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Kerr in 1973, by Allan Warren
|Born||Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer
30 September 1921
Helensburgh, Scotland, UK
|Died||16 October 2007 (aged 86)
Botesdale, Suffolk, England, UK
|St Mary's Church, Redgrave|
Kerr was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Actress, but never won. In 1994, however, having already received honorary awards from the Cannes Film Festival and BAFTA, she received an Academy Honorary Award with a citation recognising her as "an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance". As well as The King and I, her films include An Affair to Remember, From Here to Eternity, Quo Vadis, The Innocents, Black Narcissus, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, King Solomon's Mines, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Sundowners and Separate Tables.
Early lifeDeborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer was born in a private nursing home (hospital) in Glasgow, the only daughter of Kathleen Rose (née Smale) and Capt. Arthur Charles Kerr-Trimmer, a World War I veteran who lost a leg at the Battle of the Somme and later became a naval architect and civil engineer. She spent the first three years of her life in the nearby town of Helensburgh, where her parents lived with Deborah's grandparents in a house on West King Street. Kerr had a younger brother, Edmund ("Teddy"), who became a journalist. He was killed in a road rage incident in 2004.
Kerr was educated at the independent Northumberland House School, Henleaze, Bristol (the school was demolished in 1937), and at Rossholme School, Weston-super-Mare. Kerr originally trained as a ballet dancer, first appearing on stage at Sadler's Wells in 1938. After changing careers, she soon found success as an actress. Her first acting teacher was her aunt, Phyllis Smale, who ran the Hicks-Smale Drama School in Bristol. She adopted the name Deborah Kerr on becoming a film actress ("Kerr" was a family name going back to the maternal grandmother of her grandfather Arthur Kerr-Trimmer).
TheatreKerr's first stage appearance was at Weston-super-Mare in 1937, as "Harlequin" in the mime play Harlequin and Columbine. She then went to the Sadler's Wells ballet school and in 1938 made her début in the corps de ballet in Prometheus. After various walk-on parts in Shakespeare productions at the Open-Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London, she joined the Oxford Playhouse repertory company in 1940, playing, inter alia, "Margaret" in Dear Brutus and "Patty Moss" in The Two Bouquets.
In 1943, aged 21, Kerr made her West End début as "Ellie Dunn" in a revival of Heartbreak House at the Cambridge Theatre, stealing attention from stalwarts such as Edith Evans and Isabel Jeans. "She has the rare gift", wrote critic Beverley Baxter, "of thinking her lines, not merely remembering them. The process of development from a romantic, silly girl to a hard, disillusioned woman in three hours was moving and convincing".
It was to be 29 years before Deborah Kerr returned to the London stage, and then in such unremarkable and occasional productions as an old-fashioned weepie, The Day After the Fair (Lyric, 1972), a Peter Ustinov comedy, Overheard (Haymarket, 1981) and a revival of Emlyn Williams's The Corn is Green. After her first London success in 1943, she toured England and Scotland in Heartbreak House. Near the end of the Second World War she also toured Holland, France and Belgium for Ensa as "Mrs Manningham" in Angel Street, and Britain (with Stewart Granger) in Gaslight.
Having established herself as a film actress in the meantime, she made her Broadway debut in 1953, appearing in Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Kerr repeated her role along with her stage partner John Kerr (no relation) in Vincente Minnelli's film adaptation of the drama. In 1955, Kerr won the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance in Chicago during a national tour of the play. After her Broadway début in 1953, she toured the United States with Tea and Sympathy. In 1975, she returned to Broadway, creating the role of Nancy in Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Seascape.
The theatre, despite her success in films, was always to remain Kerr's first love, even though going on stage filled her with trepidation:
I do it because it's exactly like dressing up for the grown ups. I don't mean to belittle acting but I'm like a child when I'm out there performing—shocking the grownups, enchanting them, making them laugh or cry. It's an unbelievable terror, a kind of masochistic madness. The older you get, the easier it should be but it isn't.
FilmsContraband in 1940 but her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. With 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, she 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, she and Powell 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!"
Although the British Army refused to co-operate with the producers – and Winston Churchill thought the film would ruin wartime morale – Kerr's next film, Colonel Blimp, confounded critics when it proved to be an artistic and commercial success. Powell hoped to reunite Kerr and lead actor Roger Livesey in his next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), but her agent had sold her contract to MGM. According to Powell, his affair with Kerr ended when she made it clear to him that she would accept an offer to go to Hollywood if one were made.
Her role as a troubled nun in Black Narcissus in 1947 brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers. The film was a hit in the US as well as the UK and Kerr won the New York Film Critics' Award as Actress of the Year. British exhibitors voted her the eighth most-popular local star at the box office.
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 the very royal "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 (1953). 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. The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which she and Burt Lancaster romped illicitly and passionately amidst crashing waves on a Hawaii beach. The organisation ranked it twentieth in its list of the 100 most romantic films of all time.
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 (1956) opposite David Niven; and a governess in both The Chalk Garden and The Innocents (1961). She also portrayed an earthy Australian sheep-herder's wife in The Sundowners and appeared as lustful and beautiful screen enchantresses in both Beloved Infidel and Bonjour Tristesse. She made two comedies: The Grass Is Greener and Marriage on the Rocks.
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 in An Affair to Remember (1957). In 1966, the producers of Carry On Screaming! offered her a fee comparable to that paid to the rest of the cast combined, but she turned it down in favour of appearing in an aborted stage version of Flowers for Algernon.
In 1967, Kerr starred in Casino Royale, achieving the distinction of being, at 46, the oldest "Bond Girl" in any James Bond film. In 1969, the pressure of competition from younger 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.
TelevisionKerr 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 movie – 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.
Personal lifeRoyal Air Force Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley on 29 November 1945. They had two daughters, Melanie Jane (born 27 December 1947) and Francesca Ann (born 20 December 1951 and subsequently married to the actor John Shrapnel). The marriage was troubled, owing to Bartley's jealousy of his wife's fame and financial success and because her career often took her away from home. They divorced in 1959.
Her second marriage was to author Peter Viertel on 23 July 1960. In marrying Viertel, she became stepmother to Viertel's daughter, Christine Viertel. Although she long resided in Klosters, Switzerland and Marbella, Spain, she moved back to Britain to be closer to her own children as her health began to deteriorate. Her husband, however, continued to live in Marbella.
DeathKerr died on 16 October 2007 in Botesdale, a village in Suffolk, England, from the effects of Parkinson's disease. She was 86. Less than three weeks later, on 4 November, her husband Peter Viertel died of cancer. At the time of Viertel's death, director Michael Scheingraber was filming the documentary Peter Viertel: Between the Lines which he has stated will include reminiscences about events concerning Kerr and the American Academy Awards. The film is as yet (2010) unreleased. She is buried in the cemetery in the village of Alfold, Surrey.
HonoursOrder of the British Empire (CBE) in 1998, but was unable to accept the honour in person because of ill health. She was also honoured in Hollywood, where, for her contributions to the motion picture industry, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1709 Vine Street.
Kerr won a Golden Globe Award for "Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy" for The King and I in 1957 and a Henrietta Award for "World Film Favorite – Female". She was the first performer to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for "Best Actress" three times (1947, 1957 and 1960).
Although she never won a BAFTA, Oscar or Cannes Film Festival award in a competitive category, all three organisations gave Kerr honorary awards: a Cannes Film Festival Tribute in 1984; a BAFTA Special Award in 1991; and an Academy Honorary Award in 1994.
In September and October 2010, Josephine Botting of the British Film Institute curated the "Deborah Kerr Season", which included around twenty of her feature films and an exhibition of posters, memorabilia and personal items loaned by her family.
Biographies of Kerr have been published by Eric Braun and, in 2010, by the entertainment journalist Michelangelo Capua, but she has yet to receive an in-depth study of her filmography, artistry or life.
Award nominationsDeborah Kerr was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Actress: 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). She received one Academy Honorary Award for her career in 1994.
She was also nominated four times for the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress: The End of the Affair (1955), Tea and Sympathy (1956), The Sundowners (1961) and The Chalk Garden (1964).
She received one Emmy Award nomination in 1985 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special for A Woman of Substance. She was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for Edward, My Son (1949), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and Separate Tables (1958).
|1940||Contraband||Bit (scenes deleted)||UK release|
|1941||Major Barbara||Jenny Hill||UK release|
|Love on the Dole||Sally||UK release|
|1942||Penn of Pennsylvania||Gulielma Maria Springett||US title: Courageous Mr. Penn|
|Hatter's Castle||Mary Brodie|
|The Day Will Dawn||Kari Alstad||US title: The Avengers|
|A Battle for a Bottle||Linda (voice)||Animated short|
|1943||The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp||Edith Hunter
|1945||Perfect Strangers||Catherine Wilson||US title: Vacation From Marriage|
|1946||I See a Dark Stranger||Bridie Quilty||US title: The Adventuress
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (and Black Narcissus)
|1947||Black Narcissus||Sister Clodagh||UK release
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (and I See a Dark Stranger)
|The Hucksters||Kay Dorrance|
|If Winter Comes||Nona Tybar|
|1949||Edward, My Son||Evelyn Boult||Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated for Golden Globe Award – Best Actress (Drama)
|1950||Please Believe Me||Alison Kirbe|
|King Solomon's Mines||Elizabeth Curtis|
|1952||The Prisoner of Zenda||Princess Flavia|
|Thunder in the East||Joan Willoughby|
|1953||Young Bess||Catherine Parr|
|From Here to Eternity||Karen Holmes||Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress|
|1955||The End of the Affair||Sarah Miles||Nominated for BAFTA Award – Best Actress (British)|
|1956||The Proud and Profane||Lee Ashley|
|The King and I||Anna Leonowens||Singing dubbed by Marni Nixon
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
|Tea and Sympathy||Laura Reynolds||Nominated for BAFTA Award – Best Actress (British)|
|1957||Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison||Sister Angela||Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated for Golden Globe Award – Best Actress (Drama)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
|An Affair to Remember||Terry McKay|
|Kiss Them for Me||Gwinneth Livingston||Uncredited (dubbed voice of Suzy Parker in a few scenes)|
|1958||Bonjour Tristesse||Anne Larsen|
|Separate Tables||Sibyl Railton-Bell||Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated for Golden Globe Award – Best Actress (Drama)
|1959||The Journey||Diana Ashmore|
|Count Your Blessings||Grace Allingham|
|Beloved Infidel||Sheilah Graham|
|1960||The Sundowners||Ida Carmody||Nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated for BAFTA Award – Best Actress (British)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
|The Grass Is Greener||Lady Hilary Rhyall|
|1961||The Naked Edge||Martha Radcliffe||UK release|
|The Innocents||Miss Giddens||UK release|
|1964||On the Trail of the Iguana||Herself||UK promotional short|
|The Chalk Garden||Miss Madrigal||Nominated for BAFTA Award – Best Actress (British)|
|The Night of the Iguana||Hannah Jelkes|
|1965||Marriage on the Rocks||Valerie Edwards||UK release|
|1966||Eye of the Devil||Catherine de Montfaucon||UK release|
|1967||Casino Royale||Agent Mimi
Lady Fiona McTarry
|1968||Prudence and the Pill||Prudence Hardcastle||UK release|
|1969||The Gypsy Moths||Elizabeth Brandon||US release|
|The Arrangement||Florence Anderson||US release|
|1982||"A Song at Twilight"||Carlotta Gray||BBC2 Playhouse episode (TV)|
|Witness for the Prosecution||Nurse Plimsoll|
|1984||A Woman of Substance||Emma Harte||UK TV mini-series
Nominated for Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Special
|1985||The Assam Garden||Helen||UK release|
|Reunion at Farnborough||Sally Wells Grant||UK television film|
|1986||Hold the Dream||Emma Harte||UK TV mini-series|