Monday, April 9, 2012

Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr is my favorite actress. Extremely talented and stunningly beautiful, she appeared in some of my favorite films. Of course, they may be favorites because she was in them. A six-time Best Actress nominee, she never won a competitive Oscar. That's the record for women, surpassed on the men's side by only Peter O'Toole with eight unsuccessful nominations, and Richard Burton with seven.

Kerr was much sought after. She always added prestige to a film, appearing in 7 over the course of her career that were nominated for Best Picture, and several others that could have been. She worked with the best directors and most of the best actors--the lucky ones at least. She never had to rely on just her beauty to get through a performance and could show great expression and emotion with her eyes. Best of all, she just seemed nice. You always left a film of hers with the thought that there is a person I wouldn't mind knowing in real life. And there's that gorgeous red hair.

Deborah Kerr 

I've never paid much attention to Oscars. At the core, the awards are out of the actor's control; and how do you really compare performances across different genres anyway? They're subject to all kinds of influences that shouldn't play in the vote at all, but do. Too political, often reliant on timing or the issue of the day, and maybe most egregiously, too dependent on how the studios try to manipulate the outcome with publicity campaigns and such. That last factor seems especially prevalent during the Classic Film era. Still, you'd like your favorites to get the recognition.

Anyway, here's a review of each of Deborah Kerr's nominated roles.

Already a rising star thanks to terrific work in Black Narcissus (1947), Kerr secured her first nomination in 1949 as Evelyn Voult, the mother of an irresponsible son in George Cukor's Edward, My Son. Her husband is played by Spencer Tracy, an unlikable scoundrel, an adulterer who too easily engages in insurance fraud to finance an operation for their spoiled son. Evelyn soon is unhappy, unloved, and eventually struggles with alcohol as her husband's behaviour grows more nasty.

Of her six nominations, this is easily my least favorite film of the bunch. Her performance seems over-wrought at times, especially when slurring words as a sloppy drunk at the end. She had plenty of far better work in films that were not nominated. Tracy gets the lion's share of screen time here. Overall, the whole thing is too melodramatic and unsatisfying.   

It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Being a first-time nominee is always difficult, but more importantly, Kerr was up against one of the greatest performances in American film history, that year's winner, Olivia de Havilland from The Heiress.

Kerr's second chance for an Oscar--and maybe her best--came in 1953 with one of her signature roles. As Karen Holmes, she is the unloved and ignored wife of a philandering Army officer in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity. Her scenes with co-star Burt Lancaster are the best in the film. Achingly lonely, beset by nasty rumors, she's suspicious of his motives when he makes a pass in that terrific scene in her kitchen with the rain pelting down outside. She tries to maintain a hard exterior but you know it's a defense mechanism because she's been hurt too much in the past. Yet she admits she isn't sure if she wants him to leave. It's a remarkable display of vulnerability.

And watch her eyes when the couple first dine clandestinely at the restaurant. Captivated by the handsome sergeant, a good man who finally loves her, she's unaware of what he's saying as she stares in wonder. Later, on the boat with Donna Reed's character, she knows the girl is lying about Private Prewitt's death. You can see the sympathy in her face, knowing here's another woman who's been hurt in love.

The male subject matter, reinforced by strong work of Montgomery Cliff and Lancaster, likely lessened appreciation for Kerr's performance. Audrey Hepburn won that year for Roman Holiday. She's delightful, but it hardly requires the subtle acting Kerr displays. Maybe Hepburn was helped by her association with director William Wyler, an Academy favorite. And there's always the chance that voters wanted to spread the love: Kerr's film won 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and both supporting awards. None of the three major actors won (Lancaster, Clift, and Kerr).

Next came a three-year run starting with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I in 1956. Kerr looks lovely in Irene Sharaff's stunning gowns and gives a nice performance as Anna Owens, a widowed English school teacher who comes to Siam to teach the King's children. They capture her heart, and so does the King. It was Yul Brenner's film all the way. He'd already won a Tony for the Broadway smash. Kerr had replaced Gertrude Lawrence, Brenner's Broadway co-star, who'd also won a Tony. Besides, Kerr's singing was dubbed.    

Ingrid Berman won her second Oscar that year for Anastasia. Hollywood was ready to forgive her for ditching her husband for the Italian director, Roberto Rossellini. In any case, it was a strange year in retrospect. The bloated Around the World in Eighty Days took Best Film.

The next year Kerr appeared as Sister Angela, a Catholic nun, in John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison. Shipwrecked with an American soldier, Robert Mitchum, the two must elude the Japanese and resist succumbing to their mutual attraction. The rough and ready Marine soon falls in love and thinks because Sister Angela has not yet taken her final vows, he may have a chance to change her mind. It's fun watching these two interact--they have wonderful chemistry, but the story is a simple one that doesn't require either actor to stretch themselves.

Kerr lost to Joanne Woodward that year for her fine work in The Three Faces of Eve, that film's only nomination. It's one of those ground-breaking performances that Academy voters tend to admire, one that features a person with a disability.

Delbert Mann's adaptation of the play Separate Tables came in 1958. Kerr is the repressed and mousy Sibyl Railton-Bell, a naive young woman whose dominating mother (Gladys Cooper) is a pain in the butt. Along with several other vacationers they are on holiday at a seaside hotel in Bournemouth, England. Sibyl is attracted to a dashing retired army officer, Major Angus Pollock (David Niven). But he's a phony whose nasty secret proves to be a crushing embarrassment for the poor girl. An ensemble piece to be sure, Kerr is magnificent. Her near breakdown is painful to watch. Perhaps voters didn't think Kerr had enough screen time on her own. But her co-star, Niven, took home the award for Best Actor, and Wendy Hiller won for Best Supporting Actress. In another year, the beautiful actress might have earned votes for bravely taking on a role that showed her as unattractive. 

She lost to Susan Hayworth that year for I Want to Live. A good performance for a long-time Hollywood actress who had paid her dues. The film was based on a true story, though took some liberties. It shows her character, Barbara Graham, a convicted killer, in a sympathetic light, suggesting perhaps she was even rail-roaded. No doubt seen by many voters as an "important" film, it's clearly a strong statement against capital punishment. The execution scene was shockingly realistic for its day, and likely cinched the award for the actress. I'd of given the award that year to Liz Taylor for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Taylor's omission would come back to haunt Kerr and Shirley MacLaine two years later.

Kerr's final chance came in 1960, again working with Zinnemann and Mitchum; this time in the The Sundowners, the story of a nomadic Australian family. Ida Commody is tired of the constant traveling that comes with her sheep-herding husband. She dreams of settling down and owning a farm. She and Mitchum have great chemistry again, conveying their love for one another through hard times with simple gestures and looks. There's a wonderful shot of Kerr, watching a train pull out of a station. She sees a woman through a window. The camera lingers on her face and you can feel the character's desperate envy.

She lost that year to Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8. Consensus at the time was that Taylor won because she had just survived a life-threatening illness. It was her fourth nomination in successive years. While a better performance than given credit for, she surely captured the sympathy vote. Moreover, some voters likely cast a make-up vote for her loss the three previous seasons. Shirley MacLaine should have won for The Apartment.

I'm surprised that Kerr didn't get a 7th nomination the next year for her highly effective performance in The Innocents, a tense horror classic in which she dominates the screen and captures a woman becoming unhinged wonderfully well. Sophia Loren took the award for Two Women, but Audrey Hepburn was among the less deserving nominees for Breakfast at Tiffany's, an undemanding role in a light comedy, and Piper Laurie, for The Hustler.

The Academy finally made amends to Kerr in 1984 with an Honorary Oscar. The citation read: An artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance. Apt words to be sure.


  1. She's one of my very favorite actresses, too. Like you, I can't believe she wasn't nominated for THE INNOCENTS. It and BLACK NARCISSUS are, in my opinion, her two best performances.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I love the Innocents. So creepy. And I went to a Catholic school and never saw any nuns as pretty as Sister Clodagh. She gives a spectacular performance in that. My favorite P&P film.

  2. A lovely tribute to Deborah, who continues to be very popular - her big hits of the 50s will always continue to be screened. I like her too in 1959's THE JOURNEY re-teaming her with Brynner, it was one of her 3 that year, she usually averaged 2 a year during the '50s. She was also wonderful of course in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, being the equal of Burton and Gardner in Huston's wonderful film of Williams' play. I particularly like her 2 nuns, Sister Clodagh when she was 26 in BLACK NARCISSUS and a decade later that much simpler Irish nun Sister Angela in HEAVEN KNOWS MR ALLISON, where she and Mitchum are perfect together, but she was also ideal with Lancaster, Niven, Grant, Brynner etc. She really should have won the award in 1960 for THE SUNDOWNERS, it would have been the culmination of her great decade. It was good to see her on the stage in 1972 in a Thomas Hardy adaptation THE DAY AFTER THE FAIR.

  3. Michael, I envy you for having seen her on stage. What a great treat. There's no accounting for many Oscar votes.

  4. This was a lovely post. I haven't seen "The Sundowners" in some time, and you've made me want to see it again. Love the chemistry between her and Robert Mitchum. Thanks for reminding us what a wonderful actor she was.

    1. I can relate to you saying that maybe the films are your favorites because she was in them. I especially say that when I am asked to name my favorite Hitchcock film. Far and away it is "I Confess." But is that because I adore Monty Clift? If he wasn't in that film, would it still be my favorite? We will never know, will we?

      Anyhow, of all the Deborah Kerr films you mentioned, I have yet to see "Separate Tables." Of the other ones, I completely love "From Here to Eternity" and "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison." Oh, and of course, "An Affair to Remember" is one of my all-time favorite movies.

      She definitely was a stunning beauty...and a terrific actress. You did a lovely job of singing her praises!