Donald Spoto – 1950’s
Nominated six times for the Best Actress award, Deborah Kerr lived with her first husband, Anthony Bartley, in a Pacific Palisades house they bought not long after settling in the United States following World War II.
She is an actress of immaculate delicacy and a woman who is kind, understanding, sensitive, wise, funny and very bright,” said director Elia Kazan. “No one could help falling in love with her.” For two decades after World War lI, audiences did just that-until Deborah Kerr’s warm elegance, emotional accessibility and dignified poise were suddenly and sadly considered unfashionable. To her enduring credit, she quite simply represents another era.
Born in Scotland in 1921, Deborah Jane Kerr Trimmer studied drama and acting at her aunt’s school in Bristol, England, and won a scholarship to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in whose corps she made her London debut at seventeen. She soon became more interested in the theater, however, and after several supporting roles in various classical stage productions she was noticed by film studios; her first screen appearance was as a Salvation’ Army lass in Shaw’s Majar Barbara (1941). Kerr’s impressive portrait of a devout but haunted English nun in Black Narcissus (1946) won the New York Film Critics Award and brought her wider acclaim. Before long she was in Hollywood, where she at once caused a stir of admiration and emulation-especially for her portrait of Spencer Tracy’s emotionally battered wife in Edward, My Son (1949). That role earned her the first of six Academy Award nominations for best performance by an actress.
During the next four years, she was in constant demando Kerr’s pellucid skin, liquid voice, auburn hair and aristocratic carriage graced King Solomon’s Mines, Qua Vadis?, The Prisoner of Zenda and Julius Caesar. But her refinement never typecast her. On the contrary, her portrayal of an eager adulteress in From Here to Eternity
”Although [the house] looked very Californian from the outside, inside it was English,” she once wrote.
(1957), this time shipwrecked on a desert island yet capable of retaining both her humor and virginity despite the presence of a boozy nonbeliever (played by Robert Mitchum); a neuro tic spinster in Separa te Tables (1958), mother-dominated until she meets a man as marginal as she is and begins to recognize her own squandered emotions; then two more governessesthe first perhaps selfless (but just as likely demented) in The Innocents (1961), the second enigmatic, vulnerable but finally heroic in The Chalk Carden (1964); and a saintly artist dispensing herb tea and spiritual counsel to a defrocked and dipsomaniacal cleric (Richard Burton) in The Night of the Iguana (1964). To each of these roles she brought a supple gravity, her equanimity and inner discernment implying depths beyond the obvious glamour she wore so unself-consciously.
But Deborah Kerr’s talents were not limited to films; she was equally impressive on the stage. In 1953 she departed Hollywood for Broadway, where she created the role of the neglected, lonely and compassionate Laura Reynolds in Robert Anderson’s drama Tea and Sympathy (her performance is preserved in the 1956 film).
(1953) further confirmed her range and depth, for the incoming tide could neither detach her from the arms of Burt Lancaster nor interrupt their languorous lovemaking on the beach-a scene that has become a virtual icon and that, entirely because of the actors, is credible in spite of itself.
Throughout the next decade, she continued to create an album of astonishingly varied women: the patient but insistent governess in The King and I(1956), in which she taught Yul Brynner to waltz; another savvy nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.
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