NEW YORK — "It doesn't seem possible that so much time has passed," said Deborah Kerr, taking note of the fact that this year marks the 40th anniversary of her film career. She was somewhat ruffled at the reminder.
"It's as though everything has come to an end and it hasn't," she said emphatically the other day, referring to a spate of tributes and film retrospectives that have been held in her honor to mark the milestone.
Indeed, Kerr was here from her home in Switzerland to help promote the latest in a recent round of roles that have marked her return to the screen after an extended "leave of absence."
The latest project is "Hold the Dream," a two-part, four-hour sequel to the TV-movie version of Barbara Taylor Bradford's "A Woman of Substance," in which Kerr starred two years ago. The miniseries is scheduled for broadcast in Los Angeles Tuesday and Nov. 11 on KCOP Channel 13.
In "Hold the Dream," Kerr recreates the role of Emma Harte, a tough matriarch and business tycoon who has aged to 80 in the sequel.
She said she decided to play the role in the two miniseries because it gave her a chance to shed the "goody-two-shoes" image with which she has been associated since she first came to Hollywood in 1946 to play opposite Clark Gable in "The Hucksters."
"I haven't often been given the opportunity to play someone tough, but actually I've played many different kinds of women--I even played a murderess in 'The Chalk Garden' (1964)," said Kerr, acknowledging that there are parts of herself in all of her characters. "The camera is a magnifying glass to the personality," she added.
"But most people think of me as a Duchess-type, I think, because I look like one."
At 65, Kerr looked the other day just a slightly older version of the woman seen on screen for so long. In fact, with the fading afternoon sunlight pouring through her hotel room window, her face looked much as it did in 1960 in "The Sundowners." She also evidenced the bright, soft, genteel qualities she has brought to most of her screen roles.
But she was also forthright and feisty, her moods ranging from annoyance that the telephone was out of service throughout her swank Park Avenue hotel to being a bit perturbed at the "bronze and marble" symbols of her anniversary year that she said she has been collecting at the recent tributes. Mostly, she was self-effacingly good-humored in discussing her long film career.
Kerr recalled that she left films after the 1968 release of "The Arrangement" because of changes in Hollywood and in herself. She was "either too young or too old" for the roles that came along, she explained.
"I felt I didn't want to make the kinds of movies that Hollywood started making," she said, referring to the epic and catastrophe films of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But she continued working on stage nearly non-stop, including "The Corn Is Green" in London; in Edward Albee's "Seascape" on Broadway, and in a production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in Los Angeles.
"A Woman of Substance" marked her return to film making starting in 1984, followed in 1985 by "Reunion at Fairborough" for Home Box Office. She also appeared in a TV remake of "Witness for the Prosecution."
But she referred to a recent theatrical film called "Assam Garden" as the first "proper film" she has made since 1968. In the independent British film, which has not been released widely in this country, Kerr plays "a tough old bird . . . the kind of character part I have always enjoyed playing."
Kerr said she wants to continue to work in theater and in television, but not on a prime-time series--"that would keep me tied to a wheel." And she said she would love to make another Hollywood film.
The "high point in her life," she said, occurred in 1953 when "From Here to Eternity" was released at the same time she was making her Broadway debut in "Tea and Sympathy."
In the play, Kerr played a school mistress whose passions for a latently homosexual student remained buried, and in the film--which earned her one of six Oscar nominations--she played an unhappy Army wife whose passions burst to the surface. Both the play and the film were considered unusually frank and forthright for the times.
"To do a play that rocked everybody, even though I was playing a nice, sweet, gentle, typical Deborah Kerr type, and, at the same time, to have such an enormous success in the kind of role nobody ever thought I would do, was all very exciting," she said.
"I have been very lucky, even with the little gaps," Kerr said, almost breathlessly looking back over the years. "And now I look forward to going on and doing even more outrageous things!"