Deborah Kerr was a mighty star known for her ladylike composure and beautiful, delicate features. The late 1940’s and 50’s saw her playing refined characters like Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (1947) and Princess Flavia in The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) among many others. But times were changing and Kerr, the Scottish born beauty whose mother made her lie on the floor for hours on end to make sure her back had “perfect posture” – found that her public persona was threatening to make her Hollywood career short-lived.
Deborah knew she needed a drastic change and in 1952 it came. She went up for the role of Karen Holmes in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) the film adaptation of the famous James Jones novel depicting military life in Hawaii on the eve of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Kerr was up against Joan Crawford, who infamously demanded her own director of photography for the role. The studio balked and Kerr was given the role of an unhappily married military wife who falls for the charms of Burt Lancaster.
Kerr said the famous beach love scene with Burt was torturous. They had to wait for the perfect wave to wash over them while they made out. Trouble was you never knew when the perfect wave was coming and they had to do the scene over and over and over again. By the end of the shoot, Kerr said she and Lancaster had sand everywhere – in their mouths and “in other places, too.” The gamble to her career worked like wildfire. The sexy new Kerr was suddenly the talk of Hollywood, opening up roles for her that she would never have gotten before.
Of course, the two most famous roles were to come for Kerr: “The King and I” (1956) and “An Affair to Remember” (1957) with Yul Brenner and Cary Grant, respectively. Kerr was magical in both and beautiful beyond measure. She was also newly confident and reassured in her roles. The famously shy actress was nominated for six Oscars – but never won until given an honorary statuette in 1994.
Kerr quit movies and television altogether in 1986. She said it was because she was shocked and disgusted by all the sex and violence in movies and TV. And this was 1986! The graceful and elegant Kerr had a great sense of humor and a sensuality that many of her co-stars and fans remember of her. She once said in an interview that when she kissed Cary Grant in “An Affair to Remember” that she really was in love with him. The fact, she says, that they weren’t trying to swallow each other – didn’t make their kissing sessions any less passionate.
I’m grateful that “From Here to Eternity” came along and the perfect time to bring Kerr out of her shell. If not, then we may never have seen a deeper, more intense and passionate side of the Scottish actress – a side that made her fans and future generations realize that you can be graceful, refined, sensual and sexy all at the same time. Kerr embodied her characters in a way that has made her a favorite even today. That kind of timeless quality is rare and Kerr will always be remembered for being as beautiful in a full-length gown dancing and singing with Yul Brenner as she was in a bikini on the beach smooching Burt Lancaster. And that, as they say, is real range.
A rare unpublished portrait of Kerr as beautiful as any supermodel today.