Deborah Kerr, the cultivated Scottish rose beloved in such 1950s blockbusters as “From Here to Eternity,” “The King and I” and “An Affair to Remember,” died Tuesday in Suffolk, England. She was 86 and for many years had battled Parkinson’s disease with the dignified grace and quiet wit she brought to her many roles.
One of the most-cited performers never to win a competitive Oscar, Kerr (pronounced “car”) was nominated six times before belatedly receiving an honorary statuette in 1994. In a trembling voice at what would be her last public appearance, she said to the assembled, “Thank you for giving me a happy life.”
Though the alabaster-skinned redhead was honored that evening for her “impeccable grace and beauty,” the secret of Kerr’s singular appeal was her devil-may-care peccability. She played ladies who didn’t mind if their tramp showed.
Whether it was as the nun struggling to repress her desire in “Black Narcissus” (1946), the married woman who relished an adulterous roll in the surf with Burt Lancaster in “From Here to Eternity” (1953), the teacher’s wife who beds a student who may be homosexual in “Tea and Sympathy” (1956) or the kept woman drawn to kept man Cary Grant in “An Affair to Remember” (1957), Kerr projected propriety and sexuality.
Her flute-like voice was also unique. She made music out of ordinary dialogue.
Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer, daughter of a Scottish Naval officer who served in World War I, was born in Helensburgh, Scotland, in 1921.
When she was 5 the family moved to Bristol, England, where the famously shy girl studied dance at her aunt’s academy. Her training there may account for her dancer’s way of sailing through space. Through her aunt’s connections, she got work with the Oxford Repertory Company and made her film debut, supporting Wendy Hiller, in “Major Barbara” (1940).
Demonstrating her versatility and range, Kerr played three different roles in Michael Powell’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943), which, along with her extraordinary performance as the nun in Powell’s “Black Narcissus,” got the attention of Hollywood.
Not along after marrying former R.A.F. squadron leader Anthony Bartley (in 1945), Kerr was imported to MGM Studios where mogul Louis B. Mayer molded her in the Jeanette MacDonald/Greer Garson form of great lady. “Deborah Kerr/Rhymes With Star” was the promotion given to the demure actress appearing opposite brazen Ava Gardner in “The Hucksters” (1947). They were the genteel girl and the brassy babe vying for Clark Gable’s attention.
She was decorative and unmemorable in prestige pictures such as “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) and “Quo Vadis?” (1951). It was only after replacing Joan Crawford as the sex-starved army wife in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) that Kerr made an American film equal to her British work. Her ability to project the contradictory aspects of character helped her to create a new screen archetype, the very proper adulteress.
However varied her Hollywood roles, Kerr delivered performances of greater nuance and depth in the European-made films “The End of the Affair” (1955) - again, as a conscience-stricken adulteress - and “Bonjour, Tristesse” (1958), as a fashion designer provoked by her lover’s daughter.
Despite these more adventurous roles, the image of Kerr as prude persisted. The story goes that on the set of “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957) - starring the actress as a nun and Robert Mitchum as a lusty soldier stranded on an island - Mitchum worried that he might offend Her Primness. When Kerr tore into director John Huston after a sequence shot in the water, the actor was so shocked that he nearly drowned laughing.
In 1959, Kerr and Bartley, who had two daughters, divorced. The following year she married author Peter Viertel whose novel “White Hunter, Black Heart” was a thinly-veiled portrait of Huston.
No other actress - not Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day or Elizabeth Taylor - enjoyed more popular success in the second half of the 1950s than Kerr. In “An Affair to Remember,” an improbably effective romance that is the basis of “Sleepless in Seattle,” she convinced the world that the Empire State Building was the closest place New York had to heaven. In “The King and I” she whistled a happy tune and the world whistled along.
It still does.
Kerr is survived by Viertel, her husband of 47 years, two daughters and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.