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Deborah Kerr, It Rhymes with Star!

Updated on November 5, 2011

Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr was an elegant and beautiful British movie actress who achieved great success in  Hollywood and who, after six nominations for a Best Actress Academy Award, holds the record for most Oscar nominations without winning. Among her most famous films were: 'The King and I', 'An Affair to Remember', 'From Here to Eternity', and 'Separate Tables'.

In 1994 she received an honorary Academy Award for her lifetime's work. The citation referred to her as an “artist of impeccable grace and beauty.” In 1998 Deborah Kerr was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Early Years

 She was born Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer in Helensburgh, near Glasgow, Scotland, on 30 September 1921, the elder of  two children. Her father was a naval architect who died when she was fifteen.

Deborah's performing skills showed early and as a young girl she loved singing and dancing. She went to Northumberland House School in Clifton, Bristol and then to the Hicks-Smale Drama School in Bristol where her aunt, radio performer Phyllis Smale who ran the school, became her first acting coach.

 After first considering a ballet career Deborah realised her height (5'6") was against her and she concentrated on acting, and was soon appearing in Shakespearian plays at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, London. As a result of her glowing performances she was offered a five year film contract in 1939, aged 18 and she was chosen by film producer Gabriel Pascal to play Jenny Hill in the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 'Major Barbara'. The film was released in 1941 to great critical acclaim. She followed it quickly with top billing in another Gabriel Pascal movie, 'Love on the Dole', also in 1941 and again she and the film received rave reviews.

With James Mason in Hatters Castle in 1942
With James Mason in Hatters Castle in 1942

The Young Actress

 By now she was one of the stars of British cinema and she continued her run of successes with a series of films which displayed not only her striking beauty, but also her ability to play, with seeming ease, a wide variety of roles. In 'Hatter's Castle' in 1942, she starred opposite Robert Newton and James Mason, and the following year, she gave an extraordinary performance portraying three women in 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'.

The success of 'Colonel Blimp' and of Deborah's succeeding films, 'Perfect Strangers' in 1945, 'I See a Dark Stranger' the following year, and 'Black Narcissus' in 1947, for which she won the New York Film Critics' Award as Actress of the Year, brought her a wider audience. Hollywood had taken notice of the beautiful actress from Scotland and in November 1946 Deborah moved to America and signed a contract with MGM.

In Julius Caesar, with Marlon Brando and Greer Garson
In Julius Caesar, with Marlon Brando and Greer Garson


The Hollywood Star

In Hollywood she appeared in a succession of roles portraying a certain kind of reserved and impeccably refined English lady - "long suffering, white-gloved and decorative" - as she put it. 'The Hucksters' in 1947, with Clark Gable, was a great success and Deborah's second film in Hollywood was 'If Winter Comes' with Walter Pigeon and an almost entirely British cast.

She continued to be typecast as serene dignified women in a succession of movies such as 'Edward, My Son' in 1949 and in historical dramas such as 'Quo Vadis' in 1951, 'The Prisoner of Zenda' the following year, and 'Julius Caesar' and 'Young Bess' in 1953.

Deborah quickly tired of these roles which she felt did not use her talents to the full and she was delighted to be able to give a performance that brought out her sensual, more earthy side, as Karen Holmes, the adulterous wife in 'From Here to Eternity' (1953), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The scene in which she and Burt Lancaster make love amidst the surf of an Hawaii beach is ranked at twentieth in The American film Institute's list of the 100 most romantic films of all time.

The King and I
The King and I

The King and I with Yul Brynner

For the rest of her career she developed a reputation as an actress of great versatility, able to portray a wide variety of roles. After appearing in 'Tea and Sympathy' with great success on the Broadway stage she repeated it on screen in 1956 and in that year she played one of her most famous roles, "Mrs. Anna" in 'The King and I' co-starring Yul Brynner.

More success came in the following years with polished and well received performances in a variety of roles in 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' and 'An Affair to Remember' in 1957, 'Separate Tables' the following year, 'The Sundowners' in 1960, 'The Innocents' in 1961 and 'The Night of the Iguana' in 1964. She also starred in comedies such as 'The Grass is Greener' in 1960 and Marriage on the Rocks' in 1965 and appeared in the spoof James Bond film 'Casino Royale' in 1967, becoming, at the age of 46, the oldest Bond Girl.

With Robert Mitchum in The Sundowners, 1960
With Robert Mitchum in The Sundowners, 1960

Theater and Television

 In 1968, concerned about increasing sex and violence in the cinema, she retired from filmmaking in favour of stage and television. The theatre was always her first love. After her Broadway debut in 1953 in 'Tea and Sympathy' she returned to the stage in 1971, starring in 'The Day After The Fair', based on a Thomas Hardy short story.  After running for nine months in Europe, the play toured America in 1973. She returned to Broadway in 1975, playing the role of Nancy in Edward Albee's Pulitzer-winning play 'Seascape'. She also gave well-received performances in the productions of 'Longs Day Journey Into Night' and 'Candida' in 1977.

She had several successes in the 1980's on television in 'Witness for the Prosecution' in 1982 and in the adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance in 1984 for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award. Later television work included 'Reunion at Fairborough' in 1985 and 'Hold The Dream' in 1986 after which she retired from acting altogether.

Wedding to Anthony Bartley, 1945
Wedding to Anthony Bartley, 1945

Personal Life

Deborah is believed to have had a number of affairs with her leading men including Stewart Grainger and Burt Lancaster. She was married twice, firstly in 1945 when she was 24 to RAF Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley. They had two daughters and divorced in 1959.

She married author Peter Viertel in 1960 and they made homes in Klosters, Switzerland and Marbella, Spain.

When Deborah's health deteriorated they moved back to Britain to be near her children.

Deborah Kerr died on October 16, 2007 in Suffolk, England after battling Parkinsons disease for seven years. She was 86.

A Very Classy Lady

Deborah Kerr 1921-2007
Deborah Kerr 1921-2007


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    • gunsock profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thanks William. Yes she was a great talent and, I think, underrated.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I've seen many of Deborah Kerr's movies, gunsock. She certainly was a talented actress. Who can forget that scene in "From Here to Eternity?" The role I like best, though, was in "Heaven Knows Mr. Allison" with Robert Mitchum.

    • gunsock profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thanks gwennies pen. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Deborah was a wonderful actress.

    • profile image

      gwennies pen 

      8 years ago

      I always thought she was a pretty and talented actress. I enjoyed the photos and this hub. Thanks for sharing it!


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