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Deborah Kerr, Hollywood's Scottish Beauty

Updated on October 19, 2014

The Name Rhymes with Star!

Deborah Kerr was a beautiful and charismatic film and television actress from Scotland who achieved international fame in Hollywood. When she first arrived there, to avoid confusion over her surname, she was heavily promoted with the slogan "Kerr rhymes with Star!"

She holds the record for most Academy Award nominations for Best Actress without winning, being nominated on six occasions. She received an honorary Award from the Academy in 1994 for her lifetime's work with a citation referring to her as an "artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance." In 1998 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Early Years

Deborah and Teddy

Deborah Kerr was born on 30 September 1921 as Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer in Helensburgh, near Glasgow. Her father was a naval engineer who died when Deborah was 14 and she had a younger brother, Edward (Teddy), who later became a journalist. When Deborah was 5 the family moved south to England.

Deborah's acting skills were allowed to develop early and she attended, first Northumberland House School in Clifton, near Bristol, where she was able to develop her talent for singing, dancing, painting and piano. She then went to the Hicks-Smale Drama School, also in Bristol, which was run by her aunt, radio performer Phyllis Smale. Phyllis became Deborah's first drama teacher.

Deborah Kerr

8 in. x 10 in.

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Deborah's first love was ballet and she danced at Sadlers Wells in 1938 but at 5'6" she was too tall to be a top ballerina and she began to concentrate her energies on acting. She appeared in Regents Park, London at the Open Air Theatre and she was noticed by film director Robert Atkins who introduced her to to producer Gabriel Pascal who was looking for an actress to play Jenny Hill in the forthcoming movie adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 'Major Barbara'.

Filming began in 1940 and the movie was released the following year. It was a great success and, also in 1941 another Gabriel Pascal movie, 'Love on the Dole', quickly followed and again received excellent reviews. It was apparent that in Deborah Kerr a new star had been born.

With James Mason in Hatter's Castle in 1942
With James Mason in Hatter's Castle in 1942

The Young Star

Deborah continued with a series of films which confirmed her as one of the top stars of British cinema and which displayed her ability to play a wide variety of parts. After 'Hatter's Castle' (see right) in 1942, co-starring Robert Newton and James Mason, she gave an outstanding performance in 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' in 1943 in which she played three different roles.

Hollywood was becoming aware of the beautiful young star and after further British successes with 'Perfect Strangers' in 1945, 'I See a Dark Stranger' in 1946, and 'Black Narcissus' the following year, for which she won the New York Film Critics' Award as Actress of the Year, Deborah signed a contract with MGM and moved to America. She was about to emerge as a top international star.

Hollywood Beginner

Her debut Hollywood movies, 'The Hucksters' in 1947, with Clark Gable, and 'If Winter Comes' with Walter Pigeon, typecast her as a classy, refined and demure English lady. Although she objected to such a narrow range, she continued for several years to be cast in similar roles in movies such as 'Edward, My Son' in 1949, and 'King Solomon's Mines' the following year and in historical dramas such as 'Quo Vadis' in 1951, 'The Prisoner of Zenda' in 1952, and 'Julius Caesar' in 1953.

From Here to Eternity

The surf kiss with Burt Lancaster
The surf kiss with Burt Lancaster

The role which changed Deborah's prim, decorous image forever, was that of Karen Holmes, the adulterous army wife in 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953. The movie gained for Deborah an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and the unforgettable scene in which she and Burt Lancaster roll in the breakers of a hawaii beach has been ranked at number twenty in The American Film Institute's top 100 list of most romantic films.

From Here to Eternity on Amazon

Hollywood Star

During the rest of her career she continued to develop a reputation as a versatile actress, able to give convincing performances in a variety of roles. After a success with 'Tea and Sympathy' in 1956 she portrayed "Mrs. Anna" in 'The King and I' with Yul Brynner in the same year. It was a polished performance which gained an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.

Shall We Dance? Yes!

With Yul Brynner in The King and I

With Yul Brynner in The King and I
With Yul Brynner in The King and I

She continued her successes with memorable performances in 'An Affair to Remember' with Cary Grant in 1957, 'Separate Tables' the following year, 'The Sundowners' with Robert Mitchum in 1960, 'The Innocents' in 1961 and 'The Night of the Iguana' in 1964.

She was now an acknowledged Hollywood superstar and she showed her versatility with leading roles in comedies such as 'The Grass is Greener' in 1960 and Marriage on the Rocks' in 1965. In 1967, at the age of 46, she became the oldest 'Bond Girl' with her appearance in the parody Bond movie 'Casino Royale'.

Later Career

Deborah's retirement from filmmaking was sudden and was caused by her growing disenchantment with increasing levels of onscreen sex and violence. She continued to perform with distinction on stage and television. In 1971, she starred in 'The Day After The Fair', based on a Thomas Hardy short story, which ran for nine months in Europe, and then toured America in 1973. She returned to Broadway in 1975, playing the role of Nancy in a poorly received play by Edward Albee, 'Seascape', and then in 1977 she had great success in 'Longs Day Journey Into Night' and 'Candida'

Deborah made her first TV film 'Three Roads To Rome' in 1962, and afterwards worked steadily in that medium, with particular success in the 1980s with 'Witness For The Prosecution' in 1982, 'A Woman Of Substance' in 1983 and 'Hold The Dream' in 1986. After 1986 she retired completely from acting.

Deborah's first marriage was in 1945 to to RAF Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley, an Englishman who had been a decorated fighter pilot during World War II.

They had two daughters, Melanie Jane, and Francesca Ann, before the marriage broke down due to Bartley's growing jealousy of his wife's fame and financial success. They divorced in 1959.

The following year she married author Peter Viertel and they alternated homes in Klosters, Switzerland and Marbella, Spain.

Deborah and her second husband, Peter Viertel on the evening of their marriage in 1960

Deborah and  Peter Viertel
Deborah and Peter Viertel

The End

Deborah was diagnosedl with Parkinsons disease in 2000 and as her health deteriorated, she and Peter moved back to England to be near her daughters. After a seven year fight against the disease Deborah Kerr died on October 16, 2007 in Suffolk, England. She was aged 86.

The Wonderful Deborah Kerr 1921-2007

I'd love to hear your views on Deborah Kerr

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      @Einsteinette: Add some informations in your comments :) I am very interested !

    • Einsteinette profile image


      5 years ago

      You could have added a lot more to this. Pretty paltry if you ask me :/ I know a lot about this woman and this just doesn't do her justice.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      The King and I is one of my childhood favorites and who can forget that dance! From Here To Eternity, the sexiest movie ever made, hands down. She was pure class, I love her.

    • melissiaoliver profile image


      6 years ago

      Deborah Kerr is one of my all-time favourite actresses - however I didn't know an awful lot about her until I read your really interesting lens. I especially admire her for sticking to her views and refusing to take part in films that she disagreed with. To me, she will always be Anna from The King and I (special thanks and a Squidlike for putting the Shall We Dance scene up, as this is one of my favourite film scenes of all time!)


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