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IN MEMORIAM

Obituary Profiles of Entertainment Industry Figures And The Legacies They Leave Behind


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Deborah Kerr: Cinema's Class Act

 Cary Grant + Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBERCary Grant + Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER

Thursday, October 18-------Today we have lost one of the best, and a personal favorite of mine. Actress Deborah Kerr, who shared one of cinema's most intimate moments on a sea swept Hawaii beach in the clutches of Burt Lancaster in the Oscar winning film FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) has died at the age of 86. She spent her last years in rural England, suffering from Parkinson's  Disease. Although nominated six times for the Academy Award for taboo-shattering roles in the 1950s and 1960s, Kerr never won the coveted Award. However, she was honored by the Academy in 1994 for her "impeccable grace and beauty, perfect, discipline and elegance."

She was never a showy performer. In fact, in a 1950s of blond bombshells, her patrician beauty and soft-spoken manner gave her an allure of class, even when she played the unhappy, slightly sluttish wife of an Army officer in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. She excelled at playing forceful, though sometimes frustrated women in such role as a sexually repressed nun in BLACK NARCISSUS (1948), a lonely faculty wife in TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956, reprising a role she originated on the Broadway stage) and as the proper English schoolteacher in the film version of the Rodgers and  Hammerstein classic THE KING AND I (1956). Her intense acting style and touch-of-class polish pushed the limits of Hollywood's treatment of women and sexuality on the screen during the censor-bound 1950s.

Deborah Kerr was born in 1921, the only daughter of a civil engineer and architect who died when she was 14. Raised in Scotland, she moved to England in her teenage years, when she started to study dance in the Bristol school of her aunt. Kerr won a scholarship to study ballet in London, and made her stage debut in 1938 at the age of 17. She soon switched to drama, and began playing small parts in repertory theater in London until war broke out in 1939. 

Her first film role was a reprise of a role she had done on the stage, the part of a Salvation Army worker in the 1940 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's satire MAJOR BARBARA (1940). She continued making films in Britain during the war, including one, COLONEL BLIMP (1944), in which she played three different women over a span of decades. In 1946, she was invited to Hollywood by Metro Goldwyn Mayer to play opposite Clark Gable in THE HUCKSTERS, and thus began her Hollywood career of 30 years. She was typecast in her early Hollywood films as the uptight English lady, and successfully won a release from her MGM contract to take the role of Karen Holmes, the unhappy and sexually predatory Army wife in the adaptation of James Jones' Pearl Harbor novel, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953). The film was a huge hit and it opened up new possibilites for the actress. In THE KING AND I (1956), her singing was eventually dubbed by Marni Nixon, but her acting performance was so strong (especially against the scenery chewing antics of Yul Brynner as the King of Siam), that she won an Academy Award nomination for the role anyway. Her other Best Actress nominations included EDWARD, MY SON (1949), FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957), SEPERATE TABLES (1958) and THE SUNDOWNERS (1960).

One of her most memorable roles was as the sympathetic faculty wife who has a sexual liaison with an awkward, sexually ambiguous student in the adaptation of her Broadway success, TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956). The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, was a taboo-breaker in the repressed 1950s, with its insinuations of homosexuality and the adulterous decision of the married wife to sleep with the male student as an act of kindness. It has since become a verifiable early gay classic. Other notable roles included her melodramatic turn as a woman who misses out on love with co-star Cary Grant in the 1958 weepie AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, BELOVED INFIDEL (1961), THE INNOCENTS (1962, an adaptation of the Henry James novella ''Turn of the Screw''), 'the John Huston-directed adaptation of Tennessee Williams'  THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) and THE ARRANGEMENT (1968), the flop adaptation by director Elia Kazan of his steamy novel of a crumbling marriage. After this last film, Kerr took what she called a ''leave of absence'' from acting, saying she felt she was ''either too young or too old'' for any role she was offered. Over the years, she turned down a number of scripts, either for being too explicit or because of excessive violence.

Most of her later work was on the New York and London stage, when she starred in the Pulitzer Prize winning production of Edward Albee's SEASCAPE on Broadway and as the drug-addicted mother in a Los Angeles stage version of Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. She also acted in television films until the mid 1980s. She is survived by her long-time husband novelist-screenwriter Peter Viertel , two daughters and three grandchildren. Those looking for a master class on the fine art of film acting should go out tonight and rent the movies of Deborah Kerr, a class act.

Sandy Mandelberger, In Memoriam Editor

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Mandelberger Sandy
(International Media Resources)

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IN MEMORIAM

Obituary Profiles of Entertainment Industry Figures And The Legacies They Leave Behind


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