Top Ten: Deborah Kerr Essentials
The wonderful Kristin Battestella wrote a fantastic article on Gregory Peck a few weeks ago that laid out why she loves him and which performances of his she thinks you should check out. I don’t share her fascination with Peck but her article did inspire me to think about performers I love and Deborah Kerr immediately came to mind. The Scottish beauty had a long and consistent career that allowed her to appear in independent films in Britain before becoming a full-fledged superstar in America in the 1950s. Despite regularly playing posh ladies there was something very down to earth and natural about Kerr and that made her more enigmatic and exciting than some of her contemporaries. Sadly some people imagine her as the sort of bland leading lady who relied on her glamor and her looks to get by rather than appreciating her talent and the interesting choices she made. I wanted to highlight some of her most under-appreciated pieces of work with this article in the hope that it will encourage people to see her as the unique presence she was rather than being the disposable love interest in Quo Vadis (1951).
10. Julius Caesar
This is a fairly stolid adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous play but when James Mason starts talking in that mellifluous voice of his it is hard to look away. I will do away with a plot description because I assume you will already know what happens in this age-old story. Kerr has a pretty small role and doesn’t appear on screen for a very long time but she does leave a strong impression. In an eye-catching white dress, she introduces Portia as a beautiful young woman who has been robbed of all power in a society full of misogynists. Those incredible green eyes of hers bored into my soul and the anger she seemed to feel was visceral. She puts it all out there in her one big scene and proves that she was superior to Greer Garson who fails to draw your interest in a larger role. Kerr was actually brought to Hollywood to be a star in the Garson mold but she broke away from the bland prestige pictures that were thrown at her in the early 1950s and put together a filmography full of hidden gems. Dreary Garson can’t hold a candle to her.
9. The Arrangement
This trashy melodrama was lambasted upon release in 1969 as director Elia Kazan adapted his own novel and was criticized for coming across as a navel-gazing jerk. To be fair the film is pretty sympathetic to asshole Eddie Anderson, Kirk Douglas, who hates his wife Florence, Deborah Kerr, for seemingly no reason while carrying on an affair with the much younger Gwen, Faye Dunaway. Kerr is pushed into the background and plays a character who is meant to be annoying and unsympathetic but any reasonable person sides with her as they watch this film and Kerr finds a way to avoid engaging in cheap theatrics. She provides a nice counterbalance to the icy, sleek Dunaway who glides through every scene as she finds a way to explore her character’s deep insecurities. When her husband attacks her with criticisms about how empty she is we sense her bewilderment and we see the way this woman has compartmentalized her life. She has such distaste for her husband that she doesn’t even bother to talk back to him and note his hypocrisy in hating her for not being somebody with a strong moral center. Her natural beauty is also on display and I began to resent the fact that she wasn’t given better roles later in her career. She looked better than most actresses half her age and still possessed forceful charisma but because of sexism, she was forced to play wives who were meant to be mean and unattractive rather than getting leading roles.
8. Separate Tables
This is one of those films that has not aged well as the screenwriters made some troubling changes when transferring Terrence Rattigan’s highly respected plays onto the screen. The film follows sexual harasser Major Pollock, David Niven, as he tries to fight back against the tyrannical Mrs. Railton-Bell, Gladys Cooper, who wants to kick him out of the boarding house they stay at by socially pressuring others into persecuting him. Railton-Bell’s daughter Sybil, Deborah Kerr, is completely controlled by her overbearing mother but loves Pollock from afar and longs for him despite his issues. The film also tacks on Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth as two glamorous Americans involved in a fun subplot about a divorced couple reconciling that unfortunately involves domestic abuse. If you can get past the fact that the film essentially condones physical abuse within a relationship and sexual harassment you will get to enjoy some great performances. I don’t think Kerr is at her best in this film as she is largely sidelined in favor of the more showy Hayworth but she does have a few stunning scenes. When she’s around Niven she finds a variety of ways to respond to him which is more difficult than people think it is as it would have been easy for her to switch off when he goes off on one of his monologues but she finds ways to ground these scenes as well as drawing attention to her character’s responses. These little touches make the film worth watching and with an exquisite Wendy Hiller on screen for a few highly memorable scenes it is hard not to be riveted.
7. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
This 1957 feature is the poor man’s version of The African Queen (1951) as John Huston blatantly took most of the tropes from that classic romantic comedy and cobbled them together for this misshapen oddity which never quite comes together. It tells the story of a virtuous nun, Sister Angela, Deborah Kerr, and a rakish Marine, Allison, Robert Mitchum, who grow close when they both find themselves on a desert island in the middle of World War II. He falls in love with her but she rejects him and they end up parting after some Marines find them on the island. In some ways, the film is hurt by the conservative mores of the day as most modern audience members would want the nun to throw caution to the wind and have an affair with bad boy Mitchum. In 1957 audience members would have protested against something like this happening in a mainstream film so we get a bizarre story in which tension between the two characters never really develops. Fortunately, Kerr is on hand to singlehandedly rescue this misguided film as she brings quiet grace and dignity to a part that could have been boring. She has terrific chemistry with Mitchum, who was a lifelong friend, and the easy conversations they have early on in the film are a joy to watch. It is rare to see such natural acting and Kerr makes diffidence exciting as her character brushes up against some troubling emotions. She is held back by a story that doesn’t let her do much but in many ways, this film serves as a testament to her abilities as she does more with her role than any other actress could have.
6. Bonjour Tristesse
This Otto Preminger flick is best remembered as a vehicle for Jean Seberg who would become iconic with her role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) but Kerr steals the show as a fairly tragic character. Kerr plays Anne, a sophisticated older woman who gets involved with an abrasive playboy who lets his manipulative daughter Cecile, Jean Seberg, drive them apart. Yet again Kerr was stuck playing a woman of a certain age even though she still seemed sprightly and energetic rather than being the spinster that other characters claim she is. She makes for a sympathetic tragic heroine and you want to beat everybody else over the head for not appreciating her maturity and intelligence. The film does highlight Kerr’s greatest asset as she made acting like an adult sexy and appealing in the 1950s. This was special because so many leading ladies from this era were asked to act like little girls and when they were paired with older leading men it always felt creepy because there was such a power imbalance between the characters they played. With Kerr, you always felt like she was on equal footing with her leading men because she never played dumb and refused to be awed in the face of respected actors like Burt Lancaster and Cary Grant. Watch Bonjour Tristesse and marvel at her strength and confidence. She was a rare creature and we should have had more actresses like Kerr rather than being subjected to the Leslie Carons and Audrey Hepburns of the world.
5. The Sundowners
I like this quirky Australian family film a little bit less than everybody else but I will admit that it does have its charms in between the unnecessarily long shots of koala bears and sheep. It concerns drover Paddy Carmody, Robert Mitchum, who forces his family to move around the country frequently because of his non-committal ways. His wife Ida, Deborah Kerr, loves him but she wants to live a more stable life and is upset when her husband loses all of their money and prevents them from buying a farm they could have lived on permanently. Kerr and Mitchum were paired for the second time here and their chemistry was as strong as ever as they make a very convincing married couple. One delightful scene depicts the two of them sharing an intimate moment and Kerr mixes feminine pride with bashfulness when she says “Glad to know you appreciate me” as she washes her face after a long day of work. When Mitchum counters with “You come on over here. I’ll appreciate you” we see a thrilled look on Kerr’s face as she prepares to lie down with her beloved husband and perhaps have sex with him. She also brings an unexpected earthiness to the part and successfully adopts an Australian accent which only makes poor Mitchum look worse as his voice is suspended somewhere between American, Irish and Australian. This serves as an effective rebuke to critics of Kerr who claim that she was only capable of playing ladylike, aristocratic types.
4. An Affair to Remember
This might be Kerr’s best-known role and some fans might shout at me for not placing it first but I like her other work a little bit more. We all know the story and most classic film fans have already seen Love Affair (1939) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993) but it’s basically about singer Terry McKay, Deborah Kerr, falling in love with playboy Nickie Ferrante, Cary Grant. The two agree to meet one another atop the Empire State Building in six months’ time when they end their affair but she is hit by a car and ends up paralyzed so she can’t meet him at the agreed time but the two see one another again and eventually get together. I must admit that I am not a big fan of the film as a whole as I have never really warmed to Grant and he isn’t the sort of man I fantasize about so the central romance doesn’t work for me. Kerr is utterly brilliant however and she is the reason that I keep watching it. She was such a great fit for this sort of melodrama as this was clearly a film made for adults and it is not afraid to deal with serious, weighty themes while still being a glossy piece of mainstream entertainment. Kerr finds a way to plumb the depths of her character’s psyche by displaying the anguish she feels over having such a frivolous affair but she is also every inch the glamorous leading lady as she wears incredible gowns with aplomb. I gasp at all the right moments and smile when she looks up at Grant with stars in her eyes but I am also floored by the dramatic scenes where she completely lets go of her composure.
3. The Innocents
This is a film that everybody seems to like. Even those who dislike Kerr’s work in the 1950s or horror movies are united in their love for this disturbing Henry James adaptation. It is all about governess Miss Giddens, Deborah Kerr, as she comes to believe that ghosts are haunting the house of her employers. This is a grand showcase for Kerr’s talents and she takes advantage of the fact that the script allows her to widen those legendary eyes. She captures mania mixed with emotional repression far better than Nicole Kidman would in The Others (2001) and the image of her with her lips slightly parted and her eyes darting back and forth will be burned into my brain forever. This is one of those films where I feel like I don’t have to encourage people to see it because they will have already watched it. I’m so happy that this fairly strange picture has been so widely embraced and it is heartening to realize that audiences do gravitate towards artistically ambitious fare sometimes.
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Kerr is tasked with playing multiple roles here and does so very well as she plays all three women that soldier Clive Wynne-Candy falls in love with throughout his life. She is totally believable as somebody radiant enough to leave a person gobsmacked and the audience is bewitched by her in all three of her incarnations. She was very young when she made this film and she does seem gawkier than she would in later roles. This only endears her to us more as we can see her trying to figure out who she is and there are times when she does look uncomfortable in her own skin. She portrays the uncertainty of youth wonderfully but never loses the rosy tint in her cheeks that lets us know she is a lot of fun to spend time with. This was what made Kerr such a beloved figure in Hollywood social circles as she was a great raconteur and never seemed to take herself too seriously. A more precious, overly serious young actress would have given a stiff, overly mannered performance in the role Kerr was handed but she works wonders with it.
1. Black Narcissus
Was it ever going to be anything else? Kerr’s portrayal of the sexually frustrated Sister Clodagh, Deborah Kerr, who grapples with her desire while establishing a school and a hospital in the Himalayas is legendary. She captures the confusion and mania that a whole generation of women had to go through when they were told that feeling sexual desire was not right. She tries to deny herself the pleasures that she needs but it will not be denied and it comes out in emotional stress. As she sublimates her desires Kerr becomes an even more physical performer as she almost seems like she is in a German Expressionist film. She never reached these heights again but that is understandable because her work in this film stands as one of the great achievements in the history of film acting. Kathleen Byron is also fantastic but Kerr’s subtlety means that she is allowed to go wild and become unrestrained in the second act. The yin and yang that they form is central to the film’s success and they each need to be doing very specific things for the other’s performance to be effective.
I am sure I will receive some criticism for not including films like The Chalk Garden (1964) and The Gypsy Moths (1969) on this list but I hope you have enjoyed this ranking. Please comment below if you agree or disagree with my choices.