Deborah Kerr was one of the few British actresses to become a true Hollywood star, nominated six times for an Oscar. The National Film Theatre is running a season of her finest films this September and October.
Jack Watkins pays tribute to a performer whose elegance was offset by warmth and understated humour…
Recently I watched Black Narcissus, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 Technicolour classic, in which a group of nuns set up a school and hospital in a disused palace-cum-bordello in the Himalayan mountains. It may be just about my favourite film of all time, the acting and editing, photography, lighting and musical score combining as one to create a work of pure cinema. CA Lejeune, a leading film critic of the era, praised its ‘colour used with the vision of a painter’ – a characteristic, it could be added, of so many Powell-Pressburger films made under their Archers production banner. To fail to appreciate this film, I think, is to fail to understand the true meaning of cinema.
The ‘star’ of Black Narcissus is Deborah Kerr, her Sister Clodagh the inexperienced young Superior, promoted beyond her years and ability to lead a volatile group of young women in this steamy, tropical environment. “I give you until the first rains” says the shorts-wearing David Farrar – unusually virile and earthy for a British leading man of the period – pessimistically rating her chances of success. Despite top billing, Kerr’s role is essentially the straight one, with most of the fireworks revolving around Kathleen Byron’s unhinged Sister Ruth, plus Farrar, Jean Simmons – incredibly convincing as a slinky native girl – and May Hallatt as the grotesque old housekeeper.
Yet seeing the film for the umpteenth time, I was aware at last, in the midst of all this sultry hysteria, of how intelligent and subtle an actress Kerr was, for all her decorum and reserve. In researching this piece I chanced upon the great Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, writing upon the indirect influence Kerr had while he was scripting his engaging recent film, Broken Embraces, starring Penelope Cruz.
A year before, he’d noted in his diary a news headline that read ‘Deborah Kerr dies without knowing she is Deborah Kerr’. It related to her sad death from Parkinson’s disease in 2007, but what interested me was how he went on to describe his own late awakening to her ‘talent and singularity’. In his youth, he declared, he’d been “a prisoner, excessively so, of the glamour and excessiveness of the Hollywood actresses, and Deborah Kerr was too discreet for my feverish state back then. It was in adulthood that I discovered the complexity, richness, intensity and sense of humour that resided beneath her apparent discretion.”
I’d imagine a lot of people today might have qualified reactions to Kerr. She belonged to a period when ‘English’ actresses were usually perfect ladies, their properness stiffened, too, by their stage backgrounds. Overshadowed, as Almodovar said, by their more showy American counterparts, they were then also made to look positively old-fashioned by the unbuttoned generation – Glenda Jackson, Julie Christie, Sarah Miles among them – that epitomised the more liberated British cinema of the 1960s.
Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes in From Here To Eternity. 1953
The two month Kerr season at the NFT doesn’t include one of her most commercially successful films, Quo Vadis? (1951). That’s not especially surprising. It’s the sort of overblown, albeit maddeningly watchable, biblical epic that characterises Hollwood at its most crass. Robert Taylor is shockingly unconvincing as Marcus Vinicus, the Roman general, and Peter Ustinov hams it up as Nero. Kerr plays Lygia, a Christian girl, ostensibly the insipid, chaste sort of female role that a decade on would be regarded as laughable. Yet Kerr is one of the best things in the film, utterly convincing in her purity and warmth, the beauty of her voice, as well as that of her profile, never more evident.
The NFT retrospective does highlight the gems. Part One, in September, concentrates on the British films, such as Black Narcissus (1947), and then those that came after she was signed up by Hollywood, such as From Here to Eternity (1953), and The King and I (1956). In October, they show examples of her later work, such as The Sundowners (1960), which paired her with Robert Mitchum, and The Night of the Iguana (1964), with Richard Burton and Kerr’s polar opposite, Ava Gardner. Also included is The Assam Garden (1985), her touching swansong.
Kerr, born in Scotland in 1921, originally had ambitions to be a ballet dancer, making her debut at Sadler’s Wells in 1938. But she grew too tall and soon switched to acting, appearing in rep before signing up for films. One of her very earliest, Love on the Dole (1941), is the opener to the season on 1 September, followed by The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, another Powell-Pressburger favourite, and one of her best remembered films in which she played three roles. The screening of the latter opens with an introduction by the distinguished film historian and Powell-Pressburger authority Ian Christie. Late in the month comes From Here to Eternity, featuring her celebrated cast against type beach cavortions on the beach with Burt Lancaster.
It’s true that many of Kerr’s Hollywood movies traded too heavily on her ‘English rose’ image. It’s also a fair criticism that she may have lacked the on-screen forcefulness of some of her contemporaries. But having sat through a number of her old films recently, it’s apparent how well her performances have worn, and how her truthfulness continues to shine through. In any case, haven’t we been apologetic about our home-grown film industry and its stars for long enough? Deborah Kerr was a very British sort of performer, and if that meant a trademark poise and restraint, why should that matter? The power to suggest rather than to show has always been part of the magic of cinema.
The NFT’s Deborah Kerr season is complemented by a display in the Mezzanine: posters and designs from the British Film Institute Collection, and items on loan from her family.
The season runs from 1 September to 13 October, and the Mezzanine display until 31 October.
See www.bfi.org.uk for details.