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Date of Birth: 30 September 1921
Place of Birth: Helensburgh, Scotland, UK
Birth Name: Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer
Height: 5' 6" (1.68 m)
Deborah Kerr, CBE (30 September 1921 – 16 October 2007) was a Scottish stage, television and film actress. She won the Sarah Siddons Award for her Chicago performance as Laura Reynolds in Tea and Sympathy, a role which she originated on Broadway, a Golden Globe Award for the motion picture, The King and I, and she was also the recipient of honorary Academy, BAFTA and Cannes Film Festival awards.
She was nominated six times for an Academy Award as Best Actress but never won. In 1994, however, she was cited by the Academy for a film career that always represented "perfection, discipline and elegance". Her films include The King and I, An Affair to Remember, From Here to Eternity, Quo Vadis, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and Separate Tables.
Although the Scottish pronunciation of her surname, /ˈkɛr/, is closer to a phonetic reading of the name, when she was being promoted as a Hollywood actress it was made clear that her surname should be pronounced the same as "car". In order to avoid confusion over pronunciation, Louis B. Mayer of MGM billed her as "Kerr rhymes with Star!"
Kerr was born Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer in a private nursing home (hospital) in Glasgow, Scotland, the only daughter of Kathleen Rose (née Smale) and Capt. Arthur Charles Kerr-Trimmer, a World War I veteran pilot who later became a naval architect and civil engineer. Directly after her birth she spent the first three years of her life in the nearby town of Helensburgh, where her parents lived with Deborah's grandparents in a house on West King Street. Kerr had a younger brother, Edward (a.k.a. Teddy), who became a journalist and died in a 'road-rage' incident in 2004.
Kerr was educated at the independent Northumberland House School in the Clifton area of Bristol in England (the school was demolished in 1937, when Kerr was only 16 years old), and at Rossholme School in Weston-super-Mare.
Kerr originally trained as a ballet dancer, first appearing on stage at Sadler's Wells in 1938. After changing careers, she soon found success as an actress. Her first acting teacher was her aunt, Phyllis Smale, who ran the Hicks-Smale Drama School in Bristol.
Kerr's first film role was in the British film Contraband in 1940 but her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. She followed that with a series of films, including Hatter's Castle (1942), in which she starred opposite Robert Newton and James Mason. The following year, she played three women in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. During the filming, according to Powell's autobiography, she and Powell became lovers:
|“||"I realised that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for".||”|
Although Winston Churchill thought it would ruin wartime morale, and the British Army refused to extend co-operation with the producers, the film confounded critics by proving to be an artistic and commercial success. Powell had hoped to reunite Kerr and Roger Livesey, who had played the title character, in his next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), but her agent had sold her contract to MGM. According to Powell, his affair with Kerr ended when she made it clear to him that she would accept an offer to go to Hollywood if one were made.
It was her role as a troubled nun in Black Narcissus in 1947 which brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers. The film was a hit in the US as well as the UK, and Kerr won the New York Film Critics' Award as Actress of the Year. In Hollywood, her British accent and manners led to a succession of roles portraying a refined, reserved, and proper English lady. Nevertheless, Kerr frequently used any opportunity to discard her cool exterior. She starred in the 1950 adventure film, King Solomon's Mines, shot on location in Africa with Stewart Granger and Richard Carlson. This was immediately followed by her appearance in the religious epic Quo Vadis? (1951), shot at Cinecittà in Rome, in which she played the indomitable Lygia, a first century Christian.
Kerr also departed from typecasting with a performance that brought out her sensuality, as Karen Holmes, the embittered military wife in From Here to Eternity (1953), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which she and Burt Lancaster make love on a Hawaii beach amidst the crashing waves. The organisation ranked it twentieth in its list of the 100 most romantic films of all time.
From then on, Kerr's career choices would make her known in Hollywood for her versatility as an actress, She portrayed a nun (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a mama's girl (Separate Tables), and a governess (The Chalk Garden), but she also portrayed an earthy Australian sheep-herder's wife (The Sundowners) and lustful and beautiful screen enchantresses (Beloved Infidel, Bonjour Tristesse). She also starred in comedies (The Grass is Greener and Marriage on the Rocks).
Among her most famous roles were Anna Leonowens in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956), and opposite Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember (1958). In 1966, the producers of Carry On Screaming! offered her a fee comparable to that paid to the rest of the cast combined, but she turned it down in favour of appearing in an aborted stage version of Flowers for Algernon. In 1967, at the age of 46, she starred in Casino Royale, achieving the distinction of being the oldest 'Bond Girl' in any James Bond film.
In 1969, pressure of competition from younger, upcoming actresses made her agree to appear nude in John Frankenheimer's The Gypsy Moths, the only nude scene in Kerr's career. Concern about the parts being offered to her, as well as the increasing amount of nudity in films in general, led her to abandon film work at the end of the 1960s in favour of television and theatre work.
As a stage actress, Deborah Kerr made her Broadway debut in 1953 in Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Kerr repeated her role along with her stage partner John Kerr (no relation) in Vincente Minnelli's film adaptation of the drama. In 1955, Kerr won the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance in Chicago during a national tour of the play. In 1975, she returned to Broadway, creating the role of Nancy in Edward Albee's Pulitzer-winning play Seascape.
The theatre, despite her success in films, was always to remain Kerr's first love, even though going on stage filled her with trepidation:
|“||I do it because it's exactly like dressing up for the grown ups. I don't mean to belittle acting but I'm like a child when I'm out there performing—shocking the grownups, enchanting them, making them laugh or cry. It's an unbelievable terror, a kind of masochistic madness. The older you get, the easier it should be but it isn't.||”|
Deborah Kerr experienced a career resurgence in the early 1980s on television, when she played the role of the nurse (played by Elsa Lanchester in the 1957 film version) in Witness for the Prosecution. Later, Kerr re-teamed with screen partner Robert Mitchum in Reunion at Fairborough. This period also saw Kerr take on the role as the older version of the female tycoon, Emma Harte, in the adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance. For this performance, Kerr was nominated for an Emmy Award.
Kerr's first marriage was to Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley on 29 November 1945. They had two daughters, Melanie Jane, born on 27 December 1947 and Francesca Ann, the wife of the actor John Shrapnel. The marriage was troubled, owing to Bartley's jealousy of his wife's fame and financial success, and because her career often took her away from home. Kerr and Bartley divorced in 1959.
Her second marriage was to author Peter Viertel on 23 July 1960. In marrying Viertel, she acquired a stepdaughter, Christine Viertel. Although she long resided in Klosters, Switzerland and Marbella, Spain, she moved back to Britain to be closer to her own children as her health began to deteriorate. Her husband, however, continued to live in Marbella.
Some of Deborah Kerr's leading men have stated in their autobiographies that they had an affair or romantic fling with her. The actor Stewart Granger claimed that Kerr seduced him in the back of his chauffeur-driven car at the time he was making Caesar and Cleopatra. Likewise Burt Lancaster claimed that he was romantically involved with her during the filming of From Here to Eternity in 1953. There is no independent corroboration of either actor's claims.
Deborah Kerr died from the effects of Parkinson's disease on 16 October 2007 at the age of 86 in the village of Botesdale, Suffolk. Peter Viertel died of cancer on 4 November 2007, less than three weeks later. At the time of Viertel's death, director Michael Scheingraber was filming the documentary Peter Viertel: Between the Lines, which Scheingraber says will include reminiscences about events concerning Kerr and the American Academy Awards. The film is as yet (2008) unreleased.
Deborah Kerr was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1998, but was unable to accept the honour in person because of ill health. She was also honoured in Hollywood where, for her contributions to the motion picture industry, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1709 Vine Street.
Deborah Kerr won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for The King and I in 1957, and a Henrietta Award for World Film Favorite — Female.
Although she never won a BAFTA, Oscar or Cannes Film Festival award in a competitive category, all three academies gave her honorary awards. In 1984, she was awarded a Cannes Film Festival Tribute. In 1991, she received a BAFTA Special Award and in 1994, she received an Honorary Academy Award in recognition of "an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance".
Deborah Kerr was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Actress: Edward, My Son (1949), From Here to Eternity (1953), The King and I (1956), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Separate Tables (1958) and The Sundowners (1960).
She was also nominated four times for the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress: The End of the Affair (1955), Tea and Sympathy (1956), The Sundowners (1961) and The Chalk Garden (1964).
She received one Emmy Award nomination in 1985 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special for A Woman of Substance. She was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for Edward, My Son (1949), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and Separate Tables (1958).
|1940||Contraband||Bit (scenes deleted)||UK release|
|1941||Major Barbara||Jenny Hill||UK release|
|Love on the Dole||Sally||UK release|
|1942||Penn of Pennsylvania||Gulielma Maria Springett||U.S. title: Courageous Mr. Penn|
|Hatter's Castle||Mary Brodie|
|The Day Will Dawn||Kari Alstad||U.S. title: The Avengers|
|A Battle for a Bottle||Linda||Voice–animated short|
|1943||The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp||Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Johnny Cannon||UK release|
|1945||Perfect Strangers||Catherine Wilson||U.S. title: Vacation From Marriage|
|1946||I See a Dark Stranger||Bridie Quilty||U.S. Title: The Adventuress|
|1947||Black Narcissus||Sister Clodagh||UK release|
|The Hucksters||Kay Dorrance|
|If Winter Comes||Nona Tybar|
|1949||Edward, My Son||Evelyn Boult||Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award – Best Actress Drama
|1950||Please Believe Me||Alison Kirbe|
|King Solomon's Mines||Elizabeth Curtis|
|1952||The Prisoner of Zenda||Princess Flavia|
|Thunder in the East||Joan Willoughby|
|1953||Young Bess||Catherine Parr|
|From Here to Eternity||Karen Holmes||Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress|
|1955||The End of the Affair||Sarah Miles||Nominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress|
|1956||The Proud and Profane||Lee Ashley|
|The King and I||Anna Leonowens||singing voice dubbed by Marni NixonGolden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
|Tea and Sympathy||Laura Reynolds||Nominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress|
|1957||Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison||Sister Angela||Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award – Best Actress Drama
|An Affair to Remember||Terry McKay|
|Kiss Them for Me||Gwinneth Livingston||Unbilled, dubbed voice of Suzy Parker in a few scenes|
|1958||Bonjour Tristesse||Anne Larson|
|Separate Tables||Sibyl Railton-Bell||Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award – Best Actress Drama
|1959||The Journey||Diana Ashmore|
|Count Your Blessings||Grace Allingham|
|Beloved Infidel||Sheilah Graham|
|1960||The Sundowners||Ida Carmody||Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress
|The Grass Is Greener||Lady Hilary Rhyall|
|1961||The Naked Edge||Martha Radcliffe||UK release|
|The Innocents||Miss Giddens||UK release|
|1964||On the Trail of the Iguana||Herself||UK promotional short subject|
|The Chalk Garden||Miss Madrigal||Nominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress|
|The Night of the Iguana||Hannah Jelkes|
|1965||Marriage on the Rocks||Valerie Edwards||UK release|
|1967||Casino Royale||Agent Mimi / Lady Fiona McTarry|
|Eye of the Devil||Catherine de Montfaucon||UK release|
|1968||Prudence and the Pill||Prudence Hardcastle||UK release|
|1969||The Gypsy Moths||Elizabeth Brandon||US release|
|The Arrangement||Florence Anderson||US release|
|1982||BBC2 Playhouse||Carlotta Gray||TV episode: "A Song at Twilight"|
|Witness for the Prosecution||Nurse Plimsoll|
|1984||A Woman of Substance||Emma Harte||UK TV mini-series|
|1985||The Assam Garden||Helen||UK release|
|Reunion at Fairborough||Sally Wells Grant||UK TV movie|
|1986||Hold the Dream||Emma Harte||UK TV mini-series|
- Similar to her losing streak at the Oscars, Deborah was finally awarded a BAFTA "Special Award" in 1991 after being nominated four times. She did, however, win the New York Film Critics Award three times and the Golden Globe Award for The King and I (1956).
- Her last public appearance was in 1994 when she was awarded an honorary Oscar after six failed nominations over the years. Miss Kerr, along with Thelma Ritter, is one of the few actresses to have received six nominations and not to have won an Oscar. On Oscar evening, Glenn Close presented a special tribute to her work, the Oscar audience watched clips of her films to music. Miss Kerr then appeared from behind the screen, obviously frail, in a blue pastel trouser suit and received a standing ovation from her peers. A life-long shy woman, Miss Kerr said, "I have never been so terrified in my life, but I feel better now because I know that I am among friends. Thank you for giving me a happy life." Following this, there was another standing ovation and Miss Kerr left the stage, which was to become her last official goodbye to Hollywood.
- Awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the 1997/8 New Years Honours List.
- Has two daughters from her marriage to Anthony C. Bartley: Melanie Jane Bartley (born December 27, 1947) and Francesca Ann Bartley (born February 23, 1951). Bartley was a WWII Royal Air Force squadron leader.
- Her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon in The King and I (1956).
- Suffered from Parkinson's disease.
- Joan Crawford was originally meant to play her role in From Here to Eternity (1953), but when she insisted on shooting the film with her own cameraman, the studio balked. They decided to take a chance and cast Ms. Kerr, who then was struggling with her ladylike stereotype, to play the adulterous military wife who has an affair with Burt Lancaster. The casting worked and Ms. Kerr's career thereafter enjoyed a new, sexier versatility.
- Maureen O'Hara was originally meant to play her role in The King and I (1956), but Yul Brynner specifically asked for Deborah.
- She is mother-in-law of actor John Shrapnel, who married her daughter Francesca. She is thus also the grandmother of writer Joe Shrapnel and actors Lex Shrapnel & Tom Shrapnel.
- Her brother Ted Trimmer was killed in a road-rage incident at the age of 78 (August 2004).
- When she was a young girl, she had a strict "Victorian" grandmother who made her lie on her back, on the floor, for long periods of time, in order to "straighten her back" and ensure good posture.
- She is the great-aunt of Benjamin Viertel.
- In Italy, almost all of her films were dubbed by either Lidia Simoneschi or Renata Marini. She was occasionally dubbed by Dhia Cristiani, Andreina Pagnani and once by Gemma Griarotti in Quo Vadis (1951).
- Was romantically involved with Burt Lancaster while filming From Here to Eternity (1953).
- Originally when filming began on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), her co-star Robert Mitchum worried that Kerr would be like the prim characters she frequently played. However, after she swore at director John Huston during one take, Mitchum, who was in the water, almost drowned laughing. The two stars went on to have an enduring friendship which lasted until Mitchum's death in 1997.
- Lived in Switzerland and Spain after retiring from acting, but returned to England to be with her family when her Parkinson's disease worsened.
- Her surname is pronounced "car", not "kerr".
- Her signature in cement for Graumans Chinese Theater in Hollywood was actually cast on the set of The King and I (1956) and not at the theater.
- Patron of the National Society of Clean Air and Enviromental Protection in Britain from 1992 until her death in 2007.
- Her aunt Phyllis Smale, running the Hicks-Smale Drama School in Bristol, became her first acting coach.
- Born to Arthur Charles Kerr-Trimmer, a World War I veteran pilot who became a naval architect and civil engineer, and his wife Kathleen Rose Smale, she was originally trained to be a ballet dancer.
- She was made a Fellow of the British Film Institute in recognition of her outstanding contribution to film culture.
- Deborah Kerr, her husband Peter Viertel and her biographer Eric Braun all died within the space of five weeks in the fall of 2007. All were aged 86.
- Received one of the longest standing ovations of all Honorary Oscar-recipients when she was awarded with an Honorary Oscar for her body of work in 1994.