Actress Deborah Kerr, 86; Shook Up Genteel Image in 'From Here to Eternity'

Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in the famous and oft-mocked beach scene in
Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in the famous and oft-mocked beach scene in "From Here to Eternity," the 1953 film that Kerr said helped raise her profile after she had appeared in English costume dramas. (Photos Via Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

Deborah Kerr, 86, a Scottish-born actress who set the standard for white-gloved elegance in 1950s films including "The King and I" and "An Affair to Remember" and who shocked viewers as the lusty adulteress in "From Here to Eternity," died Oct. 16 in Suffolk, England. She had Parkinson's disease.

Ms. Kerr, who appeared in nearly 50 films, was nominated six times for the Academy Award as best actress but never won. She received an honorary Oscar in 1994, and three years later, Queen Elizabeth II recognized Ms. Kerr for her distinguished career.

In her most popular roles, Ms. Kerr was usually genteel and quietly forceful opposite rugged men such as Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum. Her biographer, Eric Braun, wrote that she excelled in parts that conveyed "moral fortitude concealed by a frail appearance."

She was so well-known for her on-screen grace that People magazine once rehashed a Hollywood joke about her: "Deborah Kerr is the sort of creature who could be photographed ambling, disheveled, out of a place of assignation, or doing the hully-gully, naked, on the Golden Gate bridge, and draw no more comment from the public than, 'Lovely girl.' "

Ms. Kerr insisted that her acting range was much broader than many critics would allow. She reminded generations of reporters that she had played "everything from nuns to nymphos," the latter referring to her role in "From Here to Eternity" (1953).

She credited that film with providing her breakthrough after she had appeared in a series of early 1950s costume dramas as plucky English heroines. The film was based on James Jones's steamy 1951 novel set just before the Pearl Harbor attack.

Ms. Kerr had hired a new agent to persuade Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn that she would be right for the role of Karen Holmes, the unfaithful wife of an Army captain who falls for a sergeant under her husband's command.

According to Ms. Kerr's biography, Cohn initially laughed at the thought of the cultured actress as Holmes. Two things changed his mind: the demands of Joan Crawford, who was originally to play the part, and director Fred Zinnemann's desire to cast against type.

To prepare for the role, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, Ms. Kerr spent months learning a flat American accent, dyed her hair blond and went through a studio makeover, complete with cheesecake photo shots for publicity.

Audiences were stunned to see her in a passionate embrace in the sea foam with Lancaster as the muscular sergeant. That scene became a defining moment of uninhibited sensuality and was lampooned for decades in TV skits and films.

Ms. Kerr was also nominated for an Academy Award as a businessman's alcoholic wife in "Edward, My Son" (1949), as an English widow who tutors the King of Siam's children in the musical "The King and I" (1956), as a nun stranded on an island with a Marine Corps corporal during World War II in "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957), as an insecure woman dominated by her mother in "Separate Tables" (1958) and as an Australian sheep drover's steadfast wife in "The Sundowners" (1960).

The last film showed Ms. Kerr's powerful but subtle character shadings, such as her sad and envious stare at a rich, beautiful woman on a passing train.

Ms. Kerr excelled in glamorous roles. She was three times a graceful counterpart to the suave Cary Grant, including in the comedies "Dream Wife" (1953) and "The Grass Is Greener" (1960). They were also together in "An Affair to Remember" (1957), regarded by many movie critics and enthusiasts as the best of the three filmed versions about shipboard lovers who are engaged to others but find true love. That love is then jeopardized by tragic events.

Ms. Kerr went on to appear in "Beloved Infidel" (1959) as Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham; in "The Innocents" (1961), about a repressed governess in charge of two supernaturally possessed children; in "The Night of the Iguana" (1964) as a deeply spiritual artist who confronts a defrocked priest; and in Elia Kazan's "The Arrangement" (1969) as the wife of a faithless ad executive.

In the 1960s and '70s, she turned down cameos in the all-star disaster films then in vogue. She also voiced disdain for the public appetite for gratuitous on-screen nudity. A stand-in did her nude scene with Lancaster in John Frankenheimer's skydiving drama "The Gypsy Moths" (1969).

During the next 20 years, Ms. Kerr appeared in plays and occasional TV and film projects. Her final movie role was as the lead in Mary McMurray's well-received "The Assam Garden" (1985), playing the tart-tongued widow of an English military officer.

Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer was born Sept. 30, 1921, in Helensburgh, Scotland. Her father, a civil engineer, died when she was 14 of wounds suffered in World War I. She settled with her mother and a younger brother in Bristol, England, where she trained at a drama school run by her aunt.

Ms. Kerr's stage career led to a supporting part in the 1941 screen version of the George Bernard Shaw play "Major Barbara."

She appeared in about 10 films during the next six years and became one of Britain's leading actresses. Her most important early film was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's hit "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943), in which she played three generations of increasingly liberated women.

The ability to display wide emotional range was also on demand in "Vacation From Marriage" (1945), a film in which she transforms during wartime from a mousy, frumpy wife into a woman of glamour and independence. Her husband, played by Robert Donat, becomes jealous.

What clinched her appeal for Hollywood producers was her portrayal of an inflexible nun in "Black Narcissus" (1947), Powell and Pressburger's sexually provocative drama of a religious order in a remote Himalayan outpost.

Louis B. Mayer at MGM Studios soon signed up Ms. Kerr to replace the fading star power of London-born beauty Greer Garson. Mayer's publicity machine drummed up a nationwide offensive: "Deborah Kerr -- Her Name Rhymes With Star!" It worked.

She received the New York Film Critics Circle's best actress award four times, for "I See a Dark Stranger" (1946), "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," "The Sundowners" and "Black Narcissus."

"From Here to Eternity" brought her into the top ranks of actresses. The film was an enormous success, earning Zinnemann an Oscar for direction and Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed awards in supporting acting categories. It also won best picture, but Ms. Kerr lost the best actress Oscar to newcomer Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday."

In 1986, Ms. Kerr told the Chicago Tribune that she was not disappointed by being overlooked during subsequent Academy Award ceremonies.

"Quite the opposite, in fact, as I'm sure I've had more mileage out of it than if I'd won the damned thing," she said. "Can you remember who won two years ago, or four? No, but people always remember my Oscar record, and they also point out what good company I'm keeping, what with Chaplin, Garbo, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire . . ."

In addition, "From Here to Eternity" brought her one of her plum stage roles, as a boarding school official's neglected wife in "Tea and Sympathy." Kazan directed her in the 1953 Broadway production, considered racy for its time, in which she sexually initiates a student who is relentlessly teased for his apparent homosexuality.

In one sequence, her character unbuttons her blouse and tenderly tells the student as the lights fade, "When you speak of this in future years, and you will, be kind."

Ms. Kerr later said her part in "Tea and Sympathy," which she repeated on-screen in 1956, was "the part nearest me. . . . [It] was the coming together of a part and an actress -- the same attitude to life, a certain shyness in life, a deep compassion for people who are being persecuted for anything."

Her marriage to Anthony Bartley, a World War II British flying ace, ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband, author and screenwriter Peter Viertel, whom she married in 1960 and with whom she spent many years living in Klosters, Switzerland; two daughters from her first marriage; and three grandchildren.

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