Deborah Kerr, who died at the age of 86 in October 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” (i.e., desexualized) 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.
True, you most likely won’t find Deborah Kerr labeled a sex goddess anywhere, but that’s merely because her sexual allure, apart from the beach scene in From Here to Eternity, was hardly obvious.
Unlike overgrown little girls such as Marilyn Monroe, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield, or Brigitte Bardot, Kerr looked and acted like a mature woman even in her 20s. In other words, there was nothing kittenish about Deborah Kerr; she didn’t pout.
Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Lizabeth Scott, or Susan Sarandon, Kerr’s seething sensuality had nothing to do with sultriness, come-hither looks, or bare body parts.
Unlike Simone Simon, Jane Greer, the latter-day Barbara Stanwyck, and other (French or American) film noir dames, or Theda Bara and assorted film vamps of the last hundred years, Deborah Kerr wasn’t on screen solely to bring some horny dolt to ruin. To the contrary, her characters may have been sexually (and therefore socially) dangerous – very few of us can cope with the depths of erotic desire – but they were invariably sympathetic.
For Doris Day sex was gooey joke; for Mae West it was saucy joke, but a joke nonetheless. For Betty Grable it was a couple of shapely legs and lots of feathers (more recently, the same goes for Julia Roberts – minus the feathers). For Joan Bennett it was murder, her own or somebody else’s. For Greta Garbo and Anna Magnani it was all-consuming romantic passion.
For Ginger Rogers it was chewing gum. For Lana Turner it was a tight sweater and even tighter shorts. For the older Joan Crawford it was the castration of her male partner. For Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis it was a meaningless three-letter word. But for Deborah Kerr, it was sex, directly from the core, even if somewhere along the way to the surface that raw, unbridled energy got entangled in centuries of Don’t, It’s sinful, It’s wrong.
Kerr’s burning desires were oftentimes subtle, but they could be detected through quivering lips, a nervous hand gesture, an intense gaze – perhaps distraught, perhaps fearful, perhaps soulful. As a 10- or 11-year-old, I failed to notice those telling details, but it didn’t take me all that long to understand what was really going on inside the minds and bodies of Deborah Kerr’s poised and classy characters.
Considering how conflicted so many of her heroines were, it should come as no surprise that Kerr’s characters were quite frequently sexual outlaws, in thought if not necessarily in deed.
Deborah Kerr: Lured to sensual, macho men
First of all, Deborah Kerr’s refined women had a yen for sensual, macho men. In addition to the aforementioned The Proud and Profane, she fell for hunky, sweaty Stewart Granger in King Solomon’s Mines (1950). Six years later, she was filled with repressed attraction for Yul Brynner’s bald, bare-chested King of Siam – a non-white object of desire, to boot – in The King and I. And there were many others, in all different sorts of social, cultural, and psychological settings.
In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s stunning Black Narcissus (1946), Kerr is an Irish nun who, while at a monastery in the Himalayas, discovers that she has strong feelings – i.e., sexual urges – for a handsome, virile doctor played by David Farrar. Now, compare Kerr’s dark, torn performance in Black Narcissus – or in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), in which she plays a nun who lusts/has feelings for earthy Robert Mitchum – to Audrey Hepburn’s nun, pining for Peter Finch in Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (1959). Hepburn is excellent as the conflicted nun, but unlike Kerr she never comes across as a woman on the verge of an erotic breakdown.
Deborah Kerr movies: with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity
As an unhappily married woman having a torrid affair with an army officer shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Deborah Kerr is equally powerful in one of her best-remembered movies, From Here to Eternity (1953), stealing the romantic melodrama from her male co-stars. Fred Zinnemann’s Academy Award-winning blockbuster marked one of the rare times when Kerr’s physique played a part in her erotic persona, as she parades around Hawaii in Lana Turner-type shorts and frolics on the wet sand with brawny Burt Lancaster.
Less obvious is Kerr’s headmaster’s wife in Tea and Sympathy (1956), who, despite her discreet clothing and demeanor, ends up seducing one of her husband’s teenage students. It’s all for a good cause, of course – the “sensitive” adolescent thinks he may be gay – though it’s hardly the type of behavior society would look kindly upon. Additionally, Kerr makes it clear that she isn’t going to lie down with young and handsome John Kerr (no relation) merely out of charity.
But best (i.e., most dangerous) of all is her Christian governess in Jack Clayton’s superb The Innocents (1961), seeing ghosts and sexual misconduct everywhere. When the governess receives a good-night kiss on the lips from a pre-teen boy – who she suspects is having a ghost-induced incestuous relationship with his younger sister – Kerr’s look of shock, confusion, and hmmm… This feels good! is nothing short of masterful.
Most of Deborah Kerr’s other classy ladies also displayed socially dubious – if not downright unacceptable – characteristics and/or found themselves in (sexually) delicate circumstances.
Deborah Kerr: A Series of Sexually Delicate Events
In Perfect Strangers (1945) Kerr feels that her marriage to Robert Donat will be too dull after the excitement of the war effort. In I See a Dark Stranger (1946), she is an Irish spy wooed and pursued by Trevor Howard. In If Winter Comes (1947), she considers reigniting an affair with the now-married Walter Pidgeon. In Edward My Son (1949), she is Spencer Tracy’s alcoholic, sexually and emotionally frustrated wife, and neglectful mother to their reckless son. In Young Bess (1953), she has a ménage à trois of sorts with Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons (as Queen Elizabeth I). And in An Affair to Remember (1957), she has a memorable romantic liaison with Cary Grant while committed to another man.
Kerr becomes involved with aging playboy David Niven in Bonjour Tristesse (1958, right, with Jean Seberg), much to his daddy-fixated daughter’s dismay. That same year, she can also be found in love with Niven’s “sexually inappropriate” major in Separate Tables. As columnist Sheila Graham, she has an affair with married man (and alcoholic) Gregory Peck (as F. Scott Fitzgerald) in Beloved Infidel (1959).
There’s more: Deborah Kerr is a governess who may have been a murderess with lesbian tendencies in The Chalk Garden (1964). She is the object of desire of defrocked priest Richard Burton in The Night of the Iguana (1964). She uses contraception pills (or so she thinks) in Prudence and the Pill (1968). And is suicidal Kirk Douglas’ distant wife in The Arrangement (1969), in which her character has a discreet nude scene.
All that in addition to extra-marital liaisons with Van Johnson in The End of the Affair (1956) and Burt Lancaster in The Gypsy Moths (1969). In the latter film, Kerr appears bare-breasted in a sex scene. (A body double was supposedly used for the full nudity shot.)
Later on, in the television miniseries A Woman of Substance (1984) and its follow-up, the TV movie Follow the Dream (1986), Deborah Kerr played a former kitchen maid-turned-businesswoman who didn’t reach the top by being all chaste and poised along the way. (Jenny Seagrove played the character as a young woman.) And once at the top, Kerr’s tycoon does whatever she feels necessary to remain there.
Admittedly, Deborah Kerr didn’t create any of those characters all by herself. She did, however, bring them to life in ways that most performers, regardless of gender, would be either unwilling or unable to do. And even though Kerr once complained of her early “goody goody” roles, she surely knew what was going on inside those deceptively prim and proper women she played prior to From Here to Eternity. And just as surely, it was no coincidence that she would incarnate so many more such characters for the rest of her 45-year career.
Now, as much as I admire Elizabeth Taylor’s and Maggie Smith’s performances in, respectively, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), I wish Kerr had played the female leads in those two psychological dramas. In the former, as the blowsy, foul-mouthed, sexually and emotionally frustrated housewife, she would have let out what had been kept repressed in most of her other film roles; in the latter, as the strict, sexually repressed teacher and ardent Mussolini admirer, she would have had a role tailored to her screen persona.
Deborah Kerr: Perfect for Pasolini, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Almodóvar, Malle
With the appropriate change in settings, I could also see Deborah Kerr as the mother in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), being seduced by Terence Stamp’s mysterious visitor; as an older version of Catherine Deneuve’s kinky housewife in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967); as the beautiful mother inspiring lust in her teenage son in Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971); or, had it been made 10 or 20 years earlier, as a lawyer who gets turned on by murder in Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986).
Kerr would even have made Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) watchable. And had she starred in both Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) – in the James Stewart roles – perhaps those two movies would have merited all the praise that has been bestowed upon them.
Deborah Kerr’s extensive film legacy is unlike any other. On the surface, she was the epitome of class and propriety. Look closer, and you’ll find what lies beneath – be it the darkness inside her characters or the darkness inside ourselves.
Kerr’s women were dangerous because – like nearly all of us – they offered the world a veneer of propriety belying countless socially unacceptable urges. Those, in turn, could lead to a whole array of fates worse than death: social ostracism, emotional despair, psychological fragmentation, and scariest of all, facing up to one’s own inner core.
How many actresses could have been ideal heroines for Pasolini, Malle, Buñuel, Hitchcock, and Almodóvar, five disparate talents who have explored the hidden corners of human sexual desire?
Deborah Kerr was one.