Deborah Kerr (1921-2007) b. Helensburgh, Scotland.
Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer (Deborah Kerr) was born in Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire. The daughter of a civil engineer, as a child she was educated at Northumberland House in Bristol and trained as a dancer at a drama school run by her aunt, Phyllis Smale. Kerr won a scholarship to Ninette de Valois’s Sadler’s Wells, making her London debut at 17 among the corps de ballet in Prometheus. Kerr was acting with the Oxford Repertory Players when spotted while dining at the Mayfair Hotel by a producer, Gabriel Pascal.
Kerr made her screen debut in Michael Powell‘s lively thriller Contraband (1940), but her part was edited out. In her second film, she was cast as a Salvation Army officer, Jenny Hill, in Major Barbara (1940), based on Bernard Shaw’s play and starring Wendy Hiller and Rex Harrison. Her impressive performance led to her being given the leading role of Sally Hardcastle in a screen adaptation of Walter Greenwood’s tough tragedy of the Depression, Love on the Dole (1941), directed by John Baxter. Kerr produced a spirited yet touching performance as a working-class girl who cynically becomes the mistress of a wealthy bookie to escape poverty.
Leading roles in Hatter’s Castle (1941) and The Day will Dawn (1942) followed, before she made her breakthrough in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger‘s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a brilliant and sceptical war movie which enraged Winston Churchill. Gabriel Pascal sold her contract to MGM and her first film for MGM-British paired her with Robert Donat in Perfect Strangers (1945), about a dull couple whose personalities are changed by their wartime experiences. After this came the role of Bridie Quilty, a bewitchingly determined Irish spy in Launder and Gilliatt’s witty thriller I See a Dark Stranger (1946). MGM then loaned her to Powel for one of her most memorable films, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), and the role of a repressed nun who finds herself secretly excited and disturbed by earthly passions, during a mission to the tribe’s people of the Himalayas.
She moved to Hollywood in 1947 but things did not start well. Her first American film, The Hucksters (1947), a satire on radio advertising, was a moderate success, and this was followed by If Winter Comes (1949), a clumsily told melodrama that received limited release. Kerr had the meaty role of a wife who descends into alcoholism in the screen version of Robert Morley‘s play Edward, My Son (1949), and her uncompromising performance won her an Oscar nomination, but the downbeat tale, co-starring Spencer Tracy, did not attract large audiences. Her next film, Please Believe Me (1949), was a minor comedy with Peter Lawford.
Kerr was unhappy and told the studio head Dore Schary she would love to do The African Queen. He replied that was this was the property of Warners, but that he had another African tale, King Solomon’s Mines (1950). The film was a great success, and was followed by another blockbuster, the big-budget epic Quo Vadis? (1951). After asking for MGM to let her freelance between assignments, she was delighted when a new agent, Bert Allenberg, persuaded the Columbia chief Harry Cohn to cast her as Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity (1953). In the adaptation of James Jones’s novel, Kerr was cast as the unfaithful army wife on a US military base in Hawaii. She positively singed the screen with her passionate kiss in the surf with Burt Lancaster.
She returned to the screen in Edward Dmytryk’s British-made The End of the Affair (1955), and followed this with one of her greatest triumphs, as Anna Leonowens, the governess who travels to Siam to teach the King’s many children, in The King and I (1956), Walter Lang’s screen version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Her role as the twinkly governess is almost a parody of the qualities she brought to other dramatic roles: the spirited, independent woman, a little constrained by good breeding. She played a nun again, teaming up with Robert Mitchum’s Marine on a desert island in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1956), for which she received her fourth Oscar nomination, then the tears of audiences with Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember (1957), one of her best-loved films. As a couple who fall in love during an ocean trip, and promise to meet in six months if they feel the same, Grant and Kerr merge a delightfully light bantering touch with suggestions of genuine passion.
The following year Kerr won her fifth Oscar nomination, for her depiction in Separate Tables of a dowdy spinster cowed by a domineering mother. In Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960), Kerr submerged completely any trace of her patrician persona with an immensely moving depiction of a downtrodden sheep-drover’s wife. In Jack Clayton‘s The Innocents (1961), she was superb as the enigmatic governess who comes to believe that her two charges are possessed by an evil spirit in this superb transcription of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. A string of second-rate movies in the mid-Sixties including Marriage on the Rocks (1965), Eye of the Devil (1966), Casino Royale (1967) and Prudence and the Pill (1968) caused her career to dim. John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (1969) was poorly received by audiences and would be her last film for 13 years, Kerr announcing her retirement from films, declaring that she was no longer being offered parts she wanted.
She returned to film in a television movie of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1982). Kerr’s final feature film soon followed; The Assam Garden (1985), as an Indian tea-planter’s lonely widow settled in Surrey. In 1994, after a lifetime of performances for which she had gained six Oscar nominations, and never won, Kerr was finally awarded an honorary Oscar. She was appointed CBE in 1998.