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Kerr, Deborah (1921-2007)


Main image of Kerr, Deborah (1921-2007)

When Deborah Kerr went to Hollywood in 1947, British cinema lost a prime talent. She returned from time to time but without doing work to be compared with what she had achieved in the 1940s.

Gabriel Pascal brought her to the screen as Jenny Hill in Major Barbara (1940) and her wonderfully fresh natural beauty and incisiveness of playing were on show in John Baxter's Love on the Dole and Lance Comfort's Hatter's Castle (1941), in both as women who stumble sexually, by altruistic design in the former, through heartless seduction in the latter.

Michael Powell (who had cut her brief role in Contraband, 1940) made her a major star by giving her the triple role of the heroines in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and four years later cast her unforgettably as Sister Clodagh, forced to confront her own repressions in the Himalayan setting of Black Narcissus. This and the nymphomaniacal army wife in From Here to Eternity (US, d. Fred Zinnemann, 1953), utterly subverting any residual gentility in her image, may well be her best work on film.

However, there are plenty of other rewards: the dowdy wife who blossoms in wartime in Perfect Strangers (d. Alexander Korda, 1945); the assertive Irish spy in I See a Dark Stranger (d. Frank Launder, 1946); the wife who falls into dipsomania in Edward, My Son (d. George Cukor, 1949); 'I' in The King and I (US, d. Walter Lang, 1956); Gladys Cooper's put-upon daughter in Separate Tables (US, d. Delbert Mann, 1958); the wonderfully ambiguous governess in The Innocents (d. Jack Clayton, 1961); and the prickly memsahib adjusting to the home counties in her last film, The Assam Garden (d. Mary McMurray, 1985).

Stage-trained in Bristol, she would sometimes return to the theatre, most notably in Tea and Sympathy (1953), repeating her role in the film version (US, d. Vincente Minnelli, 1956), and there was occasional TV, including the telemovie remake of Witness for the Prosecution (d. Alan Gibson, 1982), but she was pre-eminently a film star.

She was awarded a BFI Fellowship (1986), a Special British Academy Award (1990), and a CBE (1998). She married (1) flying ace Anthony Bartley and (2) Hollywood screenwriter Peter Viertel.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Thumbnail image of Black Narcissus (1947)Black Narcissus (1947)

Remarkably passionate melodrama set in a Himalayan convent

Thumbnail image of I See A Dark Stranger (1946)I See A Dark Stranger (1946)

A fiery Irishwoman becomes a spy for the Germans during World War II

Thumbnail image of Innocents, The (1961)Innocents, The (1961)

Unnerving ghost story based on Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw'

Thumbnail image of Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)

Ambitious wartime saga which infuriated Churchill

Thumbnail image of Love on the Dole (1941)Love on the Dole (1941)

Melodrama of unemployment and poverty in 1930s Salford

Thumbnail image of Woman of Substance, A (1984)Woman of Substance, A (1984)

Glossy TV blockbuster about a woman's rise to business success

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Thumbnail image of Powell, Michael (1905-1990)Powell, Michael (1905-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer