It was strong stuff for movies of the 1950s, that risqué roll in the waves with Burt Lancaster in, “From Here to Eternity.” But then her stoic bravery made us cry in the film, “An Affair To Remember” (in which she had a scene with a rough Collie!) Her career included roles that portrayed nuns, a long-suffering wife, a princess and a sheepherder in the Australian Outback. A versatile actress, her range enabled her to play three different women — a governess, a nurse, and an army driver — all in one movie. She couldn’t sing, it’s true, and her singing voice in one movie was dubbed by Marni Nixon, but she sure could dance, and her role as a governess is the one we most remember. Maybe the scene below is the one you most remember Deborah Kerr for, too?
The Scottish-born actress was billed as Hollywood’s “English rose,” and even her stage name was anglicised to be pronounced Carr (to rhyme with star), but Deborah Kerr was a Glasgow lass. She originally trained as a ballet dancer (explaining her fast waltz around the floor with Yul Brynner who had specifically asked that Kerr play the part), but she switched to acting as it provided an outlet for an otherwise shy, insecure child. As a teenager, Kerr was given some stage work through her aunt, a radio star, and that is where she got the attention of a British film producer who cast her in several films.
It didn’t take long before Deborah’s talent made her a British cinema star. Her portrayal of a troubled nun in “Black Narcissus” got Hollywood’s attention, and in 1947, she “crossed the pond” to Hollywood and an MGM contract. Having played mostly prim-and-proper English ladies, Kerr’s role as the adulteress in From Here to Eternity had to be great fun, and it earned her an Oscar nomination. Though Glenn Close is tied with Peter O’Toole as the actor with the most acting Oscar nominations (eight) without a win, they are followed by Deborah Kerr who received six nominations and never won. Pffft. It had little impact on the actress’ reputation given her body of work, and the Academy wisely gave Deborah Kerr an Honorary Oscar for her screen achievements in 1994. She received one of the longest standing ovations of all Honorary Oscar recipients in Academy history. Though she did a couple of performances in 1985 and 1986, Kerr had mostly quit movie making in 1968 out of disgust for the explicit sex and violence being offered up in films at the time.
In real life, Deborah Kerr had little in common with the prudish ladies she depicted. In fact, her co-star in the movie, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Robert Mitchum worried that she would be exactly like the buttoned-up characters she often played. During one dispute with the film’s director, however, Kerr turned the air blue with some colorful language causing Mitchum, who was in the water, to almost drown from laughing. Nor did she take herself too seriously. She once said, “I am really rather like a beautiful Jersey cow, I have the same pathetic droop to the corners of my eyes.”
Someone so down-to-earth would be a dog owner, and Deborah Kerr had a few in her life. She was the owner of a Sealyham Terrier named Jason,and a Scottie owner, but in her later years when she lived in Switzerland, she and her husband, Peter Viertel, a novelist and screenwriter, owned a Great Pyrenees named, “Guapa,” which means “beauty” in Spanish. With a presumed twinkle in her eye, Kerr told the story of how she and her family were at lunch one day. Guapa, with tremendous pride, had herded a huge sheep into the living-room, and stood grinning from ear to ear, waiting for praise for what she had done. ‘Poor Guapa was only “doing her own thing,” said Deborah, ‘and she couldn’t understand why we were not delighted. There were Peter, my daughters and I all trying to get this sheep out of the room — you have no idea how heavy they are until you meet one socially!’”
Deborah Kerr had suffered with Parkinson’s disease and passed away in 2007 at the age of 86. Upon her death, a New York Times obituary mentioned that Kerr could be virginal, ethereal, gossamer and fragile, or earthy, spicy and suggestive, and sometimes she managed to display all her skills at the same time. But by all accounts, she was a warm and lovely person.
Image of a Great Pyrenees with an English Rose/DALL·E