Sunday, October 21, 2007


Deborah Kerr’s enduring legacy of portraits

by Nick Zegarac

“I am really rather like a beautiful Jersey cow. I have the same pathetic droop to the corners of my eyes!”Deborah Kerr

In an acting career that saw her transcend the conventions of beauty to play a dynamic spectrum of leading roles, Deborah Kerr proved that style, grace and solid acting chops could indeed go hand in glove. Honored with six Oscar nominations (though never a win), ‘The English Rose’ was the product of a strict Victorian upbringing. One story goes that her grandmother made her lie on her back on the floor for long periods of time in her youth to ensure ‘good posture.’

Cultured, worldly and renown for her veneer of elegance and dignity, Deborah Kerr was born Deborah Jane Trimmer to Captain Arthur Kerr-Trimmer and his wife in Helensburgh Scotland on September 20, 1921. Living a life of quiet privilege, Kerr enjoyed the strict discipline of her early schooling at Northumberland House in Clifton Bristol. She was an avid pupil, but developed a yen for performance after winning a scholarship to the Sadler Wells Ballet School.

In those early years, Kerr indiscriminately took what opportunities came her way to hone her craft and develop her discipline as an actress. She made her London debut at the tender age 17 at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park in a production of Prometheus and subsequently went on to perform in the Oxford Repertory Company from 1939 to 1940.

All the hard work and dedication eventually paid off when Kerr was cast in the choice role of Ellie Dunn in Heartbreak House inside a real theatre in London’s famous west end. While continuing to appear in various London stage plays, Kerr also debuted on screen, cast as a slightly neurotic Salvation Army worker in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1940). “All the most successful people seem to be neurotic,” Kerr would later muse, “Perhaps we should stop being sorry for them and start being sorry for me…for being so confounded normal.”

As with other actresses foreign to the U.S. market (most notably, her contemporaries Greer Garson and Ingrid Bergman), Kerr quickly found that her past successes were a precursor to the sort of ‘branding’ formula that Hollywood studios applied to new contract players. Kerr found herself being typecast as a demure shrinking violet.

“I came over here (to Hollywood) to act” Kerr later pondered, “…but it turned out all I had to do was to be high-minded, long suffering, white-gloved and decorative.”

The irony is that while Kerr fought to alter her public persona in films by campaigning for more weighty and racy parts, in private life the actress was every bit the shy and reserved woman everyone expected her to be on the screen. She married Anthony Bartley on November 28, 1945 and effortlessly essayed into the role of a doting mother and domestic – content to let both her career and popularity slide while reveling in the birth of two daughters; Melanie Jane and Francesca Ann.
Meanwhile, the British producing team of Powell and Pressburger tapped Kerr for a series of memorable films – the best of these showcasing Kerr’s portrait of a determined nun in Black Narcissus (1947). The role seemed to mirror Kerr’s own private sensibilities and it earned the actress the New York Film Critics Award. It also directly led to an invitation from Hollywood to costar opposite Clark Gable in The Hucksters (1947). That film officially brought Kerr to the forefront consciousness of the American movie ticket buyer. She remained in Hollywood, playing long-suffering prim and proper lasses – a typecasting she quietly deplored.

Although Kerr would continue to do these types of roles, mostly without complaining, there were times when she felt comfortable enough in her own skin to admonish even the most formidable of her contemporaries. For example, while on the set of Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957), Kerr – who played a nun once again – clashed and swore so colorfully at director John Huston that she immediately endeared herself not only to Huston but also to costar Robert Mitchum – himself a man with a certain dispensation for the niceties.

Gradually, Hollywood began to broaden the accepted range for her talents and offer her more challenging parts. Kerr received the opportunity to work against type when director Fred Zinnemann cast her as the loose wife of an army sergeant in From Here to Eternity (1953) – a part Kerr campaigned heavily for and won. “For Karen Holmes,” Kerr admitted in an interview, “I studied voice for three months to get rid of my English accent. I changed my hair blonde. I knew I could be sexy if I had to.” During filming, Kerr also proved how sexy she could be when she began a mildly torrid love affair with costar Burt Lancaster that ended immediately after principle photography wrapped.
In 1953, Kerr debuted on Broadway to great acclaim in Tea and Sympathy, later reprising her role for the film version in 1956. In between, she also appeared in major box office winners; the Bible-fiction epic Quo Vadis (1951); the film version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1953); the light-hearted comedy Dream Wife (1953), and the pensively romantic weepy opposite Cary Grant – An Affair To Remember (1957).

But without a doubt, her most celebrated coup of the decade was landing the plum role of Anna Leonowens - tutor to the King of Siam’s many children in the filmic adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King & I (1956). On stage, the play had been dominated by the larger than life persona of stage diva Gertrude Lawrence. On film, Kerr chose a different approach to the part – a rare syncopation and sparing dynamic that made the romance between Anna and the King (Yul Brynner) more compelling and palpable.

Kerr then costarred in the all-star melodrama, Separate Tables (1958) – a bittersweet tale in which she played Sybil Raiton-Bell; a gawky and frightened spinster manipulated by her overbearing mother. Kerr’s last truly great filmic role came mid-60s, when she costarred with Richard Burton in The Night of the Iguana (1964) as Hanna Jelkes, the sympathetic wanderer traveling a lonely road with her dying father (Cyril Delevanti).
In 1960, love and romance at last ran a parallel course in Kerr’s life. She married celebrated novelist, Peter Viertel on July 23. But with a definite upswing in her private life there seemed to develop a decided downturn in her professional career. She made a string of flops in rapid succession including Prudence and the Pill (1968), The Arrangement and The Gypsy Moths (both in 1969) that did much to damage her marketability in the new and changing Hollywood dynamic. Rather than wait for the inevitable, Kerr effectively retired from making movies in 1969.

Reflecting on the changes, both in roles for women and in the industry itself, Kerr said, “When I was under contract…cinema’s job was solely entertainment. Now the cinema serves so many other purposes; it functions as psychiatrist, politician, message-maker, money maker and incidentally, as entertainer. But it’s no good regretting that things are different. Times have to change.”

With that attitude, and dwindling offers Kerr happily abandoned Hollywood and films – content to let her legacy fade into the nostalgic mélange of those ‘happy’ years. She and Peter moved to Switzerland. It would be nearly two decades before she would even consider acting again – this time on the small screen.
She appeared as Nurse Plimsell in a TV remake of Witness for the Prosecution (1982) and Emma Harte in A Woman of Substance (1984) a role she would reprise in Hold the Dream two years later. In between, Kerr and Peter remained in Switzerland until the onset of Kerr’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease and its crippling effects became too great to bear. Thereafter, she returned to her native England to be near family and friends.

In 1994, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) finally came around to honoring Kerr for her “impeccable grace and beauty – a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance” – an accolade long overdue.

Emerging from behind a screen of her iconic film heroines, and to thunderous applause, Kerr – obviously frail and suffering from Parkinson’s – took to the stage with polished fortitude and grace, saying “I have never been so terrified in my life…but I feel better now because I know I am among friends. Thank you for giving me a happy life.” It was to be her final and fond farewell to the Hollywood community.

Kerr’s Oscar nod was followed by a special Companion of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1997 and the BAFTA Award in Britain in 1998.

“When you’re young,” Kerr mused in her final years, “you just go banging about. But you’re more sensitive as you grow older. You have higher standards of what’s really good…and you’re fearful that you won’t live up to what’s expected of you.”

In a career of indelible performances, Kerr did so much more than ‘live up’ to that standard. She set one, and it remains the template for stylish classy and cultured ladies then – and yet to come.

@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).