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Deborah Kerr: What Lies Beneath

Deborah Kerr hot From Here to Eternity Burt Lancaster beach scene
Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity. With Deborah Kerr, it's not the bare shoulders that matter. It's the eyes.

Deborah KerrDeborah Kerr, who died at the age of 86 on Oct. 16, 2007, has usually been labeled the cinematic embodiment of the English Rose: ladylike from coiffure to pedicure, perfectly enunciated English, a distinctive coolness, poise and class.

I won't argue with that description (except to point out that this English Rose was born in Scotland), but all the same I wonder if any of those labelers have ever watched Deborah Kerr on screen other than the “Shall We Dance?” sequence in The King and I.

Then there are those who have seen two Deborah Kerr scenes: “Shall We Dance?” and the kissing-on-the-beach bit in From Here to Eternity.

Shocking! Who would have guessed that the cool, red-headed British lady could be so fiery?

Well, anyone who has paid any attention to Deborah Kerr's performances in most of her movies, whether before or after her Hawaiian beach frolics.

At an early age, when I first saw Deborah Kerr on film – a television showing of the aforementioned The King and I, or perhaps in John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – I was impressed by her class, her gentility, her looks, her warmth, and her boundless honesty as a performer.

From then on, I made a point of watching as many of Kerr's films as I could get my hands on. In fact, she quickly became one of my top half-dozen or so performers; one who, like fellow favorites Edward G. Robinson, Claude Rains, Anna Magnani, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Pierre Fresnay, Vivien Leigh, Barbara Stanwyck, was just about incapable of giving a poor performance. (I am good with math, even though my list of half-dozen favorites includes about two dozen names.)

Deborah Kerr: Dangerous Undercurrent

As I matured, I came to realize that a strong – often dangerous – undercurrent of emotions, yearnings, and desires was running beneath that genteel surface. Deborah Kerr exuded class, that is indisputable; but she also happened to be one of the most emotionally and sexually complex screen performers, whether female or male. That is what made her so compelling.

“Why does this gentle, sensitive widow who we are led to believe was in love with her […] husband conceive an interest in an arrogant, militaristic boor?” New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther inquired about Kerr's war nurse falling for William Holden's “rough, tough, ruthless major” in George Seaton's 1956 melodrama The Proud and Profane. “What hunger in her delicate well-bred being fatally forces her to him – other than the obvious three-letter hunger …?"

Indeed, Kerr's particular brand of female complexity has been relatively rare on film. Patrician women – think Greer Garson (Kerr's English Lady predecessor at MGM), Irene Dunne, Madeleine Carroll, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly – have generally been either asexual or sexually unthreatening, their sensuality bowdlerized either in the screenplay or in the editing room.

Particularly in American movies, most actresses who have played sympathetic characters – including Hollywood's wide array of “family friendly” sex symbols – have displayed charm, humor, pathos, and, at times, romantic yearning, but little-to-no raw erotic hunger. Think Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Olivia de Havilland, Myrna Loy, Joan Fontaine, Jeanne Crain, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine (her happy hookers were thoroughly desexualized), Kim Novak, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep.

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12 Comments to Deborah Kerr: What Lies Beneath

  1. Andre

    @Dom S.

    No, that was Kim Hunter.

  2. Dom S.

    Did Deborah Kerr appear in the 1946 movie “Stairway to Heaven”?

  3. Andre'

    Hey Gaurav,
    First of all, thanks for writing. Glad you enjoyed the Deborah Kerr post.
    Now, what about Deborah Kerr replacing Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” or “Under Capricorn,” or “Spellbound”? Quite a bit of “repressed emotion” in those movies, no?
    I think Alec Guinness was a brilliant actor. But really, most actors then (and now) tend to play the same types of roles over and over again. It's relatively rare for someone to break the mold, try something new, and fully succeed (careerwise) at it. Barbara Stanwyck comes to mind. Joan Bennett, too. There haven't been many others, I don't think.
    Thanks again for writing and sharing your thoughts.

  4. Gaurav

    An excellent post, though I don't agree with all of your conclusions. Nonetheless, I enjoyed your article and your conclusions were well argued. I however can't see Deborah Kerr as taking on the role in any of Hitchcock's films, since Hitchcock's women tend to be (usually) cold, statuesque blondes which Deb certainly isn't – she has far too much repressed emotion that simmers beneath.
    However, I can see her in some of Hitch's greatest (and consequently least known) films such as The Wrong Man and Shadow of a Doubt where Vera Miles also did an excellent job. Of course, the above two films are my personal favourites and I daresay, not everyone's cup of tea but I find them more interesting than Vertigo, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, etc among others.
    It would have been interesting if any of male roles had been substituted for a female role as you mentioned, but that would have been far too radical and consequently would've run into trouble. In place of James Stewart I can think of any number of fine actors such as James Mason, Ronald Colman (10 years younger), etc.
    And lastly, I just wanted to comment on stereotyping – Deb was seen as the personification of the English rose. Sadly, at least one other actor suffered from a similar case of stereotyping – Alec Guinness.
    Alec Guinness was either the (stereo)typical British gentleman in Lean's films or a fixture in Ealing comedies. My own feeling is that, like Deb, although in a very different way, there was much more to him that the roles he played and if given the opportunity, I feel that his true talent could have been expressed to its fullest.
    I'd be interested in hearing your opinion regarding this.

  5. Andre'

    Hey, Karen,
    Thanks very much for writing.
    I gotta rewatch THE JOURNEY. It's been a while. I can't remember those subtleties you mention. I should also check out THE CHALK GARDEN once again. It's been a while as well…
    And yes, Deborah Kerr in “Virginia Woolf” and “Miss Jean Brodie.” I could think of a few other titles as well… I love Peggy Ashcroft in A PASSAGE TO INDIA, but I wonder what Kerr could have brought to that role. Kerr, in fact, would have been sensational in the Judy Davis role had A PASSAGE TO INDIA been made 30 years earlier.

  6. Karen Churn

    Oh, and “The Journey” is another one that is absolutely fabulous. There was this smoldering thing between her and Yul Brynner that was pretty mesmerizing. They do not make them like that anymore.

  7. Karen Churn

    I just found this article a couple of days ago and was delighted that someone else saw what I truly love about the lovely Miss Kerr. I'm in the process of viewing all of her movies (I think that I've seen nearly 40 in six weeks!) and her talent was phenomenal. I'm now a HUGE fan. All you have to do is pay attention to her eyes and what she did with her those lovely, delicate hands to get a feel for what is really going on inside the different characters she played. I can't get enough of “The Chalk Garden”, “The Night of the Iguana”, Tea and Sympathy” and “Black Narcissus”. All four, I think, have that undercurrent of the “danger” you write about that is truly powerful. Although, I have to admit that I didn't get the same impression that you did regarding “The Chalk Garden”. However, I agree wholehearted about how exciting it would have been to see her in “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” even though I'm a huge Maggie Smith fan as well. Great article even if I am four years late in reading it.

  8. marina

    If you want to see one of the more believable erotic screen kisses ,then watch 'The Journey' with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner
    - An overlooked gem of a film-I think its one of her best performances and definitely his- in russian forsooth! -Their chemistry is intense
    and Yul Brynner in black leather-what else is there
    If you cant find the film then just watch the kiss http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGSUL9m5hcw

  9. Andre'

    Hey, Marcus,
    Thanks for the comment.
    Sex in movies — especially American movies — have usually been shown as something deadly (gotta pay for your sins) or something cute/funny. Deborah kerr didn't do sex either way. Gotta love her for that.
    Once the AFI FEST is over, I'll check out “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” I wonder what Kerr has to offer in that one.
    Now, “Vertigo” I found overlong and superficial; “Rear Window” I found much too conventional. And they both star a — in my view — woefully miscast James Stewart. He all but ruins both movies for me.
    Someone like James Mason — or Deborah Kerr — would have been much better in those two films. (Imagine Deborah Kerr obsessed with Kim Novak or having a relationship with Grace Kelly. Beautiful coupling.)
    Eva Marie Saint always came across as a warm actress. (I've seen her in person. She's very effusive and chatty.) But in Hitchcock's “North by Northwest” she plays a cool blonde. Deborah Kerr was an outstanding actress. If she could be convincing as a rural Australian woman (in “The Sundowners”), I'd say she could surely play a cool blonde for Hitchcock.
    In addition to the James Stewart roles, she could have played the “spy” in “Notorious.” She'd have been much better than Ingrid Bergman. Same in “Under Capricorn” or “Spellbound.”
    In fact, I could picture Kerr in just about every Hitchcock film, from the mousy “I” de Winter to any (or all) of the characters in “Family Plot.” (Note: I must admit that I can't picture Deborah Kerr singing “Que Sera Sera,” but she could easily have played James Stewart's role in that film.)
    Russell Crowe sexy? Hmmm… I think I'd rather look at Jane Russell or Gail Russell or Theresa Russell or Rosalind Russell or even Ken Russell.

  10. Marcus Tucker

    Thank goodness, I was begining to think I was the only person to think of Kerr as sexy rather than a “great lady”. She was even a sexy nun. I think her sex appeal was really natural, she just always
    seemed like a real woman and not like an actress trying to play a real woman. I also agree with you about the sexless sex icons in films. Marilyn Monroe has sex appeal but is was usually one
    dimensional in her films, like most sex icons, Marilyn was cute but she only came across to me as sexy in a few films, one of those being the THE MISFITS. The longing liquid eyes did it for me rather then the undulating curves.
    But I just can't see Kerr in a Hitchcock film. It's just so hard to envision, not that she wouldn't be good, but definately (as early as the 30?s) had a type and she wasn't it at all. Not a frozen beauty,
    but from the obituraries in the Associated press you'd be inclined to think so. Under another director I can picture her in some of those
    roles, but Hitchcock had a love of the statuesque frozen beauty. Kerr was much too warm and inviting. Although I am curious as to what you find lacking in VERTIGO & REAR WINDOW aside from Jimmy Stewart;)
    I think Deborah represented sex in real life.
    Back to the sex goddesses of the silver screen I agree with you about their limitations a child-women, vamps, frozen glamour goddesses and such. I love Marlene Dietrich but she was stuck in one persona (but WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION & TOUCH OF EVIL prove her range) I think actors like to be comfortable, but a few mavericks in Hollywood like
    to challenge themselves. Only a few *sigh*. More Meryl less Russell(I should have another Oscar) Crowe. Wasn't he better before he won? And sexier?

  11. Andre'

    Hey, David,
    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the Deborah tribute and “Beyond Paradise.” (I couldn't put it down, either — you know, if you have a deadline you gotta deliver…)
    (And thanks for letting me know about the problems with the editor at altfg dot com address. I'll look into that.)
    More details via private e-mail.

  12. David Hammon

    I enjoyed your tribute to Deborah Kerr almost as much as your book, Beyond Paradise, I couldn't put it down. How can I get my copy signed? I would gladly send it to you and include return postage etc. I tried contacting you via editor at altfg dot com but it comes bad as a bad address, thanks David