Why I Love… Deborah Kerr

Even before I knew her name, even before I knew the name of any  film personality, I had been a fan of Deborah Kerr. Very early on, my parents discovered that any old movie musical would render me utterly contented and blissfully unaware of my surroundings. Although all were capable of working this curious magic to some degree or another, none was more potent than The King and I – the enduring tale of  East meets West. Sure, its wry observations on class distinction, gender politics, et cetera, et cetera were largely lost on me, but I loved the music and the majestic production design. Most of all, I was much taken by the kind governess with the pretty auburn hair, the gentle lilt to her voice and the most astonishing agility when it came to twirling around a ballroom in a gloriously expansive ballgown. Throughout my childhood, I always had a soft spot for Deborah Kerr, who was known to me only as “Miss Anna”.

As my cinematic tastes were slowly being cultivated, my fondness for Deborah Kerr lay dormant. Kerr had a style that was rather subtle: she was neither delightfully volatile like Bette Davis, nor was she chicly gamine à la <a href="http://www .10086sunsetblvd.com/series/favourite-film-stars/favourite-film-stars-why-i-love-audrey-hepburn/”>Audrey. As a result, one didn’t paw through film upon film of hers, seeking the satisfaction of recognising the same movie persona in every outing. Instead, Deborah Kerr would emerge quite serendipitously every once in a while. I’d take a chance on An Affair to Remember and there she would be as Terry Mackay – a lady as sweet and bubbly as the pink champagne she so elegantly imbibed. I’d settle down for a night of classic war drama, and Deborah Kerr would be incarnated as Karen Holmes, the sultry captain’s wife of rolling-in-the-surf From Here to Eternity fame. Black Narcissus. Quo Vadis. The Innocents. 

It eventually dawned on me that this actress would appear time and time again in the very greatest of films. That it took quite so long to discover and appreciate the personality that is Deborah Kerr is (I occasionally assure myself) one of the finest compliments one can pay to an actor. Never did she play the same character twice, and the versatility and quality of craft she so unaffectedly offered has afforded her a very impressive resumé. Not only are her performances set in the most visually stunning collection of movies, (bumped up considerably by that gorgeous pair from Powell and Pressburger) her films are, in their turn, daring, restrained, savage, sensitive – in one word: classic. No doubt, it is Deborah’s spectacular versatility and willingness to venture into the unknown that has left her the possessor of the most remarkable and varied  filmography I think I have ever come across.

However, one is not drawn to a performer merely because he or she is versatile. A talent for mimicry is lauded yes, celebrated even, but to remain in the heart of a filmgoer – as Deborah Kerr had done so for many years – depends on something else altogether. Like every great star, Deborah Kerr had style, albeit rather a quiet one – discernible only over a lifetime of pictures rather than with the viewing of a single one.

Not unlike her good friend and colleague Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr excelled at playing people who pretended to be something they were not. She had a penchant for repressed individuals, and had a particular talent for nuns, governesses and disillusioned wives. I empathised enormously with those women who teetered through life walking a tightrope of truth and illusion, saddled with a lifetime of disappointment and missed opportunity, yearning to break free of the constraints of their sad little lives. Usually, they were passive and even rather icy on the exterior, but within they were warm, passionate and full of great humanity. I’ve said before that we respond only to characters that we either empathise or sympathise with. Deborah Kerr, often as the same character, was able to elicit both of these feelings. She played what I thought I was, what I feared I was, what I was proud to be, what I wished to be – she seemed to touch upon every experience of the human condition, and from her characters I derived immeasurable comfort and understanding.

From Deborah Kerr’s Laura Reynolds, I gained that titular Tea and Sympathy that she so willingly offered to the very nadir of society. From Sister Angela in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, I learned the meaning of decency and devotion  in the most difficult of times. But my favourite individual of all – the one who inspired the most affection and admiration – was the very interpreter of all these women. In Deborah Kerr, I discovered the ultimate heroine. Like the women she so touchingly brought to life, Deborah Kerr was neither pushy nor excessively assertive – she didn’t have ambition flowing out of every orifice, or that steely determination to “be somebody.” Instead, she possessed love and a sincere dedication to her art and to her family. With Deborah, I learned to appreciate the things that really mattered.

7 Comments

  • You provide a compelling portrait of a lady who, besides being gorgeous, was a most accomplished, versatile actress who charmed and enchanted us.

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Thank you Patricia! And yes, I still can’t quite wrap my mind around how wonderful she was – there really isn’t anyone that can compare today!

  • Her best performance, without a doubt, was in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp!

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Oh yes, that is definitely a good one! When I was doing some ground work for this article, I had planned to conclude with a few words on my favourite Deborah Kerr performance. As you can see though, I was unable to reach a decision! I love her performance in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, but Black Narcissus and The Night of the Iguana are terribly compelling too. And then there’s The Innocents, which scares the hell out of me, but which I cannot turn away from whenever its playing… so you see my problem? :)

  • The Lady Eve says:

    She gave so many outstanding performances – Black Narcissus, The King and I, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Tea and Sympathy, etc. My own favorite is her portrayal of Miss Giddens in The Innocents. The film still gives me the chills and she is brilliant and so true as the complex/complicated governess. Such a fine actress, she turned in more than one Oscar-worthy performance.

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Yes, Miss Giddens is, no doubt, one of her finest creations. Interesting that you should mention the Oscars – when I was a kid, I used to rather revere those films and film folk who were winners. I think it when I realised that Deborah Kerr had never won a competitive Oscar that I started to take the accolade with a grain of salt.

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