`Eternity' actress, Oscar honoree

Deborah Kerr 1921-2007

October 19, 2007|By Dennis McLellan | Dennis McLellan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Deborah Kerr, the acclaimed British actress whose versatile talent and refined screen persona made her one of Hollywood's top leading ladies in the 1950s in films such as From Here to Eternity, The King and I and An Affair to Remember, has died. She was 86.

Ms. Kerr, who in recent years had Parkinson's disease, died Tuesday in Suffolk, eastern England, her agent said yesterday.

In a screen career that was launched in the early 1940s, Ms. Kerr received six best actress Academy Award nominations. She received an honorary Oscar in 1994 for her body of work in films that also included Tea and Sympathy, Beloved Infidel and The Night of the Iguana.

The Scotland-born actress, who began her film career in England in 1940 and had been in 10 films before going to Hollywood, was the postwar personification of the British gentlewoman.

Indeed, when she arrived in Hollywood after playing a nun in the British film Black Narcissus, she not only was preceded by her reputation as a lady but for being, in the words of Laurence Olivier, "unreasonably chaste."

But Ms. Kerr memorably shattered her ladylike image in 1953 with From Here to Eternity, in which she played a U.S. Army officer's adulterous wife who has an affair with a first sergeant played by Burt Lancaster.

Her performance as the disillusioned Karen Holmes not only showed audiences a different side of Ms. Kerr, but the film contains one of the most memorable scenes in screen history: Ms. Kerr and Mr. Lancaster locked in a passionate embrace on a deserted Hawaiian beach as a wave washes over them.

"That certainly shook a few people up," Ms. Kerr said of her image-breaking role in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

"Yes, people always think I'm the epitome of the English gentlewoman," she said, "which just goes to show that things are never quite what they seem."

When the actress met MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer for the first time in 1947, she was introduced as "Miss Deborah Kerr - it rhymes with car." To which Mr. Mayer is said to have responded, "It rhymes with star." The studio used the phrase in promoting her.

Over the next four years, she appeared in films such as Quo Vadis, Julius Caesar, King Solomon's Mines, The Prisoner of Zenda, Young Bess and Edward, My Son.

Then came From Here to Eternity.

For the role, Ms. Kerr took voice training to sound American. She also bleached her hair blond. "I knew I could be sexy if I had to," she later said.

She later recalled that the producers took a long time searching for the right beach to film her famous love scene.

"It had to have rocks in the distance, so the water could strike the boulders and shoot upward - all very symbolic," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. "The scene turned out to be deeply affecting on film, but, God, it was no fun to shoot.

"We had to time it for the waves, so that at just the right moment a big one would come up and wash over us. Most of the waves came up only to our feet, but we needed one that would come up all the way. We were like surfers, waiting for the perfect wave. Between each take, we had to do a total cleanup. When it was all over, we had four tons of grit in our mouths - and other places."

In 1953, Ms. Kerr made her Broadway debut in the critically acclaimed drama Tea and Sympathy. She played the wife of a housemaster at a boys' school who befriends a sensitive 17- year-old student falsely labeled by his classmates as homosexual.

In the play's famous climactic scene, Ms. Kerr's character enters the room of the boy, whose emotional distress has increased after a failed sexual encounter with the town tart to prove his manliness. Undoing the top button of her blouse, she reaches out for the boy's hand and sits down on his bed.

"Years from now, when you talk about this - and you will - be kind," she said as the stage lights dimmed.

Elia Kazan, the play's director, later wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, that the play's ending produced the "awed silence that comes when the audience is deeply moved. There is nothing so eloquent and so heartening. When we had that, I knew we were going to run a long time."

Ms. Kerr reprised her role in the reworked and much-censored 1956 film version of the play. On screen the same year, she played another of her memorable roles, Anna, the governess in The King and I, opposite Yul Brynner.

After co-starring in Mr. Kazan's 1969 film The Arrangement, Ms. Kerr made only one other feature film, The Assam Garden (1985). She didn't plan to retreat from the big screen in 1969 but was, she said, merely waiting for the next good part.

Dennis McLellan writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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