Deborah Kerr (1921 - 2007)

Deborah Kerr
Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr was a beautiful and accomplished film and television actress who became famous first in Britain and then in Hollywood as a cool and classy actress of great taste and refinement. She was nominated on six occasions for the Academy Best Actress Award but never managed to win. She did, however, receive an honorary award from the Academy in 1994 to honor her lifetime's work. The citation referred to her "impeccable grace and beauty .... perfection, discipline and elegance." four years later in 1998 she was honored by her country when she was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

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Deborah Kerr was born Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer in Helensburgh, near Glasgow on 30 September 1921. Her father, a naval architect died when she was 14 and she had a younger brother, Edward (Teddy) who became a journalist.

Her family moved to England when she was 5 and she began her schooling at the Northumberland House School in Clifton, near Bristol, where her artistic talent, particularly for singing and dancing, was first noticed. She went on to study ballet at the Hicks-Smale Drama School, run by her aunt, well-known British radio performer Phyllis Smale. Deborah was extremely talented and she won a scholarship to the Sadler's Wells Theatre School to continue studying ballet in London. In 1938, aged 17, she made her stage debut as a member of the corps de ballet in "Prometheus," but at 5'6" she was too tall to be a top ballerina and instead she began to concentrate her talents on her other love, the stage.

She began playing small parts in London repertory theater and she appeared at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, London which brought her to the attention of producer Gabriel Pascal who signed her up to play Jenny Hill in the 1940 movie adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play 'Major Barbara'. The movie and Deborah received rave reviews and it was followed quickly with another Pascal movie, 'Love on the Dole', which came out in 1941 and which again brought accolades for Deborah's work. She had become, very rapidly, one of the bright young stars of British cinema.

Deborah's rapid rise continued with a series of films made during WWII. She co-starred with Robert Newton and James Mason in 'Hatter's Castle' in 1942 and then showed her versatility in 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' in 1943 playing three different parts. After the well-received 'The Adventuress' and 'Love on the Dole' she had more great success with 'Perfect Strangers' in 1945, 'I See a Dark Stranger' in 1946, and 'Black Narcissus' the following year, for which she won the New York Film Critics' Actress of the Year Award.

She had been attracting attention in Hollywood for some time and she was invited to America to sign a contract with MGM. It was the right move at the right time for Deborah and she made her American debut in 1947 opposite Clark Gable in 'The Hucksters'. Both this and her follow-up Hollywood movie 'If Winter Comes' with Walter Pigeon, started a frustrating period for Deborah when she seemed always to be typecast as a refined, but prim and proper English lady. She played similar parts during the following years in movies such as 'Edward, My Son' in 1949, 'King Solomon's Mines' in 1950 'Quo Vadis' in 1951, and 'The Prisoner of Zenda' in 1952.

In 1953 Deborah was given the role of Karen Holmes, the alcoholic, adulterous wife in 'From Here to Eternity', which suited her to perfection and which allowed her to cast off her decorous, delicate image forever. She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar and her kissing scene in the Hawaii surf with military officer Burt Lancaster has become part of Hollywood folklore, and is ranked as the twentieth most romantic scenes in The American Film Institute's top 100 list.

She played a similar role of showing the hidden passion beneath romantic love in 'The Proud and Profane' and 'Tea and Sympathy'in 1956 and that same year became a landmark for her with her portrayal of "Mrs. Anna" in 'The King and I' with Yul Brynner. Her performance was rewarded with another nomination for the Best Actress Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.

Her run of successes continued to the end of the decade. She made memorable performances in 'An Affair to Remember' with Cary Grant in 1957, 'Separate Tables' the following year, and 'The Sundowners' with Robert Mitchum in 1960, for which she received her final Academy Award nomination. 'The Innocents' in 1961 and 'The Night of the Iguana' in 1964 were also successful movies for Deborah and she showed her comic ability with starring roles in 'The Grass is Greener' in 1960 and Marriage on the Rocks' in 1965. She also appeared in glamorous style in the spoof James Bond movie 'Casino Royale' in 1965.

Her final movie appearance was in 'The Arrangement' in 1969 which was poorly received, and after which she retired from films. She said she felt either too young or too old for every part she was offered and she was growing increasingly disenchanted with the growing levels of overt sex and violence on screen although she did continue her acting career on stage and on television.

In 1971 she appeared in 'The Day After The Fair' enjoying considerable success in London and a subsequent worldwide tour. Her appearance in Edward Albee's 'Seascape' in 1975 produced poor reviews and the play only ran for one month but she had great success in 1977 with appearances in 'Long Days Journey Into Night' and 'Candida'.

Deborah's first film made specifically for television was 'Three Roads To Rome' in 1962, and she thereafter worked regularly in TV productions remaining active until the mid 1980's. In 1982 she played the role of Nurse Plimsoll in 'Witness For The Prosecution' and later successes included 'A Woman Of Substance' in 1983. She also defied ill-health and made a one-off return to movies playing a widow in 'The Assam Garden' 1985. After appearing in the television movie 'Hold The Dream' in 1986, she retired completely from acting.

Deborah's personal life was lively and her personality was competely different to the repressed, strait-laced person she so often had to portray. She is believed to have had affairs with several of her leading men including Burt Lancaster, Stewart Granger as well as director, Michael Powell. She married twice, firstly in 1945 to RAF fighter pilot Anthony Bartley. the marriage produced two daughters before ending in divorce in 1959. In 1960 she married author Peter Viertel, living with him on a large estate in the fashionable Alpine resort of Klosters, Switzerland. She also had a villa in Marbella, Southern Spain.

It was confirmed in 2001 that Deborah was suffering with Parkinson's disease and had been confined to a wheelchair. She died on October 16, 2007 in Suffolk, England, aged 86.

Deborah Kerr Academy Awards

No Wins:

Six Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Edward, My Son (1949)
Best Actress ... From Here to Eternity (1953)
Best Actress ... The King and I (1956)
Best Actress ... Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
Best Actress ... Separate Tables (1958)
Best Actress ... The Sundowners (1960)

Deborah Kerr Filmography

Major Barbara
Love on the Dole
Penn of Pennsylvania
Hatter's Castle
A Battle for a Bottle (voice) (uncredited)
The Day Will Dawn
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Perfect Strangers
I See a Dark Stranger
Black Narcissus
The Hucksters
If Winter Comes
Edward, My Son
King Solomon's Mines
Quo Vadis
The Prisoner of Zenda
Thunder in the East
Young Bess
Julius Caesar
Dream Wife
From Here to Eternity