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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