Deborah Kerr: 10 essential films

From Black Narcissus to that beach scene, we raise a glass to one of Britain’s most beguiling Hollywood stars.

David Parkinson

Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr

How different Deborah Kerr’s career might have been had she not agreed to join MGM as a spare Greer Garson. Had she not spent so long enduring roles unworthy of her unshowy, underestimated talent, she may well have been taken more seriously and, thus, converted one of her six Oscar nominations for best actress.

As it is, she holds the record for Academy overlooks in this category and had to settle for an honorary award in 1994, when she was hailed as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance”.

But the stage-trained Scot was also deceptively versatile, whether playing a Ruritanian princess in The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), a guilt-stricken adulteress in The End of the Affair (1955), a prep school coach’s amorous spouse in Tea and Sympathy (1956) or the oldest Bond girl (until Monica Bellucci) in Casino Royale (1967).

Perfect Strangers (1945)

Director Alexander Korda

Perfect Strangers (1945)

Ending her romance with Michael Powell when he refused to follow her to Hollywood, Deborah Kerr began her MGM sojourn with this intriguing insight into the impact of war on a staid married couple.

Clemence Dane earned an Oscar for her storyline, which sees Kerr and Robert Donat embark upon voyages of self-discovery when he joins the Royal Navy and she volunteers for the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

Each has a flirtatious liaison during their three-year separation. But their experiences serve only to rekindle their feelings, and the closing sequences in which Kerr decides against a divorce are beautifully played. They must have struck chords with contemporary audiences. 

I See a Dark Stranger (1946)

Director Frank Launder

I See a Dark Stranger (1946)

Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat were masters of the comedy thriller and they launched their Individual Pictures company with this provocative noir farce.

Casting Kerr as zealously romantic Irish revolutionary Bridie Quilty, they risked the ire of the censors with an espionage saga that sees her detour to the Isle of Man to retrieve details of the D-Day landings, while debating whether her loyalties lie with a persuasive quisling or a charming British intelligence officer.

Revelling in the chance to play against type, Kerr has two particularly memorable scenes: trying to identify her contact in a crowded train compartment and disposing of an inconvenient corpse. 

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus (1947)

Having denied Kerr a screen debut by cutting her role in Contraband (1940), director Michael Powell made amends with a star-making triple turn in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and the part of Sister Clodagh in this masterly adaptation of Rumer Godden’s contentious bestseller.

That said, Powell considered casting Greta Garbo, as he was concerned that Kerr was too young to play a missionary in charge of a Himalayan medical outpost. But not only does Kerr convince as an Irish nun whose vocation is tested by her inexperience and her emotions, she also succeeds in avoiding being upstaged by Kathleen Byron’s wild-eyed intensity as Sister Ruth. 

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Director Fred Zinnemann

From Here to Eternity (1953)

It’s unknown why Joan Crawford failed to star in this adaptation of James Jones’s Pearl Harbor blockbuster. Rumours abounded about wardrobe issues, cameraman preferences and billing disputes. But she lost the part of adulteress Karen Holmes to Kerr after Joan Fontaine and Jennifer Jones had been considered.

Dyeing her red hair blonde, Kerr reported for swimsuit tests and convinced everyone she had what it took to play a lustful wanton by quipping: “I feel naked without my tiara.”

Filmed at Holocona Cove, scene #106 still ranks among the most iconic in screen history, although the censors at the Breen Office were unhappy that Kerr was depicted atop Burt Lancaster in the Hawaiian surf.

The King and I (1956)

Director Walter Lang

The King and I (1956)

Despite being the first prestige picture to challenge the Production Code’s aversion to interracial attraction since The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), the civilising premise underlying the story of a polygamous Siamese king and a widowed English governess now makes this Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most problematic musical.

Nevertheless, Kerr gives one of her most enduringly popular performances. She was personally selected to play Anna Leonowens by Yul Brynner, who had essayed King Mongkut I on stage. Most of her singing is expertly dubbed by Marni Nixon, but Kerr can be heard on ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’ and she polkas with brio to ‘Shall We Dance’.

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Director Leo McCarey

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Coming between Dream Wife (1953) and The Grass Is Greener (1960), this is the pick of Kerr’s collaborations with Cary Grant. Indeed, Leo McCarey’s CinemaScope and DeLuxe remake of his own 1939 best picture nominee was voted the fifth most romantic screen love story by the American Film Institute.

Yet, despite reducing Meg Ryan to mush in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), this is anything but a formulaic weepie. McCarey deftly shifts tonal gear after the semi-screwball flirtations aboard SS Constitution and casts a noirish pall over the New York sequences after Kerr’s life-changing accident, before luring the audience into believing they’re witnessing a happy-ever-after ending. 

Separate Tables (1958)

Director Delbert Mann

Separate Tables (1958)

Following Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), this is the second of Kerr’s five collaborations with David Niven. Inheriting roles earmarked for Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, they convey the kind of shabby gentility that would be swept away with the postwar cobwebs during the 1960s.

Niven would win the Oscar for best actor for his 23-minute performance as a bogus major whose sordid misdemeanours at a local theatre fail to shake the confidence of Kerr’s plain, sheltered spinster, who resides at the same Bournemouth hotel with her domineering mother, Gladys Cooper.

Yet Kerr would lose out, in spite of a poignant display of filial deference and repressed desire.

The Sundowners (1960)

Director Fred Zinnemann

The Sundowners (1960)

Kerr forged a friendship with Robert Mitchum while playing another nun in John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). She was delighted, therefore, when William Holden and Gary Cooper passed and Mitchum joined her down under for Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Jon Cleary’s novel, Back of Beyond.

Had Elizabeth Taylor not received a sympathy vote after surviving pneumonia, Kerr may well have converted her final Oscar nomination for her splendidly down-to-earth performance as a sheep drover’s wife trying to persuade her footloose spouse to settle down on a farm.

“All I did was feed her some lines,” Mitchum declared. “She did the rest. She’s really the one who can act.”

The Innocents (1961)

Director Jack Clayton

The Innocents (1961)

No other performance in Kerr’s career captivates in quite the same manner – or raises more questions with repeated viewing – than her interpretation of the governess who convinces herself that her young charges have been corrupted by supernatural evil. “I played it as if she were perfectly sane,” Kerr once revealed, but “the whole thing could have been nurtured in her own imagination.”

Basing his screenplay more on William Archibald’s 1950 stage play than Henry James’s novella, Truman Capote gave Miss Giddens her name and the sense of repressed sensuality that makes her lingering goodnight kiss with Miles (Martin Stephens) so deeply disconcerting. But it was Kerr who made her so chillingly human.

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

Director John Huston

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

What were they thinking nominating Grayson Hall for best supporting actress for her workaday turn in John Huston’s riveting adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s seething Mexican saga, when Kerr would have been a shoo-in?

Perhaps they were distracted by the fact that Margaret Leighton had won the Tony for best actress playing Hannah Jelkes on Broadway. But the virginal Nantucket artist who arrives at the Costa Verde hotel with her elderly poet grandfather is very much a secondary role, and should have been eligible.

Kerr invests it with a savvy serenity that makes the love triangle with Richard Burton’s disgraced Episcopal preacher and Ava Gardner’s bawdy widowed landlady all the more fascinating.

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