in which she costarred with Spencer Tracy and played the role of a deceived woman descending into alcoholism. In these years, Kerr also gave birth to two daughters but managed to juggle filming schedules around her pregnancies.

Despite her success in playing a heavy drinker in Edward, My Son, MGM mainly reserved her for ladylike parts, and in the 1950s she adorned a long succession of historical epics, usually as the wife of a king or an emperor. Among these were Quo Vadis (1951), Young Bess—in which she played Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr —(1952), and Julius Caesar (1953), playing Portia opposite James Mason's Brutus. These were the years when British and American actors appeared unselfconsciously side by side, despite the clash of national and regional accents. In 1953, bored with the repetition these roles implied, Kerr sought a complete change, arranged to end her contract with MGM even though it cost her almost $1,000 per week, and took on a new agent, Bert Allenberg.

Allenberg persuaded the producers at Columbia to cast her in the role of Karen Holmes, an unfaithful and libidinous army wife in the film version of James Jones' popular novel From Here to Eternity, which was then being planned. The role had originally been offered to Joan Crawford , but the temperamental star disliked many aspects of the planned production and withdrew, so Allenberg was able to get the role for Kerr, even though it meant a complete change in the film persona she had exhibited since coming to America. Now, says her biographer Eric Braun, she was "transformed into the American conception of how a sexy blonde should look. Marilyn Monroe was currently at her peak in films like River of No Return … and some of the publicity stills of Deborah Kerr at that time could actually be taken for Monroe herself." The film, one of the first to criticize the American army, was a terrific success, and Kerr was highly praised for her convincing role, winning an Oscar nomination.

A reddish-blond with noble features, [Deborah] Kerr possessed a quiet glamour that had nothing to do with Hollywood's definition.

—Richard Sater

Deborah Kerr had begun her career on stage and in 1953 returned to it in the Broadway play Tea and Sympathy, directed by Elia Kazan. It ran for more than a year before making a successful national tour, with Kerr in the leading role throughout. Like From Here to Eternity, the play broke new ground by portraying sympathetically the affair of a mature woman with a teenaged boy at a repressive boarding school. Now independent of the studio system and at the height of her fame and powers, Kerr could vary her work by choosing occasional movie roles which took her fancy. She explained to an interviewer when she left MGM: "In the future, parts I choose are going to be about real women; they may not be pleasant, but they will be real people." One such "real person" was Sarah Miles, her role in the film version of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair, which was released in 1955. Greene himself had worked on several films and wrote movie reviews for the English press but usually deplored the results when his own novels were filmed. This one he gave relatively high praise by saying that it was the "least unsatisfactory," adding that "Deborah Kerr gave an extremely good performance" but that her good work was destroyed by the miscasting of Van Johnson to play a man who was meant to be much older.

Another great success was The King and I (1956), a corny musical adaptation of English governess Anna Leonowens ' memoirs about her life as tutor to the king of Siam's children. Yul Brynner played the king, after a four-year run on stage in the same part had brought him stardom. Kerr was a reasonably good singer, but she had a voice-double in the film, Marni Nixon , who filled in on the sustained high notes and complicated passages. The next year, Kerr was paired with Robert Mitchum in John Huston's film Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, again playing a nun, as she had in Black Narcissus. This time, she was cast adrift in a lifeboat with a tough marine in the middle of the Pacific War, surviving through a savvy combination of divine and mundane ideas and beating a Japanese army into the bargain. As film historian Brandon French notes, the film was in some ways a rehash of Huston's earlier success The African Queen, but whereas the Katharine Hepburn figure had been on terms of full equality with her man in facing jungle hazards, Kerr now played a far more passive role. French suggests that the shift symbolizes the cramping social restriction many American women felt in the 1950s. In the same year, 1957, Kerr made An Affair to Remember, a classic "weepie" with Cary Grant, which was recently parodied in the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan film Sleepless in Seattle.

Kerr's marriage to Anthony Bartley had become strained during the 1950s as she toured with plays or filmed on location. To compound their long separations, he had become a European representative of CBS television. Rumors of infidelities in the press heralded their divorce

in 1959, but gossip columnists found Kerr far more private and self-contained than many of the stars and her divorce correspondingly less sensational. In 1960, after success in an Australian film, The Sundowners, in which she was again paired with Mitchum, Kerr married Peter Viertel, a writer who had worked on the script of her 1959 film The Journey and was the son of Salka Viertel . Throughout the 1960s, Kerr and her husband lived mainly in his home country, Switzerland, where she enjoyed publicity as a prominent member of the "jet set," flying frequently back and forth to New York, Hollywood, London, and Paris, when the idea of flying still seemed more romantic than irksome. In The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James' story The Turn of the Screw, Kerr won high praise from The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael , who wrote: "Deborah Kerr's performance is in the grand manner—as modulated and controlled, and yet as flamboyant, as almost anything you'll see on the stage. And it's a tribute to Miss Kerr's beauty and dramatic powers that, after twenty years in the movies—years of constant overexposure—she is more exciting than ever." Kerr herself felt it was one of her best films but added to an interviewer: "It was also one of the hardest; in a very long schedule I was in virtually every shot [and I] worked every single day of the sixteen week schedule."

By contrast, her later films of the 1960s, when cinema was coming under intense competitive pressure from television, were less compelling. In Night of the Iguana (1964), a film based on Tennessee Williams' play in which Kerr played "a frustrated spinster awakened to life by Richard Burton," remarks one critic, "The production publicity for the film so far exceeded what emerged on the screen that everything about the film, including Deborah's neurotic performance, was a disappointing anticlimax." The film, which also starred Elizabeth Taylor , Ava Gardner, and Sue Lyon , was shot on location at Puerta Villarta in Mexico and directed by John Huston, who had to overcome great technical and logistical difficulties to finish the production at all. Kerr, who was paid a quarter of a million dollars for her role, wrote for Esquire magazine an ironic article about the difficulties the production faced, in which she deplored efforts by the press to whip up false tales of feuding and adultery among the cast.

In the late 1960s, film nudity came into fashion as the censorious Production Code which had kept a puritanical ban on film sex breathed its last. By then, Kerr was 47 but willingly shed her clothes for The Gypsy Moths, a parachuting film, and then for The Arrangement (1969), director Elia Kazan's adaptation of his own bestselling novel. The Arrangement proved to be her last movie role before a 15-year retirement. Playing the wife of a Los Angeles advertising executive (Kirk Douglas), Kerr, sounding as English as ever, was miscast. Deploring the result, Pauline Kael wrote one of the most stinging reviews Kerr had ever received:

Deborah Kerr is wrong in every nuance as a conventional Los Angeles matron. She's even less at home than she was as the adulterous Kansas housewife in The Gypsy Moths. The understanding-unloved-wife role she plays here (and she's hideously made up) wears out an actress's welcome faster than anything else; it just about convinced me that I didn't ever want to see her again. Miss Kerr used to play against her overemotional voice; now she lets it use her for a constant neurotic nagging that is revolting.

In view of Kael's eminence and her earlier praise for Kerr's work in The Innocents, this review probably carried a particularly sharp sting. Kerr claimed to have enjoyed making the film, but this and other negative reviews must have convinced her that the time had come to quit. She took a "leave of absence," saying she felt "too young or too old" for any role offered.

Kerr showed in the following years that she still had plenty of resilience, however. Always a strong character, immune to the more chaotic side of Hollywood life, she returned to the stage in England and America and enjoyed a long series of acclaimed performances, including a nine-month London run with The Day After the Fair in 1972, along with occasional television work. She also appeared in Edward Albee's Seascape on Broadway and returned to sporadic filming in 1984. Her increasing leisure time was spent with her husband and friends in Switzerland and a new home in Marbella, Spain.

During her film career, Deborah Kerr was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress a record-breaking six times; no other actress had had the misfortune to be nominated so many times without winning. But nominations are cherished compliments from the Hollywood community, and she had been singled out for her performances in Edward, My Son, The King and I, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, From Here to Eternity, Separate Tables, and The Sundowners. In March 1994, as she was awarded an honorary Oscar at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the 72-year-old Kerr received a standing ovation. "Thank you, thank you," she said, obviously moved. "There should be some more words for thank you, shouldn't there." Poised patiently center stage, in frail health, Kerr once again lent her grace and dignity to the world of the movies, contributing the most touching moment of the evening.


Agee, James. Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments. Boston, MA: 1958.

Braun, Eric. Deborah Kerr. NY: 1977.

Greene, Graham. Mornings in the Dark. Manchester, England: 1993.

Kael, Pauline. Deeper Into Movies. Boston, MA: 1973.

——. I Lost it at the Movies. Boston, MA: 1965.

Parish, J.R., and R.L. Bowers. The MGM Stock Company: The Golden Era. New Rochelle, NY: 1973.

suggested reading:

French, Brandon. On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties, 1958.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia