Friday, October 19, 2007

Deborah Kerr (1921-2007)

Legendary stage and screen actress Deborah Kerr died on Tuesday at her home in Suffolk, England. She was 86.

Below are excerpts from an Associated Press article by Jill Lawless on the passing of this beautiful and gifted actress, followed by my reflections on The Night of the Iguana, my favorite of Deborah Kerr’s many films.


Deborah Kerr (pronounced Carr), who shared one of Hollywood’s most famous kisses while portraying an Army officer’s unhappy wife in From Here to Eternity, and danced with the Siamese monarch in The King and I, has died. She was 86.

Kerr, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died Tuesday in Suffolk in eastern England, her agent, Anne Hutton, said Thursday.

For many she will be remembered best for her kiss with Burt Lancaster as waves crashed over them on a Hawaiian beach in the wartime drama From Here to Eternity.

Kerr’s roles as forceful, sometimes frustrated women pushed the limits of Hollywood’s treatment of sex on the screen during the censor-bound 1950s.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Kerr six times for best actress, but never gave her an Academy Award until it presented an honorary Oscar in 1994 for her distinguished career as an “artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.”

She had the reputation of a “no problem” actress. “I have never had a fight with any director, good or bad,” she said toward the end of her career. “There is a way around everything if you are smart enough.”

. . . [In the 1950s] tired of being typecast in ladylike roles, she rebelled to win a release from her MGM contract and get the role of Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity.

Playing the Army officer’s alcoholic, sex-starved wife in a fling with Lancaster’s Sgt. Warden opened up new possibilities for Kerr.

She played virtually every part imaginable from murderer to princess to a Roman Christian slave to a nun.

In The King and I , with her singing voice dubbed by Marni Nixon, she was Anna Leonowens, who takes her son to Siam so that she can teach the children of the king, played by Yul Brynner.

Her best-actress nominations were for Edward, My Son (1949), From Here to Eternity (1953), The King and I (1956), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Separate Tables (1958), and The Sundowners (1960).

Among her other movies is An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant.

Other notable roles were in Beloved Infidel, The Innocents (an adaptation of the Henry James novella Turn of the Screw), The Night of the Iguana with Richard Burton, and The Arrangement with Kirk Douglas.

After The Arrangement in 1968, she took what she called a leave of absence from acting, saying she felt she was “either too young or too old” for any role she was offered.

Kerr told The Associated Press that she turned down a number of scripts, either for being too explicit or because of excessive violence. [Kerr's last feature film was The Assam Garden in 1985, which, according to The Guardian, “gave her an intriguing, somewhat unglamorous role that perfectly suited her subtle technique and quiet dignity.”]


As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my favorite film of Deborah Kerr’s is The Night of the Iguana, in which she plays itinerant painter Hannah Jelkes, a woman “pushing forty” and traveling around the world with her ailing grandfather, Nonno, “the world’s oldest living and practicing poet.”

The film’s tag line, “One man . . . three women . . . one night,” was quite risqué - even by mid-1960s standards. Although Kerr’s character is one of the “three women” provocatively mentioned, the image used of her in the movie’s poster is totally unflattering. She looks like a Howler Monkey in full-howl!

Above: Deborah Kerr as Hannah and Cyril Delevanti as Nonno
in The Night of the Iguana (1964).

The film itself, adapted from the play by
Tennessee Williams, is a turbulent masterpiece, and one of my all-time favorites. It tells the story of the “Reverend” T. Lawrence Shannon (played by Richard Burton), a defrocked clergyman-turned-tour-guide who takes a bus load of pious Texan church ladies to an Eden-like spot along the coast of Mexico, where he battles their suspicions about his past, his own demons, and a young girl (the first of the “three women”!) whose amorous advances could destroy him.

As one critic has noted: “Tennessee Williams has rarely fared well in the transfer from stage to screen, but Night of the Iguana is evidence that his work makes for powerful viewing. Stark visuals play against the subtle script and performances – with Ava Gardner giving perhaps her finest performance as the over-sexed, hard-bitten hotel owner, Maxine, who conceals a loving heart and honest nature behind an “I don’t give a damn” mask. [Yes, she’s the second of the “three women”]. Burton has rarely been seen to such an effect, and Deborah Kerr as Hannah – yet another lost soul who ends up at Maxine’s run-down hotel seeking some form of salvation – is excellent. The film provides an unforgettable glimpse into the complexity and ambiguity of human nature.”

Following is the original theatrical trailer for The Night of the Iguana.

At one point in Tennessee William’s play (and John Huston’s film adaptation), Shannon observes: “The whole world, God’s world, has been the range of my travels. I haven’t struck to the schedules of the brochures and I’ve always allowed the ones that were willing to see . . . to see the underworlds of all places, and if they had hearts to be touched, feelings to feel with, I gave them a priceless chance to feel and be touched. And none will ever forget it, none of them, ever, never!”

Of the relationship between Shannon and Hannah, John McClain of the New York Journal-American has observed: “There is a strange and immediate rapport between the discredited cleric and the lonely artist. The play’s [and film’s] most poignant moments – scenes of enormous compassion – grow out of the understanding of these two people, their mutual need for companionship and roots, their final moments of nobility in small gestures of unselfishness to aid one another.”

As a character of both wisdom and compassion, Hannah Jelkes has some memorable lines. I’ve even incorporated a particular quote of hers in more than one paper written over the course of my years of theological study!

For instance, when writing about the process of “coming out” as a spiritual journey for my thesis in 1996, I observed the following (though note how what I wrote is applicable to other experiences and areas of human/spiritual growth apart from “coming out” as gay):

Experiences of isolation and regret [hallmarks of the first stage of coming out], as painful as they may be, can nevertheless be seen as gateways to the second passage of the coming out journey - coming out to others.

For such a momentous step to be psychologically and spiritually affirming, however, a strong basis of self-awareness is required. Paradoxically, such grounding is often gained through experiences of loss and regret - experiences that propel one to journey further inwards, to undertake what Hannah Jelkes in The Night of the Iguana calls “subterranean travels - the travels that the spooked and bedeviled people are forced to take through the unlighted sides of their natures.”

They are travels unlit by sources of outside approval, but which, in time, can be illuminated by the indwelling presence of the Sacred. It is by this holy light, this “light within,” that we come to recognize, define, and name ourselves more clearly, more truthfully, and learn to trustingly immerse ourselves in the sacred currents and streams that infuse and shape our story.

Along with her reference to the “subterranean travels” of the “spooked and bedeviled,” the character of Hannah Jelkes, brought so beautifully and convincingly to life by Deborah Kerr, has a number of other great lines:

• “I respect a person that has had to fight and howl for his decency and his bit of goodness, much more than I respect the lucky ones that just had theirs handed out to them at birth and never afterwards snatched away from them.”

• “I’m a human being and when a member of that fantastic species builds a nest in the heart of another, the question of permanence isn’t the first or even the last thing that’s considered.”

• “Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind or violent.”

• “This [iguana] is tied by its throat, it can’t bite its own head off to escape from the end of the rope, Mr. Shannon. Can you look at me and tell me, truthfully, that you don’t know it's able to feel pain and panic? . . . Its situation seems very human and so does its desperation. So, Mr. Shannon, will you please cut it loose, set it free? Because if you don’t, I will.”

Recommended Off-site Links:
Deborah Kerr Dies at 86 – Associated Press.
On the Beach with Deborah Kerr: A Kiss, and an Actress, for Eternity - An appreciation by Stephen Hunter.
A review of The Night of the Iguana – Glenn Erickson.

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