Deborah Kerr Is Dead at 86
Deborah Kerr, a versatile actress who long projected the quintessential image of the proper, tea-sipping Englishwoman but who was also indelible in one of the most sexually provocative scenes of the 1950s, with Burt Lancaster in “From Here to Eternity,” died on Tuesday in Suffolk, England. She was 86.
Her death was announced to The Associated Press by her agent, Anne Hutton. She had Parkinson’s disease.
Miss Kerr was nominated for six Academy awards, without winning any, over more than four decades as a major Hollywood movie star. She finally received an honorary Oscar for her lifetime of work in 1994. Mostly in retirement since the mid-1980’s, she lived for many years in Switzerland, with her husband, Peter Viertel, the novelist and screenwriter.
The lovemaking on the beach in Hawaii with Mr. Lancaster, viewed with both of them in wet swimsuits as the tide came in, was hardly what anyone expected of Deborah Kerr at that point in her career. Along with Greer Garson and Jean Simmons, she was one of three leading ladies Americans thought of as typically British, and decidedly refined and upper-class. More than once she was referred to by directors, producers and newspapers as the “British virgin.”
Time magazine, in a 1947 feature article, predicted she would be one of the great movie stars because “while she could act like Ingrid Bergman, she was really a kind of converted Greer Garson, womanly enough to show up nicely in those womanly roles.”
Throughout her career, Miss Kerr worked at being unpredictable. She was believable as a steadfast nun in Black Narcissus; as the love-hungry wife of an empty-headed army captain stationed at Pearl Harbor in “From Here to Eternity”; as a headmaster’s spouse who sleeps with an 18-year-old student to prove to him that he is a man in “Tea and Sympathy”; as a spunky schoolmarm not afraid to joust and dance with the King of Siam in “The King and I”; as a Salvation Army lass in “Major Barbara”; and even as Portia, the Roman matron married to Brutus, in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
She could be virginal, ethereal, gossamer and fragile, or earthy, spicy and suggestive, and sometimes she managed to display all her skills at the same time.
Miss Kerr made “From Here to Eternity” even though Harry Cohn, chief of Columbia Pictures in that era, had wanted Joan Crawford in the part and had to be persuaded to accept Miss Kerr. She regarded the role as the high point in her climb to stardom in the United States, and it yielded her second Academy Award nomination.
Another high point came in 1956, when she was given the film role that Gertrude Lawrence had played on the stage in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I.” She played opposite Yul Brynner, who recreated his stage performance as the strutting king in the film.
Bosley Crowther, reviewing the movie version for The New York Times, praised “her beauty, her spirit and her English style.” Her singing for classics numbers like “Getting to Know You” was dubbed by the offscreen voice of many Hollywood stars of the time, Marni Nixon. But her acting needed no assistance; she was nominated for another Academy Award.
She also received Oscar nominations for “Edward, My Son” (released in 1949), “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957); “Separate Tables” (1958); and “The Sundowners” (1960). Other notable roles came in “Major Barbara” (1941, her first credited film role); “Julius Caesar” (1953); and “Tea and Sympathy” (1956), based on the Robert Anderson play.
Miss Kerr was applauded in the Broadway stage production of the play as well. After Brooks Atkinson of The Times saw the original production, he wrote that Miss Kerr had “the initial advantage of being extremely beautiful, but she adds to her beauty the luminous perception who is aware of everything that is happening all around her and expresses it in effortless style.”
Miss Kerr struggled against being pigeonholed by the public as somehow representing the British upper class, and was said to have instructed friends to tell anyone who asked that she preferred cold roast beef sandwiches and beer to champagne and caviar any day. But she is also quoted in a 1977 biography by Eric Braun as saying that “the camera always seems to find an innate gentility in me.”
Deborah Jane Kerr Trimmer was born in Helensburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 30, 1921, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Kerr Trimmer. Her father, who was called Jack, was an architect and civil engineer who had been wounded in World War I and who died when Deborah was in her early teens.
Her aunt, Phyllis Smale, had a school of drama and insisted that Deborah and her younger brother take lessons in acting, ballet and singing. Deborah was attracted to the ballet but concluded that she was too tall, at 5 feet 6 inches. She began her acting career by playing small parts with a group that performed Shakespeare’s plays in the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, London.
She got her first movie contract in 1939 after Gabriel Pascal, the producer and director, spotted her in a restaurant.
During the war, she read children’s stories on BBC radio. She made movies, too, among them “Penn of Pennsylvania,” “The Day Will Dawn,” and “The Avengers.”
By 1945, she was much sought after by British filmmakers and was cast opposite Robert Donat in “Perfect Strangers.” Her career was further enhanced when she appeared as a nun in “Black Narcissus” in 1947. However, after the movie was released in the United States, it was called “an affront to religion and religious life” by the National Legion of Decency.
Miss Kerr was married to Anthony Bartley, an Englishman who had been a decorated fighter pilot during World War II, for 13 years. They were separated in 1959 and their divorce became final the next year. They had two children, Melanie and Francesca. In 1969, she married Peter Viertel, who survives her, along with her daughters and three grandchildren, according to The Associated Press.