Remembering Deborah Kerr, who died at 86, and her decades-long career that started in the Golden Age of Hollywood

With the rolling surf as the backdrop, the sultry kiss shared between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity was so hot that it had to be censored. It is also one scene that as the title suggests, will be remembered for an eternity.

Adored by fans for her memorable performances, Kerr–known for her elegance and grace–was a consummate actor who later in life was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a disease that in real life upstaged her ability to perform.

Still living a life filled with professional and personal successes, Kerr died in 2007 when she was 86.

Allan Warren/𝒲. / Public Domain

Deborah Kerr–pronounced “car”–was a British actor who had her first big break with a leading role in the 1941 film Love on the Dole. She gained gained prominence with fans in the U.S. after starring as a Norwegian resistance fighter in the 1942 The Day Will Dawn. In 1943, she played three roles in the romantic war film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which despite objections from UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill–who wanted the film banned–was a huge commercial success.

A seminal moment in her career was her performance of Sister Clodagh, a nun, in 1947’s Black Narcissus, that was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell, whom Kerr had become involved with while filming his last film, Colonel Blimp.

Hoping to cast his lover in his next film A Canterbury Tale, and reunite her with her Colonel Blimp co-star Roger Livesey, Powell’s dreams were crushed when Kerr signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and left him behind for Hollywood.

Turns out the move was great for her personally and professionally.

Wikipedia Commons

Personally, she met Anthony Bartley, a squadron leader for the Royal Air Force and the two were from married 1945 to 1959, parenting two daughters, Melanie Jane and Francesca Ann.

Professionally, Kerr was cast alongside two Hollywood legends, Clark Gable and Ava Gardner in The Hucksters (1947). But it wasn’t until her performance as the on-screen wife of Spenser Tracy’s character in Edward My Son (1949), that she was noticed by the Academy and honored her with the first of six nominations over her career.

In the early 1950’s, Kerr–competing for the spotlight in Hollywood with the other gorgeous blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe–had to step up her game. Looking to shift the perception of her as a pious and proper British lady to an actor that demonstrates versatility, Kerr tested her talents as the sensual but bitter army wife in From Here to Eternity.

Deborah Kerr from the trailer for the film Black Narcissus / Wikipedia Commons

The 1953 film, which also starred Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, told the story of three U.S. Army soldiers in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Kerr’s iconic beach scene with Lancaster thrilled audiences with their roll through waves, and her performance in the award-winning film earned her another Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Later, as Anna Leonowens, she was dancing with the King of Siam, played by Yul Brynner, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956). Though her character was required to sing, it was discovered that Kerr couldn’t hold a tune, resulting in her vocals being dubbed by a professional singer. Her role as Anna earned her a Golden Globe Award and her third Oscar nomination.

Over the next several years, she starred in many films and earned another three Oscar nominations for her performances in 1957’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Separate Tables (1958) and The Sundownders (1960). Her portfolio also includes performances in 1957’s An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant, Night of the Iguana (1964) with Richard Burton and 1969’s Gypsy Moths, where she again appeared with Lancaster.

Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in "An Affair to Remember" (1957)

Posted by Classic Movies Digest on Sunday, March 5, 2023

Her last movie was in 1985, in The Assam Garden, a British film where she played the lead.

Later in her career, Kerr, who was hugely popular and never classified a diva, said in an interview, “I have never had a fight with any director, good or bad. There is a way around everything if you are smart enough.”

When she stepped away from acting, the acclaimed actor had six Academy Award nominations, and at the time, held the record as the most nominated female actor without a single win.

It finally happened in 1994 when the Academy honored her with an Oscar for “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.”

“I must confess, I’ve had a marvellous time,” Kerr said when accepting the well-deserved statue.

Deborah Kerr (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Kerr’s decades-long career came to an end when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. With her health in the balance, she moved from her homes in Switzerland and Spain and returned to the UK to be with her daughters. Kerr, 86, died in 2007, leaving behind her husband Peter Viertel, whom she married in 1960, and her two girls.

Though the legendary actor was private in dealing with Parkinson’s there are other celebrities who are more vocal with the disease that causes degeneration of the brain.

Some of them include actor Alan Alda, 87, best known as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H; Neil Diamond, the singer of “Sweet Caroline”; actor Richard Lewis (Curb your Enthusiasm); Ozzy Osbourne of Kiss; Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and former U.S. President, George HW Bush. Also, diagnosed was heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, (died in 2016), who worked with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to raise awareness and funds. Fox, a Golden Globe winner who was diagnosed at only 29, has been very outspoken and over the years, broken-hearted fans watched his physical decline.

Deborah Kerr, recipient of an Honorary Academy Award in 1993 (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

We know it’s not a disease that only hits celebrities. While we thank them for using their fame to bring awareness to the disease, we also want to send our love to the 10 million people worldwide who are living with Parkinson’s.

If you were a fan of Deborah Kerr, we’d love to hear your memories of the beautiful star!