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Deborah Kerr (1921 - )

She is an actress of unusual charm, a charm that is both physical and intellectual. -- From a review of Colonel Blimp (1943), in New Movies magazine

The star of many films in both Britain and Hollywood, Deborah Kerr was six times nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. Perhaps because of her refined Scottish beauty, with red-gold hair and blue-green eyes, she tended to be typecast in graceful ladylike roles.

Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer was born in Helensburgh, Scotland. After her father's death she moved with her mother and brother to England and later went to school in Bristol. There she also attended a dance studio run by her aunt and became good enough to win a scholarship to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School. However, after a year she left to pursue her interest in drama.

Having played a few small parts on stage and one on screen, Kerr was given her first significant film role as a Salvation Army officer in Major Barbara in 1940. This was followed by parts in other British films, notably The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Alexander Korda's Perfect Strangers (1945), and Black Narcissus (1946), in which she played a nun. During this period she met and (in 1945) married Anthony Bartley, by whom she was to have two daughters.

Black Narcissus won Kerr a contract with MGM to costar with Clark Gable in The Hucksters (1947). Although a success, she seemed unable to break her typecast "ladylike" mould in the films that followed. The only exception was her performance as a lustful wife in From Here to Eternity (1953). This and her roles in Edward, My Son (1949), The King and I (1956), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Separate Tables (1958), and The Sundowners (1960) won her Oscar nominations.

Having divorced her first husband in 1959, Kerr married Pieter Viertel in 1960. Her career continued with such films as The Night of the Iguana (1964), but in 1969 she retreated to Switzerland, where she lived in semiretirement. In the 1980s she appeared on television in A Woman of Substance (1984) and in several more films, including The Assam Garden (1985). Deborah Kerr was clearly moved when she received an honorary award at the Oscar ceremony in 1994: she was made a CBE in 1998.

The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women, © Market House Books Ltd 1998

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