Deborah Kerr, cinema's favourite nun, dies at 86

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The Independent Culture

Deborah Kerr, who gave Hollywood one of its most famous kisses in From Here to Eternity, has died. She was 86.

Near the start of that film, Burt Lancaster's masterful Sergeant Warden is standing outside barracks when his company commander's wife, played by Kerr, walks past: giving her an appraising stare, Lancaster remarks to his companion: "I'll bet she's colder than an iceberg." It's not long before his judgement has been overturned, and the pair of them are rolling in the surf, in what was by the standards of the time an almost pornographically unrepressed clinch; and after a run of somewhat dull films, the part (and the Oscar nomination that went with it) revived Kerr's career.

And yet, there still seemed to be a reluctance to admit that she was sexy – whether it was on the part of directors, of audiences, or maybe Kerr herself.

Looking at the things that have been written about Kerr, it's striking how often the same words keep cropping up – buttoned-up, repressed, nice, genteel, English rose. And that sense of repression and niceness were reflected in the parts she played: it's no coincidence that two of her biggest successes came playing nuns – Sister Clodagh, gamely holding the fort against intrusive oriental sensuality in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) and Sister Angela, gamely warding off the attentions of Robert Mitchum's rough and ready sailor in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957).

And then you have to add her Victorian governess – surely the second best thing to a nun – in The King and I, the irreproachable Portia in Julius Caesar (1953), the martyrdom-ready Christian maiden winning over Robert Taylor's Roman general in Quo Vadis (1951), the woman bravely foreswearing Cary Grant, because she doesn't want him tied to a cripple, in An Affair to Remember (1957), the spinster poetess in Night of the Iguana (1964)...

Yet she was, as well as a tactful, sincere actress, who won six Oscar nominations (she never won, collecting the honorary version much later on), one of the sexiest actresses of her time. Her ideal part, for me, came earlier in her career, in Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), where she appears as several versions of the woman of the hero's dreams: every time gazing on him with a warmth and utterly unselfconscious sex-appeal that glow out of the screen.

Why was she never allowed to be sexy more often? Perhaps the problem was one of timing: her kind of sexiness was, certainly, not obvious – she demanded to be wooed, treated gently, protected: which is why she was so effective opposite actors as bruisingly macho as Lancaster and Mitchum (with whom she starred three times); she gave them something to take care of.

But this was the era of Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe, brassy blondes who couldn't wait to let you know just how naughty they could be; or of Doris Day, whose virginal airs always had a tease and a twinkle – Sister Angela, in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, was one of the least twinkly virgins Hollywood has ever produced.

Sometimes the niceness worked to her benefit, though: some of her most effective roles were the ones that allowed her to show the darkness waiting underneath – the not-so-charming mistress in Bonjour Tristesse (1958), where she's allowed to look a little faded and inelegant next to a radiant Jean Seberg; the anxiety-ridden governess in The Innocents (1961).

She gave up acting relatively early, apart from a late, brief bloom in television and the film The Assam Garden: presumably frustrated by getting less interesting parts in less interesting films. But films, or timidity, had rarely allowed her to be as interesting as she clearly could be.

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