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Deborah Kerr, 86; 'Eternity' star

Actress shattered demure image in film based on gritty bestseller.

October 19, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Deborah Kerr, the acclaimed British actress whose versatile talent and refined screen persona made her one of Hollywood's top leading ladies in the 1950s in films such as "From Here to Eternity," "The King and I" and "An Affair to Remember," has died. She was 86.

Kerr, who in recent years had Parkinson's disease, died Tuesday in Suffolk, in eastern England, her agent, Anne Hutton, said Thursday in London.

In a screen career that was launched in the early 1940s, Kerr received six Academy Award nominations as best actress for her roles in "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).

Kerr received an honorary Oscar in 1994 for her body of work in films that also included "Tea and Sympathy," "Beloved Infidel" and "The Night of the Iguana." For many movie fans, particularly women, Kerr may be best remembered for what is considered one of the all-time great romantic tear-jerkers: "An Affair to Remember," the 1957 film about a shipboard romance co-starring Cary Grant.

The postwar personification of the British gentlewoman, Kerr was born in Scotland and began her film career in England in 1940. She had been in 10 films before coming to Hollywood to co-star with Clark Gable in the 1947 MGM film "The Hucksters."

When she arrived after playing a nun in the British film "Black Narcissus," she not only was preceded by her reputation as a lady but for being, in the words of Laurence Olivier, "unreasonably chaste."

But Kerr memorably shattered that image in 1953 with "From Here to Eternity," in which she played an American Army officer's adulterous wife who has an affair with a sergeant played by Burt Lancaster.

Her performance as the disillusioned Karen Holmes not only showed audiences a different side of Kerr, but the film boasts one of the most memorable scenes in screen history: Kerr and Lancaster locked in a passionate embrace on a deserted Hawaiian beach as a wave washes over them.

"That certainly shook a few people up," Kerr said of her image-breaking role in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

"Yes, people always think I'm the epitome of the English gentlewoman," she added with a laugh, "which just goes to show that things are never quite what they seem."

Kerr's versatility as an actress made her unique among Hollywood leading ladies of the 1950s, said Jeanine Basinger, head of the film studies program at Wesleyan University and the author of "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women."

"Generally, you had sort of archetypes: female stars that were sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and female stars that were ladylike like Audrey Hepburn. Deborah Kerr could do both," Basinger told The Times.

But even while playing an unfaithful wife in from "From Here to Eternity," Kerr is dignified, Basinger said. "She could give you the whole range in one performance, and that made her unique."

She was born Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer in Helensburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 30, 1921, and was a young child when her family moved to Alford, England.

Kerr, who loved to sing and dance as a child, won a scholarship to the Sadler's Wells ballet school in London and made her professional stage debut in 1938 as a member of the corps de ballet in "Prometheus."

"I was mad about ballet, but I grew too tall, and when I eventually realized I'd never become the second Margot Fonteyn, I auditioned for a play instead and got the part," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

Kerr was playing walk-on parts with the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park in 1939 when London film agent John Gliddon saw the company's production of "Pericles," in which Kerr had a tiny role.

Kerr had no lines, but Gliddon later said he was so taken with the expressiveness of her eyes and her graceful movements that he sought her out and offered to put the 17-year-old under contract.

Her film debut came in 1941, in a screen adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw comedy "Major Barbara," starring Wendy Hiller and Rex Harrison.

Kerr's small but key role as Salvation Army worker Jenny Hill was, according to Eric Braun in his 1977 biography "Deborah Kerr," "a signpost to the kind of part in which she would excel -- moral fortitude concealed by a frail appearance."

In 1945, while in a touring company that performed "Gaslight" for British troops, she met Royal Air Force squadron leader Anthony Bartley. They were married later that year and had two daughters, Melanie and Francesca.

The marriage ended in divorce in 1959; a year later Kerr married screenwriter and novelist Peter Viertel, who survives her, as do her daughters and three grandchildren.

"Black Narcissus," a 1947 drama about nuns trying to establish a religious community in a Himalayan outpost, earned Kerr a New York Film Critics Circle Award as best actress. The film was shot just before Kerr arrived in Hollywood.

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