The Deborah Kerr Centenary

Had she lived just 13 more years, Deborah Kerr would be 100 today.

The photo above is from one of my favorite performaces of hers, from what is perhaps the best screen adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, 1961’s The Innocents. My FAVORITE performance of hers is probably no one else’s: her madcap turn as Lady Fiona in Casino Royale (1967). She is so nutty, so game in this role I am reminded of Alec Guinness, or even Hugh Griffith. I’m a firm believer that the best actors are also the best comic actors. It is evidence that she could do anything, and she pretty much did. In From Here to Eternity (1953) she was highly sexy. Who knew or thought she could do that? Occasionally she revived that gear, but as a general rule it was against type for her; more typical were nuns and schoolteachers and the like.

Kerr (Deborah Jane Trimmer, 1921-2007) was Scottish-born, another reason I love her performance in Casino Royale. We seldom see her in “full Scotswoman mode”; usually she speaks in a more standard English accent. In reality, Kerr was raised mostly in England, and attended schools there. But it’s a lot like seeing Maureen O’Hara in “full Irishwoman” — a full bore embrace of the stereotype. Kerr’s extraordinary beauty and natural talent brought her success at a very young age. She trained mostly in dance and appeared in pantomimes and ballet starting around age 17. She had a small amount of repertory experience as an actress for a year or two but was only 20 when she made inroads into film. Honestly, one forgets how many major films she was in. She earned and received enormous respect, but somehow one never regards her as a “movie star”. (In spite of Louis B. Mayer’s insistence that “Kerr rhymes with “star”). An actress of the first water, yes, but someone she’s rarely on anyone’s short list of stars. Hey, she’s no, I dunno, Jane Russell!

And yet her track record is awe-inspiring. Among her more noteworthy credits: Major Barbara (1941) with Wendy Hiller; a well-received West End revival of Heartbreak House (1943) with Edith Evans; the Powell-Pressburger films The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Black Narcissus (1946); King Solomon’s Mines (1950); Quo Vadis? (1951); The Prisoner of Zenda (1952); Julius Caesar (1953); Young Bess (1953); From Here to Eternity (1953); both the Broadway and film versions of Tea and Sympathy (1953 and 1956); The End of the Affair (1955); The King and I (1956); Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957), An Affair to Remember (1957); The Sundowners (1960); The Innocents (1961); The Night of the Iguana (1964); Eye of the Devil (1966); Casino Royale (1967); Prudence and the Pill (1968); and Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement (1969).

This dame (excluse me, CBE) was so classy that she actually left Hollywood when she felt the films were becoming too tawdry. She returned to the stage, starring in the original Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Seascape (1975), a 1977 L.A. revival of Long Days Journey Into Night and a West End revival of Candida, also in 1977. Throughout the 1980s she did quite a bit of British television. She spent her last decades in her home country.

Appropriately, TCM is celebrating by showing many of her films today and into the wee hours of tomorrow. Check ’em out!