I’ve always had a thing for Deborah Kerr. There was something about the smoldering sexuality hidden just beneath that classy, upper crust, repressed exterior that I found terribly appealing. I was sorry to hear about the actress’s death a few days ago at the age of 86 and it made me think about all of the films she made that I loved so much. I’m not the only one in my family who had the hots for Deborah Kerr. My wife Kendall wrote a whole chapter in her as-yet unpublished new book in which she talks about how she developed such a crush on the actress that it caused her to question her own sexuality:
Why Deborah Kerr? Well, why not? One of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen, she was also a most subtle and brilliant actress, with an inherently ladylike reserve that it was always intoxicating to see shattered – as it was most famously as the faithless wife adulterously frolicking on that beach with Burt Lancaster in “From Here to Eternity.” But I had another theory about why I was so drawn to Deborah Kerr. I think it was because I was less drawn to her leading men. I was more a Robert Montgomery girl than a Robert Mitchum one. The leading men of the fifties just did not stir my heart the way the leading men of the thirties did. Burt Lancaster had the physique, but William Powell had the repartee. I’ve always needed repartee mixed with my sex. And it was sex I brought to all my movie viewing. If none of it was directed toward the leading man, then it all fell on the leading lady. Is that what was happening?
There were so many great Deborah Kerr performances, from “Black Narcissus” and “Edward, My Son” to “Heaven Knows. Mr. Allison” and “The Sundowners.” Her obituaries this week have mostly mentioned films like the tragic “An Affair to Remember” and “Tea and Sympathy” and of course her most famous starring role as Anna in “The King and I” which I just saw and loved again on a big screen. But even when her movies were less than stellar, Kerr’s skilled and intelligent acting was always fascinating to watch.
Her kiss with Burt Lancaster in the roaring surf is surely one of the most famous love scenes in the history of American film and way hotter than the explicit sex scenes we see in mainstream films today.
In her book, Kendall describes how she became enamored with the actress:
My first exposure to Deborah Kerr had been my father’s description of her performance in “Tea and Sympathy,” which he had seen her do on Broadway. I remember being transfixed by my father’s re-telling of the play, especially the last scene. The play concerns a bullied prep school boy whose feelingless introduction to sex has left him despairing and unsure of his sexuality. The housemaster’s wife (Deborah Kerr) gives him the “tea and sympathy” that is her prescribed duty but as the play progresses realizes “tea and sympathy” is not enough to restore his self-confidence or convince him of his masculinity. And as the play ends she is preparing to give herself to him, uttering as the lights dim one of the most famous last lines in the theatre: “Years from now… when you talk about this… and you will… be kind.”
Part of my attraction may have been because after my own feelingless introduction to sex, I needed a little tea and sympathy myself. And I longed for a great loss of virginity scene, not the rushed one my frantic timetable had scheduled. I wanted someone to sit on the edge of my bed, with kindness their only request. But whenever I imagined playing out the scene, I always cast myself as Deborah Kerr. And there lay a dilemma in my sexual role playing. Was I in love with Deborah Kerr or did I want to be Deborah Kerr?
Despite her many great roles, her six Oscar nominations, and all her awards and accolades, I always felt that Deborah Kerr had even more in her than Hollywood allowed her to demonstrate on the screen. I admire her for quitting the movies in the late 1960s at the top of her game (she said she felt either too young or too old for every part she was offered), but I wish she’d been given even meatier roles to sink her teeth into. Kerr continued acting on the stage for a few more decades. In the late 1970s she starred in a Los Angeles production of “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Now that would have been something to see.
Back in 1947, fresh off the boat, Hedda Hopper heralded Kerr’s arrival on the American scene:
Not in a long time have we had an imported actress enter Hollywood with such a splash as has Deborah Kerr (sounds like “car”)—Metro’s new star from Britain.
As her first picture here she was given the lead opposite Clark Gable in “The Hucksters.” If anybody can sell a newcomer overnight to the American public, it’s Gable.
Out of studio make-up, Deborah appears to be a girl in whom shyness and eagerness mingle. Her hair, combed straight back without frills, is of a brilliant copper color. Her skin is alive and rosy. Deborah likes housework. “For me, she said, “it’s recreation. But I’m no cook. Did you know that in England there’s a whole generation of girls who know little about cooking? You see, we who grew up during the war had no fats and such with which to experiment and we couldn’t afford to ruin food by the trial and error method.”
She’s discovered two favorite American desserts: cheesecake and lemon pie. Her one great love is gardening. So you can see that the girl whose name you’ll soon be seeing emblazoned on marquees in this country is a wholesome young lady with a great deal of charm. She spoke the keynote to her character when she told me this: “We who survived the war in Britain came out of it wanting little but a chance to live and enjoy some happiness.”
Kerr’s wartime experiences influenced her life in many ways. And even helped her gain acceptance in Hollywood. In case you thought this town’s obsession with thinness was a more recent development, behold this scary 60-year-old L.A. Times article called “Plump Little Dumpling.”
Deborah Kerr attributes her good fortune and opportunity to her British wartime diet. In 1938, her aspiration was to be a ballet dancer, but even by the hefty standards of the Moscow ballet, she was a bit too chubby. Certainly she was too well-padded for purposes of the movie camera.
By 1940, however, there were few plump people left in England, and Deborah, living on seven dollars a week while walking vainly from one theatrical agency to another, was not one of them.
In the absence of Danish butter and Australian mutton from the British larder, Kerr became even more spiritual. Once referred to by a friend as a “plump little dumpling,” Deborah could now play the ethereal Salvation Army lass in “Major Barbara,” the wan proletarian maid in “Love on the Dole,” the lithe, aristocratic beauty in “Colonel Blimp.”
Finally rations reduced her figure to the point where her charming foot fitted the Hollywood slipper perfectly. Louis B. Mayer got interested. Before Miss Kerr could say “no options,” she was whisked off to Hollywood, had a house on the Pacific Palisades, and was wearing dresses by Irene and drinking orange juice from her own citrus grove.
Miss Kerr has responded to all of her Hollywood experiences in a completely dazed fashion. She has gasped, gaped, wondered, and admired.
In England, she had the reputation of being somewhat opinionated, though not exactly temperamental, on the set. She is a person with firm convictions about her own art, and excellent judgment about it. But in Hollywood she has been as meek as any shopgirl thrust suddenly among the big names in the screen world. She has been docile to a fault, has submitted without a murmur to the ministrations of costumers, make-up artists, beauty experts, and the like.
Her friends are a little worried about this, since her main charm, they insist, lies in the chameleon-like character of her beauty, her sudden transformations from plainness to ravishing creature. They are concerned, too, about all the attention she is getting. Will she go Hollywood?
Her employers, on the other hand, are concerned about another matter entirely. Since coming to Hollywood, Miss Kerr has evinced altogether too much interest in things to eat. Half-starved on British rations, she exclaims with rapture over the plentiful delicacies of America.
They are there for her to admire but to use only sparingly. It is permitted Miss Kerr to live in a fine mansion, to wear the latest creations, to be driven about in a chauffeured limousine. But in the matter of food, she must stick to the wartime diet that gave her her slender figure and her Hollywood contract. Hollywood has no use for “plump little dumplings.”
Egads, I hope the poor woman was eventually allowed a decent meal! I love Deborah Kerr’s no-nonsense approach to life. In August 1956, the actress wrote an article for the Times called “You’re Tougher Than You Think” that provides even more insight into her character:
When I was a child in a place called Helensburgh in Scotland, and would run to my mother crying over some childish mishap, she would hear me out, being a patient woman. But if my misery was all out of proportion to the mishap, she had a calm saying that was most effective—anyway, it seemed to put an end to my tantrums:
“Never make heavy weather of things.”
My father was an invalid, from injuries sustained in World War I, and my mother had a hard time of it, between caring for him, and minding her two children—my brother and myself. But she lived by her own byword, and was unfailingly cheerful.
This homely, almost nautical expression became a family saying. In all of the ordinary annoyances, perplexities, and burdens of living, we found it a great help to be reminded that these were not necessarily the end of things. It saved me from panic when my own children developed sudden high temperatures, or when my career seemed threatened.
I do not think my mother ever intended to make light of serious things. Most of us, however, have a way of exaggerating the problems that afflict us all in the ordinary wear and tear of life. It can’t be clear sailing all the way, but we do not need to cry alarm every time a cloud appears on the horizon. People are more durable than they think; a good boat is designed to stand rough weather. We needn’t turn back at every pitch and roll.
We may need a stronger philosophy than my mother’s saying when real tragedy strikes, but in the face of our routine fears, I can’t think of anything better to say than what I first heard as a little girl: “Never make heavy weather of things.”
So many great performers have left us recently, and I’m afraid I don’t see that many worthy replacements. A few hours after finding out that Deborah Kerr had died, Kendall and I found ourselves at a theatre in Westwood watching one of Kerr's worthiest heirs in a play called “The Quality of Life.” As far as I’m concerned, Laurie Metcalf is up there with the acting greats from any era. If you’ve only seen Metcalf as Rosanne’s TV sister, find a way to see her on the stage. I’ve seen her in countless productions, especially at her native Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and have been bowled over by her talent every time. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the single-most electrifying performance I’ve ever seen on the stage was Metcalf’s 20-minute monologue as Darlene in the Steppenwolf production of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” in the early 1980s. Also in the play last night were the excellent JoBeth Williams, Scott Bakula, and Dennis Boutsikaris. And in the audience with us was one of Deborah Kerr’s contemporaries, Eva Marie Saint, still gorgeous and radiant at 83, and her husband, director Jeffrey Hayden. Both are friends of Kendall’s family and I was tempted to ask Eva Marie about Deborah Kerr (the two of them kept handing off leading men to each other in the 1950s, most notably Cary Grant). Thinking of Deborah Kerr all day, I was glad to be watching such exquisite acting on the stage and to see Kerr’s peers enjoying it so much from the audience.
Kendall’s obsession with Deborah Kerr reached the point where she actually purchased a suit that Kerr wore in the film “Beloved Infidel” at a Butterfield and Butterfield auction. I’d like to say that Kendall has worn it for me during some sexy roleplaying episodes but alas, she has denied me this pleasure. Obviously I needn’t fear any longer that Kendall is going to leave me for the actress, but hey, if she had encountered the young Deborah Kerr and had run away with her, who the hell would have blamed her?