18 October 2007

Deborah Kerr

She rhymed with “star”:
The keeper of secrets

Deborah Kerr was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I met her at the stage door of a theater in the West End, after a performance of Bernard Shaw’s Candida, a role he might have written for her, the gorgeous woman who drives men mad with desire, yet who remains faithful to her husband. (A minor role in his Major Barbara proved crucial to her early career.) I was in London for the first time, on my “grand tour” with Carlene Klein Ginsburg, and somewhat to the mystification of the other kids in the group, I spent most of my time at the theater. I passed up the chance to see John Gielgud as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — I still defend my decision, since I dislike the play, and Gielgud would have been offstage (stabbed to death, don’t you know) after Act II. But in three days, amid all the monuments, I saw two shows. And pretty monumental, at that: Janet Suzman’s magnificent Hedda Gabler, and Kerr as Candida.

Need I point out, children, that both ladies projected their voices to the farthest reaches of the theater without the aid of microphones?

It was my mother’s birthday, and so I asked Miss Kerr to sign my program to her. She was delighted to know that she was collaborating on a birthday present, and she spent a good minute finding a pen that worked properly: she asked everyone at the stage door that evening until she found a ballpoint she liked. Such was her grace.

My mother and I loved her first for The King and I, yet every time I saw Kerr at the picture show thereafter, she kept surprising me: the role of Anna Leonowens was in its way the slightest demonstration of her formidable gifts. (After all, she didn’t do her own singing: that was the voice of Marni Nixon, the wonderful singer, who mimicked her to perfection and whom I met at the Weill Foundation one day.)

Kerr was the muse of Michael Powell, the fantasmagorical filmmaker whom I would meet at Brown, a few years after that performance of Candida. He loved her beyond reason. In his autobiography, Powell wrote things about her that doubtless brought a blush to her fair Scottish face, but he understood her in a way that no other director did: in his pictures, she is carnality incarnate, yet unattainable. No man can own her. And no single film can sum her up. She played three generations of woman in Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp: that’s a start. But that’s not all.

Powell cast her, too, as a nun in Black Narcissus, which doubtless paved the way for the nun she played in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, a knockoff of The African Queen. As if the taking of vows could explain her inaccessibility! Which is not, in truth, inaccessibility but a completely modern independence. Long before the Sexual Revolution, her favors were hers to give, or to withhold. When she rolls in the surf with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, she murmurs so memorably, “I never knew it could be like this.” To which you want to answer, “Yeah. Right.” She knew, brother. She knew.

Not so fast, big boy.

Her intelligence bursts off the screen as immediately as do her sexuality and her tenderness. Naturally, Shaw was catnip to her. The role of Hannah Jelkes, written with Katharine Hepburn in mind, in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, gives you an idea of the depth of her thought and feeling, yet the character is so damned repressed — can you imagine a reality in which Richard Burton would let Deborah Kerr slip away, even when Ava Gardner* is available and so very, very willing?

We think we know an actress when we see her at the movies. Especially when she is a star, as Deborah Kerr was a star, we arrive with expectations and the comforting sense that we know what we will find, the minute she appears. And of course we’re wrong. A movie camera is in its way no more prodigious than an Instamatic: we catch only glimpses, snapshots. We don’t see the boom mikes, the cables on the floor, the gaffers standing by, the rest of the soundstage, the rest of the planet, the whole of the woman on film. Deborah Kerr couldn’t be contained by a camera.

And so, curiously, I think of her now as that least likely of Bond girls, the lusty Scots lady she played, racing around the moors in a black negligée, in the David Niven version of Casino Royale. For that, too, was Deborah Kerr, if only for a few minutes.

*NOTE: The role of Maxine was written for Bette Davis, whom Ava Gardner admired madly. Roddy McDowell used to tell a story of the two, both surprisingly shy, meeting by accident in a hotel lobby. Gardner, intimidated by her idol, stepped forward and said, “Miss Davis, I’m Ava Gardner —” To which Davis replied, “Of course you are!” and flounced away.