Deborah Kerr, the sophisticated, Scottish-born actress who was nominated for six Oscars, died Tuesday in Suffolk, England, after many years of failing health. She was 86.
In films such as “Black Narcissus,” “An Affair to Remember” and “Tea and Sympathy,” Kerr embodied the image of the lovely, well-spoken English rose, a woman whose breeding and cool exterior belie the passion, fire and frustration simmering just below the surface.
Kerr fought for roles that showed her range as a thesp, from the unhappy Army officer’s wife in “From Here to Eternity” — which included her iconic, torrid beach love scene with Burt Lancaster — to the determined nun in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” and the wife of an itinerant Australian sheep drover in “The Sundowners.”
Kerr earned first Oscar nom starting for 1949’s “Edward, My Son,” co-starring Spencer Tracy. She followed with noms for 1953’s “From Here to Eternity,” 1956’s “The King and I,” 1957’s “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” 1958’s “Separate Tables” and 1960’s “The Sundowners.” (She and Thelma Ritter are tied as the two actresses with the most noms without a win.)
Kerr was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1994. In her acceptance speech, Kerr, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, acknowledged other recipients of the award who had also been passed over despite careers of brilliance, including her sometimes co-star Cary Grant.
“She was not only a fine actress, she was a fine lady,” Kirk Douglas said Thursday of Kerr’s passing. The two co-starred in 1969 Elia Kazan pic “The Arrangement.”
In an acting career that spanned from pre-war Britain to 1980s television miniseries, Kerr became a legend for a handful of indelible performances, including the lovestruck ex-nightclub singer in 1957 romantic drama “An Affair to Remember,” a pic that emerged for a new generation through its incorporation into the storyline of the 1993 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan hit “Sleepless in Seattle.”
During the ‘40s and early ‘50s, Kerr was the heir to Greer Garson for ladylike, upper-crust roles as the kind of woman men marry rather than lust after. In fact she was kept under contract by MGM to prevent a rival studio from putting her in competition with Garson, one of the Lion’s major stars.
It was only when Kerr renegotiated her deal with MGM to allow her to take outside assignments that she was able to break that mold via “From Here to Eternity,” playing a promiscuous Army wife. Kerr was an unlikely choice for the role that Joan Crawford had accepted but then backed out of after a dispute over her costumes. Kerr walked off with the notices, reaping praise and grabbing a moment of film history with her love scene on the sands of Waikiki as a symbolic wave surrounded her and Lancaster.
Deborah Kerr-Tremmer, born in Helensburgh, Scotland, had originally set her sights on being a dancer. She made her stage debut as part of the corps de ballet of Sadler’s Wells in “Prometheus,” at the age of 17.
But soon thereafter she turned to acting, studying and performing in the Shakespearean repertory. After being cut out of her first film, she auditioned for, and got the supporting part of, Jenny Hill in Gabriel Pascal’s 1941 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” starring Wendy Hiller and Rex Harrison. Pleased with her work, Pascal signed her to a long-term contract.
During the war years she starred in a number of low-profile films until helmer Michael Powell cast her in three different roles in his epic “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” a feat that showed off Kerr’s talents and made her a star.
While appearing onstage in Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” she was spotted by MGM British head Alexander Korda, who cast her opposite Robert Donat in the 1945 comedy “Perfect Strangers.” The film’s success encouraged MGM to buy out her contract from Pascal for $250,000. For seven years, at a salary of $3,000 a week, MGM kept Kerr on a tight leash. Since Garson was still a major star, Kerr’s talents were underexploited.
The exceptions were two loan-outs, one for the 1946 thriller “I See a Dark Stranger,” in which she played an Irish woman who intends to spy for the Germans but falls for an English officer instead; and the other to Powell to play a stern but young mother superior trying to establish a religious community in 1947’s “Black Narcissus.”
The raves she received for her work in “Narcissus” convinced MGM to give her a go in major A pictures, such as “The Hucksters,” as Clark Gable’s romantic interest, and “Edward, My Son.” But the studio never quite knew what to do with her and next threw Kerr into action-adventures like “King Solomon’s Mines” and “The Prisoner of Zenda.”
In 1952, she asked that her contract be altered to allow her to take outside roles, and MGM didn’t balk. “From Here to Eternity” ignited her marquee value, and soon Kerr was landing leads in top studio pictures, including 1956’s “Tea and Sympathy,” a role she had done as her Broadway debut in 1953. She also scored in 1956 opposite Yul Brynner in tuner “The King and I,” in which her singing voice was dubbed by thrush Marni Nixon.
The following year, director Leo McCarey decided to remake his 1939 romantic comedy/drama “Love Affair,” redubbing it “An Affair to Remember,” with Kerr and Grant in the roles originally played by Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. The remake was a hit in its initial release and has endured with a cult following, as demonstrated by its use as an example of Hollywood romance at its most alluring and overblown in Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle.” It was remade yet again in 1994 with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.
Kerr closed out the 1950s with her fifth Oscar bid, for playing a spinster in 1958’s “Separate Tables” opposite David Niven, who claimed the actor trophy for that year.
Her final nomination and loss for 1960’s “Sundowners” were the hardest to take, she recalled in later years. She was the odds-on favorite to win that year, but the trophy went to but Elizabeth Taylor, who had recently recovered from a life-threatening illness, for “Butterfield 8.”
Despite her near misses with Oscar, Kerr had several memorable screen turns in the early 1960s, including the 1962 adaptation of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw,” called “The Innocents”; “The Chalk Garden,” in which she played a mysterious governess; Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana,” in which she played a spinster. The latter two were both 1964 releases.
By the end of the decade and after enduring a number of bombs, like her broad-comedy turn in “Casino Royale” and as a wronged-wife in “The Arrangement,” Kerr was ready to turn her back on Hollywood, uncomfortable with what she viewed as the gratuitous use of nudity in contempo pics.
She continued to work in theater, starring in Edward Albee’s “Seascape” on Broadway and in revivals of “Candida” and “The Last of Mrs. Cheyney,” and in the 1980s appeared in a handful of British productions, including 1985 pic “The Assam Garden” and TV minis “A Woman of Substance” and “Hold the Dream.”
But she largely spent her remaining years in retirement in Switzerland and at a villa in Spain with her second husband, novelist and screenwriter Peter Viertel, whom she married in 1960. Kerr had two daughters with her first husband, British war hero Anthony Charles Bartley, whom she married in 1945 and divorced in 1959.
Kerr is survived by Viertel, her two daughters and three grandchildren.