Deborah Kerr’s first film role was in the British production Contraband in 1940, but her scenes were edited out. Her next two British films—Major Barbara and Love on the Dole (both 1941)—her screen future seemed assured and her performance, said James Agate of Love on the Dole, “is not within a mile of Wendy Hiller’s in the theatre, but it is a charming piece of work by a very pretty and promising beginner, so pretty and so promising that there is the usual yapping about a new star”. She went on to make Hatter’s Castle (1942), in which she starred opposite Robert Newton and James Mason, and then played a Norwegian resistance fighter in The Day Will Dawn (1942). She was an immediate hit with the public: British exhibitors voted her the most popular local female star at the box office.
In 1943, Deborah Kerr played three women in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger‘s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. During the filming, according to Powell’s autobiography, Powell and she became lovers: “I realised that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for”. Kerr made clear that her surname should be pronounced the same as “car”. To avoid confusion over pronunciation, Louis B. Mayer of MGM billed her as “Kerr rhymes with Star!”
Deborah’s first movie in Hollywood, “Edward my Son” gave her her first Academy Award nomination.
In Hollywood, Kerr’s British accent and manner led to a succession of roles portraying refined, reserved, and “proper” English ladies. Kerr, nevertheless, used any opportunity to discard her cool exterior. She starred in the 1950 adventure film King Solomon’s Mines, shot on location in Africa with Stewart Granger and Richard Carlson. This was immediately followed by her appearance in the religious epic Quo Vadis? (1951), shot at Cinecittà in Rome, in which she played the indomitable Lygia, a first-century Christian. She then played Princess Flavia in a remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (1952). In 1953, Kerr “showed her theatrical mettle” as Portia in Joseph Mankiewicz‘s Julius Caesar. She then departed from typecasting with a performance that brought out her sensuality, as “Karen Holmes”, the embittered military wife in Fred Zinnemann‘s From Here to Eternity (1953), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Thereafter, Kerr’s career choices would make her known in Hollywood for her versatility as an actress. She played the repressed wife in The End of the Affair (1955), with Van Johnson; a nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) opposite her long-time friend Robert Mitchum; a mama’s girl in Separate Tables (1958) opposite David Niven; and a governess in both The Chalk Garden (1964) and The Innocents (1961) where she plays a governess tormented by apparitions. She also portrayed an earthy Australian sheep-herder’s wife in The Sundowners (1960) and appeared as lustful and beautiful screen enchantresses in both Beloved Infidel (1959) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958).
Among her most famous roles were Anna Leonowens in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956); and opposite Cary Grant as his shipboard romantic interest Terry McKay in the bittersweet love story An Affair to Remember (1957). She reunited with Grant and Mitchum for a sophisticated comedy, The Grass Is Greener (1960), and then joined Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a love triangle for a romantic comedy, Marriage on the Rocks (1965).
In 1967, Kerr appeared in the comedy Casino Royale, achieving the distinction of being, at 46, the oldest “Bond Girl” in any James Bond film, until Monica Bellucci, at the age of 50, in Spectre (2015). In 1969, pressure of competition from younger, upcoming actresses made her agree to appear nude in John Frankenheimer‘s The Gypsy Moths, the only nude scene in her career. Concern about the parts being offered to her, as well as the increasing amount of nudity included in films, led her to abandon the medium at the end of the 1960s in favour of television and theatre work.
Deborah Kerr experienced a career resurgence on television in the early 1980s when she played the role of the nurse, played by Elsa Lanchester in the 1957 film, in Witness for the Prosecution. Later, Kerr rejoined screen partner Robert Mitchum in Reunion at Fairborough. She also took on the role of the older Emma Harte, a tycoon, in the adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford‘s A Woman of Substance. For this performance, Kerr was nominated for an Emmy Award.