Deborah Kerr


Deborah Kerr

Refined, elegant star of Black Narcissus, The King and I and From Here to Eternity who seldom, if ever, gave a weak performance
Brian Baxter
Thursday October 18, 2007

Guardian Unlimited
Many Hollywood actresses of the wartime generation have ended their careers in cameo roles or cult movies, even schlock horror or, worst of all, TV soaps. But Deborah Kerr, who has died aged 86, escaped that. Her health would not allow such a route, but it seems unlikely that such an innately graceful and consummately professional actress would have chosen it. The theatre at Chichester perhaps, but not movie Grand Guignol.

She worked steadily, averaging one film a year, with directors of stature and often opposite chums such as David Niven, Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant. The result was a long career that sailed on rather majestically like an elegant ocean liner, only occasionally hitting a squall or rough passage. There was little to interest gossip columnists or to shock the public and, at least on the surface she seemed rather serene in the midst of such a frantic profession.

Looking back over her work it is impossible not to admire the performances and the actress herself. She achieved fame when barely 20, in a star-laden version of Major Barbara (1941), followed rapidly by four further movies, and for 45 years remained at or near the pinnacle of her profession. Within a period of 12 years she received six Oscar nominations but did not actually receive the golden statuette until 1994 when an honorary Academy Award was given for her lifetime's work.

She was already in poor health and had long retired from acting, dividing her time between homes in Switzerland and Spain with her writer husband Peter Viertel. Her rare public appearances (there was another at BAFTA) reminded us of her great popularity in such contrasted roles as the governess in The King and I and the adulterous wife in From Here to Eternity. She was greatly admired by her fellow actors and always brought a touch of class to the most mundane of roles.

Deborah Kerr was born in Helensburgh, Scotland and dabbled in acting during her teens, including radio work for BBC Bristol and amateur theatricals. She moved to London to study at the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, making her debut in Prometheus in 1939. The following year saw her in a small role in Much Ado about Nothing at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and some rep work in Oxford. An abortive screen debut as a cigarette girl in Contraband ended on the editing room floor but the film-makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were soon to remedy that unkind decision.Her break came when the ebullient Gabriel Pascal, who had the confidence of George Bernard Shaw, cast her in Major Barbara. Among a distinguished cast she easily held her own giving a touching performance as Jenny Hill.

Under contract to Pascal, she was given the lead in Love on the Dole and rapidly followed this excellent movie with Penn of Pennsylvania and then a plum role as Robert Newton's downtrodden daughter in the melodramatic Hatter's Castle. All this in 1941, followed by The Day Will Dawn, opposite Ralph Richardson, and massive compensation for the film-makers who had jettisoned her would-be deficit.

In a piece of casting that Martin Scorsese has justly described as audacious, Powell and Pressburger gave her triple roles (driver, governess, wife/nurse) as the women who appear throughout Blimp's story in their monumental The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. She was just 21. The film did not receive official approval, nor the critical acclaim now accorded it, and her film career paused a while as she toured and then went into London's West End in Heartbreak House. She also toured for ENSA throughout Europe and met - and later married - a Battle of Britain pilot, Anthony Bartley.

At the end of the war she returned to the screen, opposite Robert Donat, in Perfect Strangers, where they play - delightfully - a couple transformed and humanised by their wartime experiences. She moved on to an interesting role as an Irish girl who, through hatred of the English, spies for the Germans. Her love for a British officer (Trevor Howard) reforms her. Apart from this film, I See a Dark Stranger (1946), her only other screen work that year was in a short in aid of the CTBF. The best was yet to come.

In 1947, she was reunited with Powell and Pressburger for a heady masterwork, Black Narcissus. She played the pivotal role of Sister Clodagh, an insecure nun in charge of a Catholic missionary school (Pinewood stood in - remarkably - for the Himalayas). Jealousy, passion, frustration and death become the order of the day in this timeless work. A blend of repression, gentleness and inner turmoil was to feature in many later, often inferior, films but this remains a benchmark in her career.

Meanwhile Pascal had sold her contract to MGM and the actress found herself in a post-war drama, The Hucksters, opposite Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. A modestly successful Hollywood debut was soon followed by If Winter Comes. She was subsequently directed by one of the studio's top names, George Cukor, in a rather stodgy version of Robert Morley's stage success, Edward My Son (1948). Despite fine credits and the presence of the screen's greatest actor, Spencer Tracy, the film fails to ignite.

The studio began to use her as decorative contract fodder opposite sturdy leading men and costume became the order of the day in such movies as King Solomon's Mines (1950), Quo Vadis (1951) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952). She had the small role of Portia in Julius Caesar, but this movie -arguably the best ever screen treatment of Shakespeare - is remembered for Marlon Brando and John Gielgud and not the refined Miss Kerr. The MGM period ended dismally with Young Bess in 1953.

That year was, however, to prove a highlight if not a turning point in her fortunes. She extricated herself from the MGM straitjacket and landed the controversial role opposite Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity. Cast against her seemingly fragile type, she was formidable as the sexually rapacious wife who has an affair with officer Lancaster at the time of Pearl Harbour. Today, the famous beach scene - indeed the whole adaptation of James Jones' brutal novel - seems somewhat tame. Not so in the early 1950s.

Adultery was a theme of a rather greater book, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (1954) which brought her back to England. An underrated film, it suffers from a miscast, rather lightweight Van Johnson as the writer, but she and a fine British cast save the day. An attempt was made to revamp Eternity, with William Holden replacing Lancaster, in The Proud and the Profane, before she went on to her biggest popular success: a rather lacklustre version of The King and I (1956). She and Yul Brynner redeemed the rather staid direction and thanks to dubbing from Marni Nixon on the difficult passages and high notes, Deborah Kerr sang, danced and acted herself into a third Oscar nomination; and a box office smash.

She was reunited with friend Cary Grant in the romantic drama An Affair to Remember and donned her nun's habit in the popular Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957) for a favourite director, John Huston. This virtual two-hander reworks Huston's great success, The African Queen, with Robert Mitchum as the reprobate marine who meets his match in the seemingly demure nun. Together they tackle the Japanese just as missionary Katharine Hepburn and drunk Humphrey Bogart had scuppered the Germans in the earlier movie.

There were better parts and higher salaries than in the MGM days and she moved on to Bonjour Tristesse (1957) and another spinster role in the botched version of Rattigan's Separate Tables (1958). Only her old friend David Niven emerged with modest credit from this fiasco. A couple of duff movies followed before her director on Eternity gave her a wonderfully rich part - opposite Robert Mitchum - in The Sundowners (1960). It proved one of Zinnemann's most relaxed and commercially successful films.

She joined Mitchum and Grant again in a conventional reworking of the stage hit, The Grass is Greener (1960), followed by an altogether less happy experience. At best The Naked Edge (1961) was a routine thriller, made painful by Gary Cooper, already ill with cancer, in his last role and the last year of his life.

The highlight of this British period came the same year when she again played a governess - this time in Jack Clayton's version of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Transformed into a handsome, Cinemascope film as The Innocents it showed that she was as good - often better - as the material allowed. Her role as the haunted and taunted governess gave perfect rein to her upright demeanour and hidden depths. After a dull version of The Chalk Garden (1963), she was rescued by John Huston and cast as the poet spinster in the steamy The Night of the Iguana. After this she sank without trace in a Frank Sinatra vehicle, Marriage on the Rocks (1965), and then made a trio of films opposite friend and Swiss-based neighbour David Niven.

They failed to salvage the thriller Eye of the Devil (1966), but had some fun working with Huston on the chaotic James Bond spoof, Casino Royale (1967), followed by a dated comedy, Prudence and the Pill (1968). Two big movies in 1969 offered her dull parts - with Burt Lancaster in the sky drama The Gypsy Moths and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement. They proved only that she was still in demand opposite heavyweight actors. But the films, the first lugubrious, the second overwrought, were not to her taste and she effectively retired from Hollywood. A handful of made-for-television films kept her occupied - Witness for the Prosecution (1982), Reunion at Fairborough (1985) and Hold the Dawn (1986) among them.

Her greatest stage success had been in the once controversial Tea and Sympathy, where she played a school teacher who seduces a pupil who believes himself to be gay. She filmed it in 1956, but the screen version was even milkier than the Broadway success. Her other stage successes included Separate Tables, Candida and The Last of Mrs Cheyney, among many others.

But it is as a screen actress that she will be best remembered, since she had the beauty, the reserve and the inner quality that the camera loves. By a happy chance her farewell to the big screen utilised those attributes. In The Assam Garden (1985) she played an isolated middle-class widow who befriends an Indian woman (Madhur Jeffrey) from a nearby council estate. A modest two-hander, it gave her an intriguing, somewhat unglamorous role that perfectly suited her subtle technique and quiet dignity.

Visiting her on location in the Forest of Dean, I was touched by her commitment to the film and her determination to complete what was proving to be an extremely demanding role. She clearly missed her home comforts and had been greatly pleased by the film's attentive publicist, who brought her caviar from his London trips.

The location, though charming, and the budget were a far cry from her Hollywood heydays, but the film turned out a success and she ended her screen career on a personal high note. She received a spontaneous ovation at the 1994 Oscar ceremony and few actors can so richly have deserved the Award. In 1998 she was awarded the CBE, but speaking from her home in Switzerland said that she felt too frail to travel to London to receive it personally. In 45 films, in as many years, she seldom, if ever, gave a weak performance.

Deborah Kerr, actor. Born September 30, 1921; died October 16 2007,,331008914-3156,00.html

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