Best know for her roles as the governess in The King and I and opposite Cary Grant in An Affair To Remember.
Love on the Dole
Penn of Pennsylvania
The Day Will Dawn
A Battle for a Bottle
I See a Dark Stranger
If Winter Comes
Please Believe Me
Thunder in the East
The Prisoner of Zenda
The End of the Affair
The Proud and Profane
Tea and Sympathy
Kiss Them for Me
Count Your Blessings
The Naked Edge
On the Trail of the Iguana
The Chalk Garden
Marriage on the Rocks
Eye of the Devil
Prudence and the Pill
The Gypsy Moths
The Assam Garden
Reunion at Fairborough
Hold the Dream
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 received one Academy Honorary Award for her career in 1994.
Deborah Kerr was born Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer September 30, 1921 in a private nursing home (hospital) in Glasgow, Scotland, the only daughter of Kathleen Rose (née Smale) and Capt. Arthur Charles Kerr-Trimmer.
She spent the first three years of her life in the nearby town of Helensburgh, where her parents lived with Deborah’s grandparents. Kerr had a younger brother, Edmund (“Teddy”), who became a journalist. He was killed in a road rage incident in 2004.
Kerr was educated at the independent Northumberland House School, Henleaze in Bristol, and at Rossholme School, 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. She adopted the name Deborah Kerr on becoming a film actress (“Kerr” was a family name going back to the maternal grandmother of her grandfather Arthur Kerr-Trimmer.
Kerr’s first stage appearance was at Weston-super-Mare in 1937, as “Harlequin” in the mime play Harlequin and Columbine. She then went to the Sadler’s Wells ballet school and in 1938 made her début in the corps de ballet in Prometheus. After various walk-on parts in Shakespeare productions at the Open-Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, she joined the Oxford Playhouse repertory company in 1940, playing, inter alia, “Margaret” in Dear Brutus and “Patty Moss” in The Two Bouquets.
In 1943, aged 21, Kerr made her West End début as “Ellie Dunn” in a revival of Heartbreak House at the Cambridge Theatre, stealing attention from stalwarts such as Edith Evans and Isabel Jeans.
Kerr’s first film role was in the British production Contraband in 1940, but her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. With her next two British films—Major Barbara and Love on the Dole (both 1941)—her screen future seemed assured.
She went on to make Hatter’s Castle (1942), in which she starred opposite Robert Newton and James Mason, and then played a Norwegian resistance fighter in The Day Will Dawn (1942). She was an immediate hit with the public: British exhibitors voted her the most popular local female star at the box office.
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, Powell and she became lovers.
Although the British Army refused to co-operate with the producers—and Winston Churchill thought the film would ruin wartime morale—Colonel Blimp confounded critics when it proved to be an artistic and commercial success. Powell hoped to reunite Kerr and lead actor Roger Livesey 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.
Her role as a troubled nun in the Powell and Pressburger production of Black Narcissus in 1947 did indeed bring 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. British exhibitors voted her the eighth-most popular local star at the box office. Soon she received the first of her Academy Award nominations for Edward, My Son, a 1949 drama set in England that co-starred Spencer Tracy.
In Hollywood, Kerr’s British accent and manner led to a succession of roles portraying refined, reserved, and “proper” English ladies. Kerr, nevertheless, 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. She then played Princess Flavia in a remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (1952). In 1953, Kerr “showed her theatrical mettle” as Portia in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar. She then departed from typecasting with a performance that brought out her sensuality, as “Karen Holmes”, the embittered military wife in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
She made her Broadway debut in 1953, appearing 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. After her Broadway début in 1953, she toured the United States with Tea and Sympathy.
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!”
Thereafter, Kerr’s career choices would make her known in Hollywood for her versatility as an actress. She played the repressed wife in The End of the Affair (1955), with Van Johnson; a nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) opposite her long-time friend Robert Mitchum; a mama’s girl in Separate Tables (1958) opposite David Niven; and a governess in both The Chalk Garden (1964) and The Innocents (1961) where she plays a governess tormented by apparitions. She also portrayed an earthy Australian sheep-herder’s wife in The Sundowners (1960) and appeared as lustful and beautiful screen enchantresses in both Beloved Infidel (1959) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958).
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 as his shipboard romantic interest Terri McKay in the bittersweet love story An Affair to Remember (1957). She reunited with Grant and Mitchum for a sophisticated comedy, The Grass Is Greener (1960), and then joined Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a love triangle for a romantic comedy, Marriage on the Rocks (1965). 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 favor of appearing in an aborted stage version of Flowers for Algernon.
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 her career. Concern about the parts being offered to her, as well as the increasing amount of nudity included in films, led her to abandon the medium at the end of the 1960s in favor of television and theatre work.
In 1975, she returned to Broadway, creating the role of Nancy in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Seascape.
In 1977, she went back to the West End, playing the title role in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida.
The theatre, despite her success in films, was always to remain Kerr’s first love, even though going on stage filled her with trepidation.
Kerr’s first marriage was to Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley RAF on November 29, 1945. They had two daughters, Melanie Jane (born December 27, 1947) and Francesca Ann (born December 20, 1951 and subsequently married to 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. They divorced in 1959.
Her second marriage was to author Peter Viertel on July 23, 1960. In marrying Viertel, she became stepmother to Viertel’s daughter, 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.
Kerr died aged 86 on October 16, 2007 at Botesdale, a village in county of Suffolk, England, from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Less than three weeks later on November 4, her husband Peter Viertel died of cancer. At the time of Viertel’s death, director Michael Scheingraber was filming the documentary Peter Viertel: Between the Lines, which would include reminiscences concerning Kerr and the Academy Awards. Kerr’s body was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church, Redgrave.