October 18, 2007

Deborah Kerr: An Actress to Remember

Deborah Kerr's last name, as often pointed out, rhymes with star.

Kerr, the proper leading lady who let her henna hair down with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, suffered through a star-crossed romance with Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, and reached out to the imperious Yul Brynner in The King and I, has died.

Kerr passed away Tuesday in England, her agent told the Associated Press. She was 86, and had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Asix-time Academy Award nominee, Kerr reigned in the 1950s and 1960s.

"It was sheer economics," Kerr told the New York Times in 1953. "There was a demand for a red-haired, porcelain-skinned heroine and I was just a natural for it. It's nobody's fault."

Kerr was to blame, however, for making her red-haired, porcelain-skinned heroines so human. Her blue blood ran red, as audiences became acutely aware of in From Here to Eternity, where the married Kerr lusts after Lancaster, her military husband's subordinate. Their passionate kiss in the rolling surf is the 1953's movie quintessential image, and one of Hollywood's most iconic clinches.

Kirk Douglas, who worked with Kerr in her last major Hollywood film, the 1969 drama The Arrangement, remembered his costar Thursday as "not only a fine actress but always a fine lady."

Kerr earned a Best Actress nomination for Eternity, as she did for one of her other most famous movies, 1956's The King and I. Kerr didn't really sing in the musical (the voice belonged to Marni Nixon, the soprano heard, but not seen, in My Fair Lady and West Side Story), but really did glide across the palace floor with Brynner in the showpiece number, "Shall We Dance?"

Kerr's other Oscar nominations were for the 1949 drama of paternal obsession, Edward, My Son; the 1957 shipwreck romance, costarring Robert Mitchum, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison; the 1958 all-star soap opera, Separate Tables; and 1960's sheep-herding epic, The Sundowners, also costarring Mitchum.

Despite racking up four nominations in five years, Kerr never won. She was, however, presented with an honorary Oscar in 1994.

The Academy honor came a year after Kerr virtually costarred in Sleepless in Seattle. The Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy is obsessed with Kerr and Grant's An Affair to Remember, with the movie's plot points of chance encounters and car crashes lovingly, and for comedic effect, tearfully retold.

Born Sept. 30. 1921, in Scotland, Kerr was raised and began her acting career in Britain.

She made her Hollywood debut in 1946, and started right at the top, starring opposite the King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, in The Hucksters. As the scope of Hollywood movies got bigger—the better to compete with television—so did the breadth of Kerr's roles. She traipsed through the Congo in 1950's King Solomon's Mines, romanced old Rome in 1951's Quo Vadis and had Brutus' back, who got Caesar's back, in 1953's Julius Caesar.

In 1953, Kerr made her Broadway debut in the young-man-older-woman drama, Tea and Sympathy. She later starred in its 1956 film version opposite her stage costar, John Kerr (no relation).

By the mid-1960s, Kerr was in her mid-40s, and the world was in its adolescence. By the end of the decade, she was all but out of film. She returned to Broadway in 1975's Seascape, and rated an Emmy nomination for the 1984 TV miniseries A Woman of Substance.

"You have all made my life truly a happy one," Kerr said at the 1994 Oscars. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart."

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