Thursday, October 18, 2007

RIP Deborah Kerr

An actress of great distinction, and one who was perhaps undervalued in her time. Despite six Oscar nominations (she should have won for her boundary-breaking performance in 1953's From Here to Eternity, yet instead claimed the dubious distinction for most nominations by an actress not to win) she went unrewarded until an honorary statuette in 1994, by which time she had been long retired. I recall her accepting remotely, or on tape; she did not look well, and I assume Parkinson's disease, which claimed her, was sapping her strength. But it was moving to see her one last time, in the face of gathering infirmity.

Of course, via Turner Classic Movies, it's always easy to see her at her strongest and best, and the channel will have no trouble mounting a tribute. In his exasperating but ever-opinionated New Biographical Dictionary of Film the curmudgeonly David Thomson sniffs at her "true blue" quality and her frequent casting in "resolutely ladylike" parts, but how often she played against them, or quietly subverted the roles: the Irish woman turned Nazi spy in I See a Dark Stranger (1945), forsaking adulterous passion (a specialty) and escaping into religion in The End of the Affair (1955), the neurotic Miss Giddens, a guardian in need of guarding and a razor's edge part she played impeccably, in The Innocents (1961). And if true-blue ladies were her stock in trade, she banked them better than anyone; I doubt anyone could have held her own against the imperious Yul Brynner as well as she did in the much-loved 1956 film version of The King and I. The singing voice was Marni Nixon's, but the steel in her spine was uniquely hers.

Other Kerrs to remember (and I would include 1957's silly An Affair to Remember, which got new life from its enshrinement in 1993's Sleepless in Seattle): playing her parts in the uncomplicated Hollywood fun of The Hucksters (1947), her first U.S. credit, and King Solomon's Mines (1950), Quo Vadis (1951), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952); surrounded by starpower but holding her own in 1958's Separate Tables and 1964's The Night of the Iguana; going with the flow of "adult" filmmaking in the late Sixties, then turning away from the tide, in two of her last films, 1969's The Gypsy Moths (discreetly and surprisingly nude with Eternity co-star Burt Lancaster) and The Arrangement.

She and Lancaster bonded forever with moviegoers on the surf in From Here to Eternity but my favorite performance of hers came earlier, before Hollywood's call, in Michael Powell's astonishing Black Narcissus (1947) (pictured). There is much to admire about that film but at its center is Kerr's performance as an unsettled nun in the Himalayas, which she played with such grace, longing, and sensuality under her habit. Underrated she may have been, but with a solid list of credits behind her Deborah Kerr was difficult to overrate, or discount.

[As expected, TCM is right on top of things, but surely Kerr rates a whole day to herself, including another memorable performance, Tea and Sympathy.]

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