Bright Lights Film Journal

Deborah Kerr: An Actress in Search of an Author

“The camera goes right through the skin. The camera brings out what you are, and in her case, there was always a kind of a humanity that she had in all of the things that she played . . . I think she made movies that have never worn off their splendor.” — Peter Viertel, Kerr’s husband

The shy, red-haired Scottish girl who found the strings of her tennis racket slashed, artist’s palette and brushes broken, and tubes of paint squeezed dry was bullied often by the boarding school girls in Bristol. She survived these and other traumatic events by sublimating and, later, spinning them into gold, adding pathos and a sense of enchantment to her work as an artist. Working in film studios from Pinewood to Hollywood, Deborah Kerr (1921-2007) became one of only eight actresses (in a pantheon including Garbo, Gish, Stanwyck, and Loy) to receive an Honorary Academy Award.

Combining intelligence with a poetic nature, she starred in two Powell/Pressburger masterpieces while still in her twenties — The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Black Narcissus (1947). Later, she appeared in American classics — From Here to Eternity, The King and I, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, An Affair to Remember, and The Sundowners — yet there have been only two, unfortunately inadequate, biographies about her life and career, the latest being Michelangelo Capua’s Deborah Kerr: A Biography (2010). But capturing the combination of her unique artistry, enormous mass appeal, and charismatic personality has thus far eluded her biographers.

From Rape to Reverence

In From Reverence to Rape1 Molly Haskell theorized that 1950 marked a dividing line between film as art and film as entertainment, with more realism and controversial subjects having been gradually introduced and reaching a fever pitch in the late 1960s. In this context, Kerr’s career, especially her early work, becomes all the more extraordinary — and difficult to explicate — because it does not follow this trajectory.

The author of biographies of Montgomery Clift, Yul Brynner, and Vivien Leigh, Capua had his work cut out for him in trying to unravel the Kerr enigma — in particular, the first seven years of her career in Great Britain, which no one seems to remember were steeped in taboo subject matter and encompassed imaginative films featuring charming women who were also powerful personalities. The narratives and the women’s roles were progressive compared with the typical British and American movies of their day. This period is so thorny that her biographers have failed to properly juxtapose and integrate it within her entire body of work.

Art in Technicolor/Anathema in Black and White (1940-1947)

Kerr had already achieved a consummate level of artistry by the time she was twenty-six.

With poise alternating with rebelliousness, Kerr plays three different women in Colonel Blimp (while turning twenty-one on the set in 1942), each one essential to a storyline that extends from London and Berlin in 1902, during the Boer War, to World War II. News of the film being shot in the middle of the blitz, and daring to portray a German officer in a sympathetic light by contrasting his noble nature with the Nazis, reached Winston Churchill. Calling it a threat to military morale, Churchill sought to derail it. However, powerful impresario J. Arthur Rank remained behind The Archers — the Powell/Pressburger name for their unique writer/director/producer collaboration as well as for their independent production company — and the film was released to wide acclaim for its performances. But anxiety about its content lingered with British critics, under the spell of the war. The exportation of The Archers’ first Technicolor film was blocked for two years, then released only to be butchered — in various incarnations by twenty minutes to over an hour — in America.

Kerr’s three disparate yet spiritually kindred characters fuel unconscious, Oedipal themes underlying the unique frisson and unlikely friendship of a buttoned-up, British officer Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) and his sensitive German counterpart Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Through a fateful letter, Kerr’s intuitive, bilingual governess Edith Hunter triangulates the characters, who evolve over forty years. Edith speaks her mind on matters of diplomacy and the human costs of war, which Kerr understood only too well: Her father, a WWI veteran, was exposed to nerve gas and had a leg amputated after a severe bullet wound. He suffered ill health for years, and died at forty-three.

The characters in Blimp are a paradigm for Great Britain, from its nefarious colonial reputation that began the twentieth century to its apotheosis as a noble underdog fighting against Nazi imperialism in WWII. Clive and Theo age, while Kerr morphs herself and Edith into Barbara Wynne — a Red Cross nurse, whom Clive meets during WWI and marries — and Angela (“call me Johnny”) Cannon — a tomboy and former model turned home-guard military driver during WWII.

Director Michael Powell praised Kerr’s special contribution to this unsung — until its 1983 restoration — masterpiece. He described Blimp as Pressburger’s favorite film and the best romantic script he ever wrote.

Before the Archers’ second Technicolor project, hinging on the twenty-six-year-old Deborah Kerr channeling a thirty-six-year-old Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus, the busy actress returned to the stage in Shaw’s Heartbreak House. She also entertained the troops in Gaslight, had her contract (with producer Gabriel Pascal) sold to MGM, and married RAF pilot Anthony Bartley, ending her romance with Powell, who was sixteen years her senior.

Kerr’s Sister Clodagh struggles with duty and piety as she clashes with sensuality and lost love, reawakened in the intoxicating atmosphere of the Himalayas. She is joined in the quixotic mission of turning a palace brothel into a convent — complete with school and hospital — by Flora Robson (Sister Philippa) and taken off course by David Farrar, Jean Simmons, Sabu, and Kathleen Byron. Although, the nuns are an Anglican, working order, the Catholic Legion of Decency threatened to cut the crucial flashbacks of Clodagh as a young Irish girl. Kerr sparkles with adolescent innocence in those scenes, reflected in her intense love for an impossibly handsome young man.

It’s difficult to determine which version audiences saw, especially during the first U.S. exhibition. Without the seminal, flashback sequences so beautifully photographed by Jack Cardiff, Kerr’s artistry may not have been fully appreciated until the 1983 restoration.

In a sequence in which Clodagh fishes in Cardiff’s shimmering stream, Kerr radiates in equal measure through dialogue and gesture the cinematographer’s magical lighting. Then, in an extreme close-up of the girl’s face dissolving into Sister Clodagh’s, the actress suggests how feeling love-struck can no longer be repressed. Kerr’s powerful performance inspired the sometimes brutal taskmaster Powell to describe her as “the ideal . . . the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for ever since I had discovered that I had been born to be a teller of tales and a creator of dreams.”

More obviously controversial roles and taboo subjects were tackled by Kerr in several gritty, black-and-white films between 1940 and 1946, playing young women in desperate straits: a Lancashire girl prostituting herself due to poverty (Love on the Dole, 1941); a compliant Scottish girl — with an abusive Victorian father — who becomes pregnant after being raped2 by a man who plies her with alcohol (Hatter’s Castle, 1942); a Norwegian tomboy who works on her father’s boat aiding the British resistance during WWII (The Day Will Dawn, 1942); and a naïve Irish nationalist, Bridie Quilty, who moves to Dublin to join the IRA and gets mixed up in Nazi espionage (I See a Dark Stranger, aka, The Adventuress, 1946).

In 1947, the New York Film Critics Circle honored Kerr as best actress for Black Narcissus and Frank Launder/Sydney Gilliat’s The Adventuress, an eccentric thriller laced with wit and droll satire that rivals the work of Hitchcock. The artistic success of this film with such an intricate portrayal of Bridie Quilty and the chemistry created with Trevor Howard rested almost entirely on the shoulders of the twenty-four-year-old Kerr, who is in virtually every scene.

The long-held view of Kerr as a “prim and proper English rose” reflects little of her actual work in Great Britain. From Sally Hardcastle — a depression-era working girl who sells herself to a bookie — to Johnny Cannon — the free-spirited tomboy who helps Colonel Candy see the light about Nazi tactics — Kerr’s heroines are as iconoclastic as the era would allow.

America, America: The Decorative Period Begins

Despite this controversial body of work, Deborah Kerr was pursued by one of Hollywood’s most prudish moguls, Louis B. Mayer, who saw her potential for stardom (“Kerr rhymes with star” had become her MGM tagline). While he was naïve about the range of her talent, Mayer repressed all knowledge of the content of her past roles. He knew she had a cinematic presence that could translate a star into a dollar sign. This commercial myopia eclipsed her more precocious work in Great Britain, often preventing similar opportunities for her in Hollywood.

Her time at MGM began with a Clark Gable film, The Hucksters (1947), a Technicolor satire in which she was almost lethally decorative. I say almost because soon after, Kerr was given a chance to work with George Cukor and Spencer Tracy, two artists she had long admired, in an unsentimental, black-and-white film that called on her to age and harken back to the knotty characters she played in England. In Edward, My Son (1949), Kerr’s portrayal of Evelyn Boult (a role not unlike one that Bette Davis might have played) brought her the first of six Academy Award nominations.

Amazingly beautiful in black and white, even Kerr knew she popped in Technicolor (much like Doris Day and Maureen O’Hara, both of whom suffered even more than Kerr from typecasting and gross misuse in a climate intent on exploiting Technicolor’s magic). The Prisoner of Zenda, Quo Vadis, King Solomon’s Mines, Count Your Blessings, and similar films underscore what Kerr called her “decorative” period in which she described herself as “about as exciting as an oyster.” While no actress gets high-art credibility for being gorgeous in Technicolor, Kerr underestimated herself. In these roles, even the smallest as Princess Flavia in The Prisoner of Zenda, she has enough presence and power to transcend the “decorative” label.

Although Kerr likened herself to “a beautiful Jersey cow,” a survey of hundreds of stills and dozens of montage videos on YouTube evokes sculptures from the House of Faberge come to life. Decoration or finely crafted art? The multi-Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben Hur), who worked with Kerr on three films, was moved to say “she acts with her eyes more than anyone else I’ve worked with.” Even her smallest gestures are potent. She deepens many scenes in these films with what Powell described as her “extraordinary imagination and a way of almost changing her physical shape as she listens or imagines the different parts.” Kerr’s lack of bravado (she often poked fun at herself) may be one of the reasons we have taken her for granted.

Like Day in Pillow Talk (a sugary confection opposite Rock Hudson) and O’Hara in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (a marginal Irish tale no major studio would touch with John Wayne), Kerr turned An Affair to Remember (a weepy melodrama with Cary Grant), The King and I (which co-star Yul Brynner despised for its many compromises), Tea and Sympathy (a watered-down version of the play reuniting her with John Kerr), and others into enduring American classics saturating the screen with her luminous complexion and ginger tresses. She adapted herself to the most iconic (and narcissistic) leading men of the day by — once again — inflecting her characters with “the stuff that dreams are made on.”

Singular Sensations: From Here to Eternity, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The Sundowners

In Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), Kerr plays Karen Holmes. the wife of an American officer who cheats on her and drinks himself into oblivion — he’s even passed out when she gives birth to their stillborn baby. Karen tells her jealous lover, Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster), that when she finally reached the hospital, “They fixed me up fine. They even took my appendix out — they threw that in free.”

Overcoming both bitterness and numerous sexual liaisons, Kerr plays her beach scene with Lancaster with deep sensuality and the incandescence she brings to characters — from Clodagh to Ida Carmody (The Sundowners) — who are women in love. You believe her when she whispers to Lancaster, “No one ever kissed me the way you do.”

With her career reinvigorated, Kerr left Hollywood in 1953 to star on stage in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, directed by Elia Kazan, and became the toast of Broadway for almost two years. Kerr’s next film role was another overtly sensuous woman, Sarah Miles, who finds love outside of marriage in The End of the Affair (1955), which was damned by the critics. Co-starring Van Johnson and Peter Cushing, both successfully playing against type, and a pitch-perfect John Mills, the film was enthusiastically received at the recent British Film Institute Deborah Kerr season. It is one of many of her films that warrants a more thorough re-examination.

Because of An Affair to Remember, Kerr is most associated with Cary Grant, although she made more films with David Niven. But it could be argued that her most successful partner remains Robert Mitchum. Mitchum did for Kerr what Kerr did for other co-stars: provided authentic, subtle characterizations oozing with vulnerability, strength, and wit to play off of. Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, directed by John Huston, and The Sundowners, directed by Zinnemann, won her Oscar nominations, Best Actress citations by the New York Film Critics Circle, and lifelong friendship with Mitchum, who stated many times that she was his favorite co-star — and person.

Mr. Allison’s Sister Angela is nothing like Sister Clodagh. She matches Mitchum’s sincere portrayal of a simple but gallant USMC corporal with outright earthiness. Though their love remains unrequited, as Paddy and Ida in The Sundowners they demonstrate how a marriage can survive poverty and other adversities while continuing to sizzle through middle age. Kerr’s magic turns Ida, a nomadic sheepherder’s wife with dust on her face, into a peerless noblewoman.

From Suicide to Matricide (1958-1964)

Later in her career, Kerr returned to her earlier, more edgy roles in a series of wonderfully eccentric, quasicult films highlighting outsiders. Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Separate Tables (1959), The Innocents (1962), The Night of the Iguana (1964), and The Chalk Garden (1964) were all adapted from literary works rich in illicit themes, like Tea and Sympathy. If Kerr was without equal in her early British films, shared the potency of Day and O’Hara during her “Faberge period,” and evoked notes of Stanwyck and Crawford in Eternity, in these later idiosyncratic features, she has more in common with Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, and Wendy Hiller — with each of whom she had competed for film roles and even played the same parts on stage. As Kerr matured into this period of her career, one also senses a retrospective kinship with a number of her successors, including Emma Thompson, Miranda Richardson, Annette Being, and Julianne Moore.

On the commentary track of the DVD of Separate Tables, director Delbert Mann reveals that his final version of the film,3 produced with Harold Hecht (Hecht/Hill/Lancaster), was “recut” without his knowledge. The original, “astringent” score — so perfect for the film’s mood — was eliminated by Lancaster and James Hill, who imposed a rescoring of several sequences and added an insipid title song, sung by Vic Damone. The tone of these changes was incongruent with Terence Rattigan’s screenplay. Lancaster and Rita Hayworth’s scenes were also repositioned earlier in the story, in the process removing what Mann thought was Kerr’s best work: “I’ve always felt very strongly that had Deborah Kerr’s early scenes been kept in the picture she could very well have won the Academy Award because they were really quite brilliant.”

Would David Niven have won the Academy Award as the Major, a fraudulent misfit, without the bruised effect of Kerr’s Sybil, the timid spinster hopelessly in love with him? Apparently even Niven didn’t think so. “I’ve always felt I won my Academy Award because she made me look so good,” he later said.

Six years later, Kerr stood shoulder to shoulder with those roaring lions Ava Gardner and Richard Burton in The Night of the Iguana. Almost eclipsing them in her eccentric, tender monologues, Kerr makes Maxine Faulk (Gardner) and Reverend Shannon (Burton) come off as even juicier characters than they otherwise would have. Her current biographer fails to mention the esteem in which another director held her. Upon learning of Kerr’s death, Pedro Almodovar reflected on her Hannah Jelkes in Iguana: “It takes courage to play a character like that without becoming ridiculous . . . but being on the edge is common in Tennessee Williams’ characters.” Kerr’s Hannah transforms Burton’s world-weary, defrocked minister into a wide-eyed innocent. As he listens to her “love experience,” Shannon wonders why Hannah was not “disgusted” by her fetishistic liaison with an older, balding salesman. According to Almodovar, her response was performed with “disarming naturalness . . . a marvel of charm and subtlety.” One feels Kerr speaks for herself as well as for Hannah when she asserts: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind or violent.”

Almodovar intuits that Huston avoided using flashback, preferring instead, “to trust in Deborah Kerr’s power . . . purely cinematic . . . for that kind of moment, which the theater lacks, the close up, and the medium shot of two characters . . . .there’s nothing better than letting an actor act . . . no digital effects, no frantic editing that can compare to the intensity of the actor’s face.” Almodovar acknowledges Kerr as his inspiration for Blanca Portillo’s heartfelt monologue in Broken Embraces (2009).

While Kerr once claimed that she was most like her character Laura Reynolds in Tea and Sympathy (in suffering in her own boarding-school days in much the same way as the character Tom does), she felt her strongest performance was as Miss Giddens, the governess in Jack Clayton’s film adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents. A major exponent of the British New Wave, Clayton’s sensibilities were different from filmmakers with whom Kerr had previously worked. Pauline Kael championed Kerr’s characterization crafted on paradox: “Maybe Deborah Kerr’s performance should really be called great . . . as modulated and controlled, and 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. Perhaps she is a demon.”

Late-’60s Experiments

Kerr was an astute critic of The Gypsy Moths (1969). Co-starring Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, and William Windom, and directed by John Frankenheimer, the film suffered from unevenness and a sex scene in which Kerr and Lancaster make love on the first floor of the home she shares with her husband (Windom). Kerr had trouble believing in this scene, which lacked logic and motivation, so a double stood in for her. Ironically, in an earlier scene, Kerr and Lancaster take a stroll, look longingly into each others’ eyes, and effortlessly rekindle their chemistry from From Here to Eternity.

In Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement (1969), with Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, and Richard Boone, Kerr appears nude in a medium shot. She felt it was entirely in keeping with both her character and the scene she shares with Douglas. Having worked so successfully with Kazan on the play version of Tea and Sympathy, Kerr put herself entirely in his hands again; but the director failed miserably in adapting his own novel.

Soon after, Kerr announced that she would retire from the screen, only to bounce back again on stage as Shaw’s eponymous heroine in Candida on London’s West End in 1977, as well as on television in the early 1970s through the 1980s in various projects: Witness for the Prosecution, A Woman of Substance, and, her fourth and final time with Robert Mitchum in Reunion at Fairborough.

Kerr’s Legacy: Seeing Is Believing

Capua’s biography is an assemblage of material from periodicals, autobiographies, and biographies. It may be noteworthy, since it picks up after Eric Braun’s meandering bio Deborah Kerr (1978) ends.

However, like Braun, Capua fails to capture Kerr’s phenomenal popularity or the twists and turns in her underappreciated career as an actress of the first rank. Whatever Braun’s flaws, his book at least included first-hand interviews. There are actors (Gene Hackman) and directors (Mary McMurray) with whom she worked from the 1960s through the ’80s, and friends and colleagues from Hollywood (Elizabeth Taylor), New York (Edward Albee), London (Diana Rigg), Klosters (the local florist), and Summerville, South Carolina (Debarah Harbuck) whose lives she touched — any of whom might have provided invaluable insights into her captivating personality.

Harbuck recalls a pivotal decision her mother, eight months pregnant, made after seeing The Hucksters: “Most women of my mother’s generation were mad about Gable, but it was Deborah Kerr who most impressed her. So moved by her obvious grace and style that she decided if I were a girl she was going to name me after her.” In 1974, Harbuck read that Kerr was performing in The Day After the Fair and described her surprise when she called the Watergate Hotel, blurted out a heart-felt request to meet her idol, and realized it was Kerr on the phone: “This is Miss Kerr and I’d be delighted to meet you. Can you come to the Kennedy Center at 5:00 p.m.?”

The British Film Institute’s fiction curator, Josephine Botting, selected twenty films, some of which included introductions by colleagues and film scholars, for a Deborah Kerr season in September and October 2010. Botting also curated an exhibit from institute archives as well as the personal collection of Kerr’s daughter Francesca Bartley Shrapnel, who she observed “is lovingly preserving her mother’s memorabilia.” Inspired by two iconic images from The King and I and From Here to Eternity, BFI’s original cover art for its September and October guides most faithfully reflect Deborah Kerr’s inimitable allure.

Kerr’s Milieu: Garbo, Albee, Kate & Audrey

Kerr cut her teeth on Shaw in her first film, Major Barbara (1940), with Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison, and Sybil Thorndike, directed by Gabriel Pascal, who, according to legend, remarked upon meeting the very young actress, “Sweet virgin, you have a very spiritual face!” Both Hepburns, Katharine and Audrey, adored her. While Kate gave her a polo shirt in 1959 (which Kerr reportedly wore throughout the ’70s), in 1960, Audrey had Givenchy design a wedding dress as a gift for Deborah’s second marriage.

Playwright Edward Albee flew from New York to Switzerland to convince Kerr to star in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Seascape in 1975. She played Nancy on stage, which brought the reclusive Greta Garbo out of her Beekman Place apartment to sit in the audience and then visit backstage to praise Deborah’s performance.

Kerr handled tough guys, swore with the best of them, and reconciled diverse points of view in her quest for harmony. She soothed the savage beast (Otto Preminger) and transformed a curmudgeon (John Ford) into a pussycat. In expressions both carnal and platonic, she was held in deep affection by more than one leading man (from Robert Donat, Mitchum, and Taylor to Tracy, Gable, Holden, and Ladd as well as Grant and Cooper). Directors loved her — Powell, Delbert Mann, Huston, and two with whom she never worked: Ford (who wanted her for a part in Mogambo) and Hitchcock.

Kerr was a serious and entirely focused actor, but motherhood took precedence over her career. She turned down an offer by Richard Burton (on the set of Iguana) via a telegram from director John Gielgud to play Gertrude opposite Burton’s Hamlet for the Broadway revival, which would have kept her away from her daughters too long.

Many years later, in 2001, quite ill with Parkinson’s Disease, Kerr was taken to Suffolk to be near her beloved daughters, Francesca and Melanie, whom Capua writes “provided for her the best care in the strictest privacy.”

Splendor in the Celluloid

Unlike her friends Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr was an actor who adored acting. This was the “happy life” for which she thanked her Hollywood peers in her acceptance speech for her 1994 Honorary Oscar.

“She never was really conscious that she was world famous. She was an actress,” Deborah Kerr’s husband of 47 years, the writer Peter Viertel, noted in Affairs to Remember: Deborah Kerr.4 Interviewed not long before her death, he revealed a relationship apart from their marriage, which went back many years: the romance between Deborah Kerr and the camera. “The camera goes right through the skin. The camera brings out what you are, and in her case, there was always a kind of a humanity that she had in all of the things that she played . . . I think she made movies that have never worn off their splendor.”

In the New Yorker, film critic David Denby proposed that Kerr “made maturity exciting,” a fascinating, if alien, concept in today’s youth-obsessed world. His conclusion that “there’s no one remotely like her today” is palpable as one struggles, albeit with pleasure, to grasp her body of work. Ultimately, both her critical filmography and definitive biography may require nothing less than an author with the eye of a cinematographer and the heart of a poet.

Works Cited

Braun, Eric. Deborah Kerr. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.

Capua, Michelangelo. Deborah Kerr: A Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.

  1. Kerr does not appear in Haskell’s essays except in a list of actresses who made films in 1950. However, in understanding Kerr, Haskell’s conceptual touchstones have never been more relevant. []
  2. The subject of rape was little explored again until Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950), from an original screenplay she co-wrote, starring Mala Powers; and Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda (1948) with Jane Wyman’s Oscar-winning performance in a screen adaptation of the play co-written by Irma Von Cube, a female screenwriter whose film work debuted in 1928. Ironically, Powers, Wyman, and Deborah Kerr all died in 2007. []
  3. Delbert Mann, who also died in 2007, went on to say that much to his surprise and delight, he attended a film festival in Great Britain where his original director’s cut was screened. According to curator Josephine Botting, not even the BFI possesses a copy of this version. Its whereabouts remain a mystery. []
  4. One of several bonus features included with the 50th Anniversary Edition (2007) of Leo McCarey’s remake An Affair to Remember (1957). []