October 18, 2007

Deborah Kerr, star of 'From Here to Eternity' and 'The King and I,' dies

Deborah Kerr, the acclaimed British actress whose versatile talent and refined screen persona made her one of Hollywood's top leading ladies in the 1950s in films such as "From Here to Eternity," "The King and I" and "An Affair to Remember," has died. She was 86.

Kerr, who in recent years suffered from Parkinson's disease, died Tuesday in Suffolk, eastern England, her agent said today.

In a screen career that was launched in the early 1940s, Kerr received six best actress Academy Award nominations for her roles in "Edward, My Son" (1949), "From Here to Eternity" (1953), "The King and I" (1956), "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957), "Separate Tables"(1958) and "The Sundowners" (1960).

Kerr received an honorary Oscar in 1994 for her body of work in films that also included "Tea and Sympathy," "Beloved Infidel" and "The Night of the Iguana." The award paid tribute to "an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance."

The Scotland-born Kerr, who began her film career in England in 1940 and had been in 10 films before coming to Hollywood to co-star with Clark Gable in the 1947 MGM film "The Hucksters," was the postwar personification of the British gentlewoman.

Indeed, when she arrived in Hollywood after playing a nun in the British film "Black Narcissus," she not only was preceded by her reputation as a lady but for being, in the words of Laurence Olivier, "unreasonably chaste."

But Kerr memorably shattered her ladylike image in 1953 with "From Here to Eternity," in which she played an American Army officer's adulterous wife who has an affair with a first sergeant played by Burt Lancaster.

Her performance as the disillusioned Karen Holmes not only showed audiences a different side of Kerr, but the film boasts one of the most memorable shots in screen history: Kerr and Lancaster locked in a passionate embrace on a deserted Hawaiian beach as a wave washes over them.

"That certainly shook a few people up," Kerr said of her image-breaking role in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

"Yes, people always think I'm the epitome of the English gentlewoman," she added with a laugh, "which just goes to show that things are never quite what they seem."

Kerr's versatility as an actress made her unique among Hollywood leading ladies of the 1950s, said Jeanine Basinger, head of the film studies program at Wesleyan University and the author of "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women."

"Generally, you had sort of archetypes: female stars that were sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and female stars that were ladylike like Audrey Hepburn. Deborah Kerr could do both," Basinger told The Times a few years ago. "She could play a sexy role, as in 'From Here to Eternity,' and also play a nun, as in 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.' "

But even while playing an adulterer in from "From Here to Eternity," Kerr is dignified, Basinger said. "She could give you the whole range in one performance, and that made her unique."

She was born Deborah Jane Kerr Trimmer in Helensburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 30, 1921, and was still a young child when her family moved to Alford, England.

Kerr, who loved to sing and dance as a child, won a scholarship to the Sadler's Wells ballet school in London and made her professional stage debut in 1938 as a member of the corps de ballet in "Prometheus."

"I was mad about ballet, but I grew too tall, and when I eventually realized I'd never become the second Margot Fonteyn, I auditioned for a play instead and got the part," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

Kerr was playing walk-on parts with the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park in 1939 when London film agent John Gliddon saw the company's production of "Pericles," in which Kerr had a tiny role as a page boy who pours wine for his mistress. Kerr had no lines, but Gliddon later said he was so taken with the expressiveness of her eyes and her graceful movements, which suggested ballet training, that he sought her out afterward. Telling her that he thought she was "star material," Gliddon offered to put her under contract. Kerr was not yet 18.

Her film debut came in 1941, when Kerr played a Salvation Army worker in a screen adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw comedy "Major Barbara," starring Wendy Hiller and Rex Harrison.

Kerr's small but key role as Jenny Hill was, according to Eric Braun in his 1977 biography "Deborah Kerr," "a signpost to the kind of part in which she would excel -- moral fortitude concealed by a frail appearance."

In 1945, Kerr joined a touring company that performed "Gaslight" for British troops in France, Holland and Belgium. At a party in Brussels, she met Royal Air Forces squadron leader Anthony Bartley. They were married in November 1945 and had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1959; a year later Kerr married screenwriter and novelist Peter Viertel, who survives her, as do her two daughters and three grandchildren.

"Black Narcissus," a 1947 drama about nuns trying to establish a religious community in a Himalayan outpost, earned Kerr a New York Film Critics Circle Award as best actress for her portrayal of the nuns' leader. The film was shot just before Kerr arrived in Hollywood to co-star with Gable in "The Hucksters." Kerr had piqued the interest of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer in "Perfect Strangers" in 1945.

When the actress was ushered in to meet Mayer for the first time, she was introduced as "Miss Deborah Kerr -- it rhymes with car." To which Mayer is said to have responded, "It rhymes with star." The studio used the phrase in promoting Kerr.

Signed to a seven-year contract with MGM, Kerr received her first best actress Oscar nomination playing Spencer Tracy's wife in George Cukor's 1949 drama "Edward, My Son."

Over the next four years, she appeared in films such as "Quo Vadis," "Julius Caesar," "King Solomon's Mines," "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Young Bess."

Then came "From Here to Eternity."

Joan Crawford originally was scheduled to play the part of Karen Holmes in the screen version of James Jones' bestseller, which was set in Hawaii in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor. But Crawford had irked Columbia studio head Harry Cohn by insisting on using her own cameraman to shoot the picture.

When Kerr's agent asked her if she'd be interested in playing the part, she told him, "They'd never consider me. You must be crazy! Harry Cohn will kick you out of the office."

The next day, her agent called her and said, "You were right; he kicked me out of the office."

But that wasn't the end of the matter.

According to Braun's biography, when Cohn told producer Buddy Adler and director Fred Zinnemann that Kerr's agent had "suggested that English virgin from Metro" play Karen Holmes, both Adler and Zinnemann, Braun wrote, "looked at each other in frank astonishment and echoed: 'What a fantastic idea!' "

For the role, Kerr took voice training to sound American. She also dyed her hair blond. "I knew I could be sexy if I had to," she later said.

Zinnemann once said that by casting Kerr against her screen image, audiences would find it hard to believe she was an adulterer and that would make them curious to see what happened.

Kerr told Braun that Zinnemann's "encouragement of myself, in playing against type-casting, was a deciding factor in lifting me out of the rut of ladylike roles from which I'd begun to feel there was no exit."

Kerr later recalled that Zinnemann took a long time searching for the right beach to film her famous love scene with Lancaster.

"It had to have rocks in the distance, so the water could strike the boulders and shoot upward -- all very symbolic," she told The Times in 1982. "The scene turned out to be deeply affecting on film, but, God, it was no fun to shoot.

"We had to time it for the waves, so that at just the right moment a big one would come up and wash over us. Most of the waves came up only to our feet, but we needed one that would come up all the way. We were like surfers, waiting for the perfect wave. Between each take, we had to do a total cleanup. When it was all over, we had four tons of grit in our mouths -- and other places." Over the years, journalists employed a string of like-minded adjectives to describe Kerr. She was, they wrote, wholesome, cool, reserved and cultured. She demonstrated "grace and charm" and "ladylike spiritedness and wholesome sincerity," and she was the epitome of "the English gentlewoman."

For Kerr, the "ladylike" label was a constant source of irritation, and her response to it became a constant refrain in her interviews.

"Damn it, I am not a dowager empress," she told one interviewer.

But Kerr's "duchess" image persisted, particularly in America.

"Americans think if you're English you must of necessity be genteel, straight-laced, a little bit prim," she told the Washington Post in 1978. "But there's a difference between gentility and gentleness. I do think I exude a kind of gentleness that appeals to audiences. At least that's what my husband says when he's asked."

In 1953, Kerr made her Broadway debut in Robert Anderson's critically acclaimed play "Tea and Sympathy," in which she played the compassionate wife of a housemaster at a New England boys' school who befriends a sensitive 17-year-old student falsely accused by his classmates of being homosexual.

In the play's famous climactic scene, Kerr's character enters the room of the boy, whose emotional suffering has increased after a failed sexual encounter with the town tart to prove his manliness. Unbuttoning the top button of her blouse, she reaches out for the boy's hand and sits down on his bed.

"Years from now, when you talk about this -- and you will -- be kind," she said as the stage lights dimmed.

Elia Kazan, the play's director, later wrote in his 1988 autobiography, "Elia Kazan: A Life," that the play's ending produced the "awed silence that comes when the audience is deeply moved. There is nothing so eloquent and so heartening. When we had that, I knew we were going to run a long time."

Kerr reprised her role in the reworked and much-censored 1956 MGM film version of the play.

On screen the same year, she played another of her memorable roles, Anna, the governess in "The King and I," opposite Yul Brynner. In the film, according to Braun's biography, Kerr sang all of "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and sang well enough to do the lead-ins to most of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, but singer Marni Nixon sang "the high notes and those which needed sustaining."

After co-starring in Kazan's 1969 film "The Arrangement," Kerr made only one other theatrical feature film, "The Assam Garden" (1985). She didn't plan to retreat from the big screen in 1969 but was, she said, merely waiting for the next good part.

She found, however, that she was "either too young or too old" for the film roles that were offered to her, and she didn't want to do the kinds of movies that Hollywood had started making.

"Suddenly, everyone wanted explicit sex -- and far worse, explicit violence," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "And I didn't want to end up doing a succession of 'star cameo roles.' You know, nine lines in 'Towering Inferno' or 11 lines in "Airport 104' or whatever, just to be in a film."

Kerr returned to the London stage in 1972, in "The Day After the Fair," followed by a tour of the United States in the same play the following year.

She continued acting on stage over the years, appearing in, among other productions, "The Corn is Green" in London; Edward Albee's "Seascape" on Broadway; and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in Los Angeles. She also appeared in a number of TV and cable productions in the 1980s, including "Witness for the Prosecution," "A Woman of Substance," "Reunion at Fairborough" and "Hold the Dream."

In 1993, the popularity of the hit romantic comedy "Sleepless in Seattle" gave an unexpected boost to one of Kerr's most beloved movies, the 1957 tear-jerker "An Affair to Remember," a bittersweet love story co-starring Cary Grant.

In one scene, Meg Ryan, hoping to one day find Mr. Right, watches a video of "Affair" and sobs, "Those were the days when people knew how to be in love."

Said Kerr at the time: "I'm almost hysterical at the thought of making people cry with joy 30-odd years after Cary and I did our stuff. I've certainly shed tears at 'An Affair to Remember,' even though I know all the tricks of movie magic that went into it."

She added, "Believe me, Cary and I knew how to kiss. When we did a love scene, we may not have been trying to swallow each other but, for those brief moments, we just loved each other.

"I think I understand what women see in the movie. There is a sweetness that is appealing and far removed from today's crudities. It makes them realize that the world has lost something delightful."

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