Deborah Kerr

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Deborah Kerr

Kerr in 1973, by Allan Warren
BornDeborah Jane Trimmer
(1921-09-30)30 September 1921
Glasgow, Scotland
Died16 October 2007(2007-10-16) (aged 86)
Botesdale, Suffolk, England
Years active1940–1986
SpouseAnthony Bartley
(m.1945–1959; divorced)
Peter Viertel
(m.1960–2007; her death)
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Deborah Kerr

Kerr in 1973, by Allan Warren
BornDeborah Jane Trimmer
(1921-09-30)30 September 1921
Glasgow, Scotland
Died16 October 2007(2007-10-16) (aged 86)
Botesdale, Suffolk, England
Years active1940–1986
SpouseAnthony Bartley
(m.1945–1959; divorced)
Peter Viertel
(m.1960–2007; her death)

Deborah Kerr CBE (30 September 1921 – 16 October 2007) was a Scottish film and television 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 was a three-time winner of the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. She was also the recipient of honorary Academy, BAFTA and Cannes Film Festival awards.

She was nominated six times for Academy Award for Best Actress but never won. In 1994, however, she was awarded the Academy Honorary Award, cited by the Academy as "an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance". Her films include The King and I, An Affair to Remember, From Here to Eternity, Quo Vadis, The Innocents, Black Narcissus, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Separate Tables.


Early life

Kerr was born Deborah Jane Trimmer in a private nursing home (hospital) in Glasgow,[1][2] the only daughter of Kathleen Rose (née Smale) and Capt. Arthur Charles Trimmer, a World War I veteran who lost a leg at the Somme, and later became a naval architect and civil engineer.[3] 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, Edmund (a.k.a. Teddy), who became a journalist and died in a "road-rage" incident in 2004.[4][5]

Kerr was educated at the independent Northumberland House School in the Henleaze 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.[6][7]


She adopted the name Deborah Kerr on becoming a film actress - "Kerr" was a family name, supposedly that of the maternal grandmother of her grandfather Arthur Kerr Trimmer.[8]


Kerr in Young Bess (1953)
Kerr in An Affair to Remember (1957)
Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners (1960)

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. She was an immediate hit with the public: British exhibitors voted her the most popular local female star at the box office.[9]

In 1943 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:[10] "I realised that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for".[10] Kerr made clear that her surname should be pronounced the same as "car". To avoid confusion over pronunciation, Louis B. Mayer of MGM billed her as "Kerr rhymes with Star!"[11]

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.[10] 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.[10]

Her role as a troubled nun in Black Narcissus in 1947 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 as well as saw British exhibitors vote her the 8th most popular local star at the box office[12]. 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,[11][13] She portrayed a nun (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a mama's girl (Separate Tables), and a governess (The Chalk Garden and The Innocents), 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,[8] 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.[8]


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.[6]


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.

Personal life

Kerr's first marriage was to Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley on 29 November 1945. They had two daughters, Melanie Jane (born 27 December 1947) and Francesca Ann (born 20 December 1951), who married the actor John Shrapnel. The Kerr-Bartley marriage was troubled, owing to Bartley's jealousy of his wife's fame and financial success,[8] 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,[14] she moved back to Britain to be closer to her own children as her health began to deteriorate.[14] Her husband, however, continued to live in Marbella.

Some of 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 (1945).[15] Likewise Burt Lancaster claimed that he was romantically involved with her during the filming of From Here to Eternity (1953).[16] 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 English village of Botesdale, Suffolk.[17][18][19] Peter Viertel died of cancer on 4 November 2007, less than three weeks later.[20] 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 (2010) unreleased.[21]


Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1709 Vine Street

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.[22] 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". She was the first performer to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for "Best Actress" three times (1947, 1957 and 1960).

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.[23] In 1991, she received a BAFTA Special Award[6] and in 1994, she received the Academy Honorary 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".[24]

Kerr has also never been honored with an in-depth biography or filmography that critically examines her unique artistry or her quiet, but fascinating life. Besides the biography by Eric Braun, there is only one other by entertainment journalist Michelangelo Capua, published in 2010, entitled simply: Deborah Kerr: A Biography. However, the British Film Institute's Josephine Botting curated a "Deborah Kerr Season," which included almost 20 of her feature films as well as an exhibition of posters, other cinemabilia, and personal items on loan from Deborah Kerr's family, which took place in September and October 2010.

Award nominations

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).


1940ContrabandBit (scenes deleted)UK release
1941Major BarbaraJenny HillUK release
Love on the DoleSallyUK release
1942Penn of PennsylvaniaGulielma Maria SpringettU.S. title: Courageous Mr. Penn
Hatter's CastleMary Brodie
The Day Will DawnKari AlstadU.S. title: The Avengers
A Battle for a BottleLindaVoice–animated short
1943The Life and Death of Colonel BlimpEdith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Johnny CannonUK release
1945Perfect StrangersCatherine WilsonU.S. title: Vacation From Marriage
1946I See a Dark StrangerBridie QuiltyU.S. Title: The Adventuress
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (and Black Narcissus)
1947Black NarcissusSister ClodaghUK release
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (and I See a Dark Stranger)
The HuckstersKay Dorrance
If Winter ComesNona Tybar
1949Edward, My SonEvelyn BoultNominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award – Best Actress Drama
1950Please Believe MeAlison Kirbe
King Solomon's MinesElizabeth Curtis
1951Quo VadisLygia
1952The Prisoner of ZendaPrincess Flavia
Thunder in the EastJoan Willoughby
1953Young BessCatherine Parr
Julius CaesarPortia
Dream WifeEffie
From Here to EternityKaren HolmesNominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1955The End of the AffairSarah MilesNominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress
1956The Proud and ProfaneLee Ashley
The King and IAnna Leonowenssinging voice dubbed by Marni Nixon
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Tea and SympathyLaura ReynoldsNominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress
1957Heaven Knows, Mr. AllisonSister AngelaNominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award – Best Actress Drama
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
An Affair to RememberTerry McKay
Kiss Them for MeGwinneth LivingstonUnbilled, dubbed voice of Suzy Parker in a few scenes
1958Bonjour TristesseAnne Larsen
Separate TablesSibyl Railton-BellNominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award – Best Actress Drama
1959The JourneyDiana Ashmore
Count Your BlessingsGrace Allingham
Beloved InfidelSheilah Graham
1960The SundownersIda CarmodyNominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
The Grass Is GreenerLady Hilary Rhyall
1961The Naked EdgeMartha RadcliffeUK release
The InnocentsMiss GiddensUK release
1964On the Trail of the IguanaHerselfUK promotional short subject
The Chalk GardenMiss MadrigalNominated—BAFTA Award – Best British Actress
The Night of the IguanaHannah Jelkes
1965Marriage on the RocksValerie EdwardsUK release
1967Casino RoyaleAgent Mimi / Lady Fiona McTarry
Eye of the DevilCatherine de MontfauconUK release
1968Prudence and the PillPrudence HardcastleUK release
1969The Gypsy MothsElizabeth BrandonUS release
The ArrangementFlorence AndersonUS release
1982BBC2 PlayhouseCarlotta GrayTV episode: "A Song at Twilight"
Witness for the ProsecutionNurse Plimsoll
1984A Woman of SubstanceEmma HarteUK TV mini-series
1985The Assam GardenHelenUK release
Reunion at FarnboroughSally Wells GrantUK television film
1986Hold the DreamEmma HarteUK TV mini-series


  1. ^ The Herald. "Deborah Kerr". Retrieved 2007-11-19. 
  2. ^ Donald Fullarton. "Deborah Kerr and Helensburgh". Retrieved 2011-01-14. 
  3. ^ "Deborah Kerr Biography (1921–2007)". Retrieved 2007-10-29. 
  4. ^ "'Road rage' killer's appeal win". BBC News. 2006-03-30. 
  5. ^ "Killer's term cut". Worcester News. 2006-04-05. 
  6. ^ a b c "Deborah Kerr". The Daily Telegraph (London). 19 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-20. 
  7. ^ Sater, Richard (2000). "Kerr, Deborah". International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers ( 
  8. ^ a b c d Braun, Eric. Deborah Kerr. St. Martin's Press, 1978. ISBN 0-312-18895-1.
  9. ^ "FILM NOTES.". The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954) (Perth, WA: National Library of Australia): p. 13. 7 December 1945. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  10. ^ a b c d Powell, Michael (1986). A Life In Movies. Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-59945-X. 
  11. ^ a b New York Times (19 October 2007). "Deborah Kerr, Actress Known for Genteel Grace and a Sexy Beach Kiss, Dies at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-20. 
  12. ^ 'Bing's Lucky Number: Pa Crosby Dons 4th B.O. Crown', The Washington Post (1923-1954) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1948: 12.
  13. ^ "Deborah Kerr, versatile British actress, dies at 86." International Herald Tribune. 18 October 2007. Retrieved on 11 November 2007.
  14. ^ a b Associated Press (2007-10-19). "Actress Deborah Kerr Dies At 86". CBS News. Retrieved 2010-05-10. 
  15. ^ Granger, Stewart. Sparks Fly Upward, p 87-88. Putnam, 1981. ISBN 0-399-12674-0.
  16. ^ Buford, Kate. Burt Lancaster: An American Life. New York, New York: Knopf, 2001. ISBN 0-679-44603-6
  17. ^ Clark, Mike. "Actress Deborah Kerr dies at age 86". USA Today. 18 October 2007.
  18. ^ "From Here to Eternity actress Kerr dies." CNN. 18 October 2007
  19. ^ "Actress Deborah Kerr has died". Detroit Free Press. 2007-10-18. Archived from the original on October 20, 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  20. ^ "Peter Viertel, writer and scriptwriter, passed away yesterday in Marbella at 86 years." La Tribuna de Marbella. (c/o — Erik E. Weems — translated and paraphrased from Spanish). 6 November 2007. Retrieved: 2007-11-19.
  21. ^ "Between The Lines A film by Michael Scheingraber". Retrieved 2010-05-10. 
  22. ^ Baxter, Brian (2007-10-18). "Deborah Kerr" (obituary). London: Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved 2010-05-10. 
  23. ^ Festival International de Cannes. "Cannes Film Festival Tribute" (in In French). Retrieved 2007-11-24. 
  24. ^ "British actress Kerr dies at 86". BBC News. 2007-10-18. Retrieved 2010-05-10. 

Works cited

External links