In our Toast series today, we celebrate the luminous Deborah Kerr to commemorate her birth centenary and felicitate a classic that released 68 years ago today.
Why do we love Old Hollywood? For movies like 1953’s From Here to Eternity. And why do we love the beautiful actress Deborah Kerr? For movies like From Here to Eternity. The dazzling war-drama, which won a staggering eight Oscars, celebrates another anniversary this August 5, and we’re nostalgically looking back at its luminous Best Actress nom, Deborah Kerr. Born on September 30, 1921, this year marks her 100th birth anniversary. What better way to show some love? It’s a centennial fiesta!
Now full disclosure for those not ‘in the know’ – Deborah wasn’t the only top-notch star in the legendary From Here to Eternity. In fact, this film might’ve invented the term ‘star-studded cast.’ Think Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, and more. The roster was a who’s who of Old Hollywood royalty, setting the bar high on what shining cinematic gold could be achieved when assembling the best cast. It was the consummate Old Hollywood acting collab – well-deserving of its eight Oscars, which include Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed respectively.
But back to Deborah Kerr. Back in the day, she was a supremely talented Brit actress hungry to move to Hollywood and ‘show her stuff.’ But once there, unfortunately she was being typecast in roles that, according to Deborah, required her to only be “high-minded, long-suffering, white-gloved, and decorative.” Ouch. How boring. Calling all Hollywood directors and agents. Please give this talented woman a meaty character. A quick cameo in Julius Caesar (1953) will not suffice. Nor will a one-dimensional role in Young Bess (1953), no matter how gorgeously coiffed her sixteenth-century Queen Catherine Parr is. (Yes, Deborah Kerr truly looked exquisite).
A Magical Turning Point
So enter From Here to Eternity. Deborah Kerr won the role of Karen Holmes — a sultry, adulterous, military captain’s wife stationed in 1941 Hawaii. Deborah is sheer perfection. From rolling around with Burt Lancaster on the wave-crashing beach (often referred to as the all-time steamiest, sexiest love scene in Old Hollywood), to her biting argument with Burt’s character just a few moments later, Deborah is modern, complex. She’s a heady combo of both fire and ice — positively oozing this cigarette smoking, booze drinking, hostile hair-brushing Karen Holmes. (Yes, there’s indeed a ‘hostile’ hair-brushing scene. It’s dynamite!)
And as the saying goes, the rest is history. Deborah Kerr was off and running. No more one-dimensional, white-gloved, decorative parts. She instead embarked on the most successful period of her career – starring in classics like the legendary musical The King and I (1956) and tearjerker romance An Affair to Remember (1957). Deborah was skilled in comedy, melodrama, romance, even horror. There was nothing she couldn’t do. Her Hollywood career proved beyond inspirational and delightful.
Congrats to Deborah Kerr! She escaped the typecast trap, giving hope to future generations of talented thespians courageously looking for that breakthrough Hollywood role. For as lovely, demure, refined, sensitive, and gentle as Deborah Kerr was described as being off-screen (possible explanation for her being typecast as such?), she still ‘turned up the volume’ on her characters and her career. She had both gentleness and strength, proving that these two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive. So, in honor of the beloved, multi-faceted Deborah Kerr who proved that anything is possible in Hollywood, and who would’ve turned 100 years here in 2021, below are seven official reasons why we love her.
7 Reasons To Love Deborah Kerr
1. Amazing Work Ethic
She got her start in Shakespeare productions at the Open Air Theatre in London, many years later joking about that famous English rain — it continuously pelted down onto the stage, disrupting her performances! But she pressed on. Kudos to Deborah for battling those pesky nimbus clouds.
2. Starred in Two British National Treasures
Enter The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Black Narcissus (1947). Legend has it that British Prime Minister Churchill despised the The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp so much that it wasn’t even released in the USA until two years later in 1945. Deborah Kerr was an unwitting player in World War II political intrigue! Since then, this movie is often hailed as the greatest British epic film of all time, a true historical artifact. And for Black Narcissus, Deborah is a bona fide ‘tour de force’ playing repressed Sister Clodagh in a spooky Himalayan palace. This movie, too, is the stuff of legend. Erotic? 1940s? Nuns? Yes to all three. Watch it to believe. And lucky for us, it’s no longer censored.
The Criterion Collection offers an excellent Blu-ray edition – with iconic true crime film director Martin Scorsese of Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990) fame providing commentary. Yes, even he’s a fan! Additionally, this movie rocked audiences so much that it was even remade as a TV mini-series and Hulu stream back in 2020. But nothing beats the original. Think haunting wind chimes! Deborah leaves us breathless!
3. Had Her Own Slogan
“Deborah Kerr, It Rhymes With Star!” Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of top Hollywood movie studio MGM, branded Deborah as such, back when she made that fabled mid-1940s Trans-Atlantic journey from Europe to the USA. Folks knew this starlet was coming. “But wait, what do we call her when she gets here? How’s her name pronounced?” Thank you, Louis B. Mayer, for confirming, not just the surname pronunciation, but Deborah’s star status. She was a true shimmering star!
4. Ruled 1950s And Early 1960s Hollywood
Think From Here to Eternity (1953), then The King and I (1956) and An Affair to Remember (1957). These were her big three. In From Here to Eternity, who can forget the film’s finale, with her character’s departure from Hawaii post-Pearl Harbor attack, her Karen Holmes gazing wistfully from the ship back to that dreamy tropical island she’s just left behind? Positively bittersweet. The subtle sadness Deborah needs to express here is important, and she pulls it off.
It’s not unlike the subtleties needed to depict her iconic ship-board Terry McKay character in An Affair to Remember. (Apparently Deborah acted well aboard ships!) Terry McKay might just be her most well-known and treasured character by the public, so much so that it even played a significant plot point in the 1993 film, Sleepless in Seattle, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Yes, a stunning ‘flashback movie’ cameo? Thoroughly unique. Deborah’s Terry McKay is beyond lovable and sympathetic. What modern film wouldn’t want to get creative and cameo her? But bolting back to the 1960s, Deborah also starred in The Sundowners (1960) and The Night of the Iguana (1964). These films rounded out a solid decade of Deborah Kerr positively ‘ruling the school’ (that super-competitive Hollywood school).
5. Co-starred With The Best Leading Men
While gently asserting her Hollywood dominance and ruling the school, let it be known that Deborah had some fairly decent co-stars to riff with. Think Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, David Niven, and Yul Brynner. And Deborah starred with these men in multiple movies. How dreamy! Word on the entertainment street was Deborah was fun, easy, and professional to work with, keeping her in high demand not just with directors, but also her talented co-stars. The result? On-screen romantic magic, time and time again. Pick a favorite duo. Deborah and Cary? Deborah and Yul? The options feel wonderfully endless. And be wise to remember, “Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.” Thank you, sweet Terry McKay, in An Affair to Remember, for reminding us about the importance of love.
6. A Feisty Relationship With That Golden Oscar
Deborah held the record for being nominated for the most Oscars (a whopping six) without ever winning. But the Academy course-corrected. She was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1994. Elegant in pastel blue, at age 72, she gifted us with her stage presence one last time. Kind, thankful, and gracious, her acceptance speech was beyond endearing. Grab the tissues!
7. Hollywood Globe-Trotter
Deborah rocked the on-location shoot – jetting it, planing it, and training it to the far reaches of the globe. Think East Africa for King Solomon’s Mines (1950), Trinidad & Tobago for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and Australia for The Sundowners (1960). These are just a handful. That aforementioned ‘amazing work ethic’ was always shining through. She bravely went everywhere! And off-screen, Deborah Kerr lived out her final decades primarily in Spain and Switzerland. Heavenly! It was only the best for this lovely lady and beyond stellar actress.
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I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.