Nationality: British. Born: Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer in Helensburgh, Scotland, 30 September 1921. Education: Attended Northumberland House Boarding School, Bristol, until 1936; Hicks-Smale Drama School (run by aunt Phyllis Smale), Bristol, 1936; studied ballet at Sadler's Wells, 1937. Family: Married 1) Anthony Charles Bartley, 1945 (divorced 1959), daughters: Melanie and Francesca; 2) the writer Peter Viertel, 1960. Career: 1936—radio work in Bristol, reading children's stories for BBC; 1937—first London stage appearance with Sadler's Wells Ballet; 1941—film debut in Major Barbara ; one-year contract with Gabriel Pascal; 1945—toured France, Belgium, and Holland in Gaslight for Allied forces; 1946—MGM contract: U.S. film debut in The Hucksters , 1947; 1952—role in Columbia's From Here to Eternity ; 1953—released from contract; in Tea and Sympathy on Broadway; 1972–73—on stage in The Day after the Fair ; 1975—on Broadway in Edward Albee's Seascape ; 1977—in London in Shaw's Candida ; later in The Corn Is Green , 1985; TV work includes mini-series A Woman of Substance , 1984, and Hold the Dream , 1986; also subject of documentary, Deborah Kerr: Not Just an English Rose , for BBC TV, 1986. Awards: Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for Black Narcissus and The Adventuress , 1947; Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison , 1957; Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for The Sundowners , 1960; honorary Academy Award, 1994; Companion of the Order of the British Empire, 1997/98.
Films as Actress:
Major Barbara (Pascal) (as Jenny Hill); Love on the Dole (Baxter) (as Sally Hardcastle)
Penn of Pennsylvania ( The Courageous Mr. Penn ) (Comfort) (as Gulielma Springelt); Hatter's Castle (Comfort) (as Mary Brodie); The Day Will Dawn ( The Avengers ) (French) (as Kari)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell and Pressburger) (as Edith Hunter)
Perfect Strangers ( Vacation from Marriage ) (Korda) (as Catherine Wilson)
I See a Dark Stranger ( The Adventuress ) (Launder) (as Bridie Quilty)
Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger) (as Sister Clodagh); The Hucksters (Conway) (as Kay Dorrance)
If Winter Comes (Saville) (as Nona Tybar)
Edward, My Son (Cukor) (as Evelyn Boult)
Please Believe Me (Taurog) (as English heiress); King Solomon's Mines (Bennett and Marton) (as Elizabeth Curtis)
Quo Vadis? (LeRoy) (as Lygia)
The Prisoner of Zenda (Thorpe) (as Princess Flavia)
Thunder in the East (Vidor) (as Joan Willoughby); Dream Wife (Sheldon) (as Priscilla Effington); Young Bess (Franklin) (as Catherine Parr); From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann) (as Karen Holmes); Julius Caesar (Mankiewicz) (as Portia)
The End of the Affair (Dmytryk) (as Sarah Miles)
Tea and Sympathy (Minnelli) (as Laura Reynolds); The Proud and Profane (Seaton) (as Nurse Lee Ashley); The King and I (Lang) (as Mrs. Anna Leonowens)
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (Huston) (as Sister Angela); An Affair to Remember (McCarey) (as Nickie)
Bonjour Tristesse (Preminger) (as Anne); Separate Tables (Mann) (as Sybil Railton-Bell)
The Journey (Litvak) (as Lady Diana Ashmore); Count Your Blessings (Negulesco) (as Grace Allingham); Beloved Infidel (King) (as Sheilah Graham)
The Sundowners (Zinnemann) (as Ida Carmody); The Grass Is Greener (Donen) (as Hilary Rhyall)
The Naked Edge (Anderson) (as Martha Radcliffe); The Innocents (Clayton) (as Miss Giddens)
The Chalk Garden (Neame) (as Miss Madrigal); The Night of the Iguana (Huston) (as Hannah Jelkes)
Marriage on the Rocks (Donohue) (as Valerie Edwards)
Eye of the Devil (Thompson—produced 1966) (as Catherine de Montfaucon); Casino Royale (Huston and others) (as Agent Mimi ["Lady Fiona McTarry"])
Prudence and the Pill (Cook and Neame) (as Prudence Hardcastle)
The Gypsy Moths (Frankenheimer) (as Elizabeth Brandon); The Arrangement (Kazan) (as Florence Anderson)
Witness for the Prosecution (Gibson—for TV)
Reunion at Fairborough (Wise—for TV); The Assam Garden (McMurray) (as Helen)
Hold the Dream (Sharp—for TV) (as Emma Harte)
By KERR: articles—
Interview with Bruno Villien, in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1983.
Interview with Brian Baxter, in Films and Filming (London), December 1984.
Interview with Lelia Loban and Richard Valley, in Scarlet Street , Fall 1995.
On KERR: book—
Braun, Eric, Deborah Kerr , London, 1977.
On KERR: articles—
Current Biography 1947 , New York, 1947.
Braun, Eric, "From Here to Esteem," in Films and Filming (London), May 1970.
Doeckel, K., "Deborah Kerr," in Films in Review (New York), January 1978.
Lloyd, A., "Deborah Kerr," in Films and Filming (London), September 1984.
Film Dope (London), September 1984.
Denby, David, "Fire and Ice," in Premiere , January 1994.
Vineberg, Steve, "Fred Zinnemann's Actors," in Film Criticism (Meadville), Spring 1994.
* * *
The preeminent English gentlewoman, Deborah Kerr performed with a ladylike spiritedness and wholesome sincerity that proved equally popular in Great Britain and America.
A stage actress in her late teens, Kerr graduated from a small role in Major Barbara that led to three skillfully varied roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and an authoritative nun in Black Narcissus ; afterward, MGM brought her to Hollywood to play opposite Clark Gable in The Hucksters .
A decorative period —King Solomon's Mines and others—did not take advantage of her surprising intensity, but her self-possession and well-bred personality worked to advantage in these popular films. Cast against type in From Here to Eternity as Burt Lancaster's adulterous lover, Kerr broadened her emotional range in the minds of cinemagoers with a memorably sensual roll in the surf.
Extraordinarily versatile, the six-time Oscar nominee stood her ground in hoopskirts opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I , sparred charmingly with Cary Grant and David Niven several times, and smoldered opposite Robert Mitchum, most notably as a housewife made transcendent by sacrifice in The Sundowners .
When Kerr did not have a handle on a role (e.g., Beloved Infidel ) her neurotic tremulousness (used tellingly to portray a neglected closet drinker in Edward, My Son ) wound up parodying her cashmere-sweatered earth mother role as in Tea and Sympathy . At her sharpest, however, Kerr memorably agonized to find a balance between submerged desire and a self-imposed code of honor, whether as a wallflower doomed to Separate Tables or a nun taxed by her chastity habit in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison .
Kerr's abandonment of Hollywood after the failures of The Arrangement and Gypsy Moths was especially disheartening since the decade started so promisingly with her repressed governess in The Innocents , a spellbinding spin through Capote's Freudinizing of Turn of the Screw , a splendidly evasive Miss Madrigal in the civilized Chalk Garden , and a definitive study in the denial of the flesh in a Night of the Iguana vulgarized by director John Huston but redeemed by its stars.
Adept at teary melodrama and light comedy, Kerr entranced a new generation of fans through the Affair to Remember clips that filled (and that were the sole reason to tolerate) Sleepless in Seattle . A superb theatrical performer, Kerr toured in made-to-order warhorses, enjoyed a Broadway return in Albee's Seascape , and demonstrated that time had not withered her variety in such television showcases as the BBC's Ann and Debbie and the opulent mini-series A Woman of Substance . Through a kaleidoscopic career, Kerr never lost the cool beauty and inborn gentility that initially established her stardom.
—Richard Sater, updated by Robert Pardi