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Deborah Kerr: An Actress to Remember : Movies: The embodiment of 'perfection, discipline and elegance' finally gets an Oscar, albeit an honorary one.

March 22, 1994|GENE SEYMOUR | NEWSDAY

The Deborah Kerr line that everyone remembers from the 1956 film "Tea and Sympathy" is, of course, the one she delivers as she's about to sexually initiate an anguished prep school student: "When you speak of this in future years, and you will, be kind."

Earlier in the film, however, there's a less portentous but more intriguing exchange between Kerr, as the compassionate housemaster's wife, and the student (John Kerr, no relation) about the vagaries of romance.

"I always fall in love with the wrong people," the younger Kerr laments.

"But that's part of the fun," she replies, adding that what one is left with after such adventures are "bittersweet memories."

This line, far more than that oft-quoted--and oft-parodied--closer, helps explain what made Deborah Kerr more intriguing and complex than other film actresses who, like Kerr, were known for playing paragons. One always sensed that beneath the finely wrought surface of Kerr's screen persona was a molten streak of worldly, unbridled passion kept--just barely--under control.

That passion exploded most conspicuously, of course, in 1953's "From Here to Eternity," in which she portrayed Karen Holmes, an adulterous Army wife who engaged in that immortal beach clinch with Burt Lancaster. That role was among six for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Each time, she lost.

Monday, the 72-year-old, Scottish-born Kerr finally got an Academy Award, albeit an honorary one paying tribute, according to the citation, to her "impeccable grace and beauty" and to a "motion picture career (that) has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance."

Kerr now lives in Europe with her husband, screenwriter Peter Viertel. Her last Hollywood studio credit was in 1969 for "The Arrangement." Much of her work during the '80s has been in made-for-TV pictures like "Witness for the Prosecution," "Reunion at Fairborough" and "A Woman of Substance."

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Thanks to last year's hit comedy, "Sleepless in Seattle," the hottest movie Kerr's been in lately is the 1957 tear-jerker "An Affair to Remember." "Sleepless' " homage to "Affair" has made the latter a prime home-video choice for couples who cocoon, and brought Kerr back into something resembling the spotlight. (It's also being remade as a vehicle for Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.)

Still, as funny and poignant as Kerr was in that bittersweet story of a thwarted shipboard romance, the role doesn't tell you what was most distinctive about her film career.

In her first featured role as a Salvation Army worker in the 1941 British-filmed version of "Major Barbara," the 20-year-old ex-ballet dancer conveyed a beguiling mixture of intensity and cool. The balance between these traits was especially striking in "Black Narcissus," the spellbinding 1946 film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in which she played a nun struggling to keep her head while the sisters working for her in the Himalayas are losing theirs. MGM liked Kerr in this film enough to bring her to the States the following year to play Clark Gable's leading lady in "The Hucksters."

It's not hard to understand why, in retrospect, Kerr never received an Oscar, since Hollywood tends to reward showier, gaudier talents than Kerr's. Her last shot was for her performance as Ida, the stoic wife of Robert Mitchum's Australian farmer in 1960's "The Sundowners." She lost to Elizabeth Taylor, who was borne to her "Butterfield 8" Oscar on waves of sympathy from having sustained a near-fatal illness shortly before the awards ceremony. Of her six losses, Kerr later said, that one hurt the most.

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