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Deborah Kerr, the King & I.

Niamh Wood

Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr was born September 30th, 1921, in Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. She was the only daughter of Kathleen Rose and Capt. Arthur Kerr Trimmer. Kerr was educated at Northumberland house school in Bristol. She originally trained as a ballet dancer and eventually won a scholarship to Saddlers Wells ballet school at just age 17. She soon discovered an interest in acting, and with the help of her aunt, Phyllis Smale, an acting teacher, she soon began playing various roles in productions. In 1941, Kerr made her first British film debut in the film adaption of Major Barbara in which she played a supporting role as a salvation army volunteer.

Shortly after her first role, Kerr became more known in Britain and began receiving lead roles in films. She played the leading lady in Hatters Castle, which was very successful. Kerr became an immediate hit with the public, and film critics spoke highly of her as the new upcoming actress. In 1942, an American film trade paper reported that she was the most popular British actress among Americans.

In 1943, Kerr took on the challenging role of playing three women in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The producers wanted input from the British Army but were left with their refusal to cooperate. Winston Churchill also commented that he thought the film would ruin wartime morale. However, the film confounded critics when it proved to be a creative and commercial success. The same year, Kerr, aged just 21 made her west-end debut as Ellie Dunn in a revival of Heartbreak house at the Cambridge theatre. Critics wrote that she topped other performers and described her as having a ‘rare gift’. Meanwhile, in her personal life, Kerr married Squadron leader Anthony Bartley RAF on November 29th, 1945. The couple had two daughters, Melanie Jane and Francesca Ann. However, the marriage was difficult as Bartley envied his wife’s fame and success.

In 1947, she got the role of a leading lady, Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus. This film was a great hit in both the UK and the US and caught the attention of Hollywood producers, and she won her first New York film critics award for the actress of the year. On the back of the success of the film, Kerr relocated to Hollywood and was under contract with MGM (metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Kerr's first film role for MGM in Hollywood was The Hucksters (1947).

In 1949, she received the first of her Oscar nominations for Edward, my son, a drama set and filmed in England. In Hollywood, Kerr’s British accent and manner led to a series of roles illustrating refined, reserved, and ‘proper’ English ladies. Kerr referred to these as her tiara roles. However, Director Fred Zinneman at Columbia took a risk and cast Kerr (on loan from MGM) in the role of a lusty, adulterous army wife in From Here to Eternity (1953), hoping that Kerr’s ladylike nature would provide an intriguing contrast to the part. Her role resulted in her acquiring an Oscar nomination for best actress. The film was also ranked 20th in the American film institute organisation list of the top 100 most romantic films of all time. After this role, Kerr was offered a wider variety of characters with a broader emotional range such as her role in Tea and Sympathy which she received a Tony Award Nomination, and her role in Chicago, which won her the Sarah Siddons award for her performance.

Kerr's career choices continued to make her known in Hollywood in particular for her versatility as an actress. She could play prim and proper virtuous women, such as the Governess Anna in The King and I (1956), and more passionate romantic roles such as the tearjerker An Affair to Remember (1957) and The Sundowners. All these films were big hits for the public and critics alike.

In 1959, she and her husband divorced. Kerr did however go on to marry her second husband, Peter Viertel, an author, on July 23rd, 1960. In marrying Viertel, she became stepmother to his daughter, Christine.

In 1967, Kerr starred in Casino Royale, and achieved the recognition of being, at 45, the oldest bond girl in any James bond film until the movie spectre in 2015. She received a lot of pressure from competition from the younger upcoming actresses. Due to this pressure, she agreed to do a nude scene in The Gypsy Moths (1969). However, with growing concern about the parts being offered to her, as well as the increasing desire for nudity in films, Kerr retired in 1969. Despite this, she continued to make occasional appearances on stage and in feature and tv movies.

Kerr received six academy award nominations for best actress. In 1993, Kerr was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar for her dedication to acting. In 1997 she was also created a companion of the order of the British empire. She died from the effects of Parkinson's disease aged 86 on October 16th, 2007, in Botesdale, a village in Suffolk England. She is buried in a family plot at Alfold cemetery in Surrey.

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