Deborah Kerr 1921-2007

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961)

One of my all-time favorite actresses has passed away due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, the lovely and talented Deborah Kerr. She was an extraordinarily talented woman with an abundance of grace and beauty, and she appeared in some of my favorite films from the sixties including The Innocents (1961) The Night of the Iguana (1964) and Casino Royale (1967), as well as many other films that I love such as Black Narcissus (1947), The King and I (1956), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), The Chalk Garden (1964) and Eye of the Devil (1966), etc.

I had planned on writing about The Innocents in the coming days because frankly, there is no film that I find more chilling or haunting than that film made by Jack Clayton in 1961, which starred the lovely Deborah Kerr. The Innocents is the first movie that comes to my mind when I think of “films that give me the willies” and that’s saying a lot, since I’ve literally watched thousands of horror films throughout the course of my life at this point. Due to Deborah’s passing, I figured I’d write a little bit about my favorite horror film today.

I first watched The Innocents when I was just a young 9 or 10 year old kid. I caught the film playing on television one summer afternoon while I was staying with my grandmother and even the bright afternoon sun streaming through the windows couldn’t chase away the chilling effect that the film had on me.

The haunting images conjured up by Jack Clayton’s brilliant directing and Freddie Francis’ absolutely breathtaking cinematography were stained on my retinas and embedded in my mind, and they would remain with me my entire life. I’ve seen the film numerous times since then, but it’s a movie I never get tired of watching and it always manages to fill me with absolute dread.

The Innocents is based on Henry James classic tale The Turn of the Screw and it’s one of the greatest adaptations ever made. Clayton was able to perfectly capture all the nuanced elements of Henry James’ story about a sexually repressed governess who is haunted by ghosts and her own desires, and turn them into an incredible film that actually rivals the original material it is based on.

Naturally a lot of the films power comes from Deborah Kerr’s incredible performance as the upright Miss Giddens. She’s absolutely perfect in a role that was written for a much younger woman. I don’t think a younger actress could have really captured the sort of repressed sexual longing and complicated fears that the character is struggling with in the film and Kerr’s astonishing performance has never been matched. Countless actresses have tried to play the character of Miss Giddens in many film adaptations of The Turn of the Screw and I believe I’ve sat through them all, but Kerr’s performance in The Innocents has never been topped and frankly, I don’t think it ever will.

Deborah Kerr and Peter Wyngarde in The Innocents (1961)

If you only watch one horror film this month, do yourself a favor and see The Innocents.

12 thoughts on “Deborah Kerr 1921-2007

  1. It’s a great film and Deborah Kerr is a favorite of mine as well. I love her in Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp where she plays three roles at the age of 22, all to perfection. And not to trivialize her talent in any way but she was also quite beautiful. Late in Colonel Blimp when she’s playing her third character, Anton Walbrook asks her what she did before the war and she replies she was a model. It fits perfectly as her face (her eyes and lips) as she drives Walbrook home are simply stunning to take in.

    The Innocents is one of the great pieces of cinema of the sixties. On top of everything you said the film also makes fantastic use of sound to build a chilling atmosphere. And I’ve never seen Sophia Loren’s performance in Two Women so I can’t say anything about it winning but I have seen Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys and both of their nominations in place of Deborah Kerr being nominated is shameful, in my opinion. You also said, “I don’t think a younger actress could have really captured the sort of repressed sexual longing and complicated fears that the character is struggling with in the film.” It seems to me Deborah Kerr excelled at this. From Here to Eternity, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, Tea and Sympathy, Seperate Tables I mean, really, no one could play longing and fear quite like her. She was amazing and wonderful and brilliant and beautiful. And you made an excellent choice in choosing The Innocents to eulogize her. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Jonathan! I know I’ve mentioned on your own blog that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one film that I still need to see. I have no idea why I haven’t yet since I love all the other Powell films I’ve seen.

    I personally really love Sophia Loren in Two Women and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (I’ve never liked Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys I’m afraid because I can never buy her in a role that should have gone to Marilyn Monoe), but Kerr really should be more recognized for her terrific performance in The Innocents.

    From Here to Eternity, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, Tea and Sympathy, Seperate Tables I mean, really, no one could play longing and fear quite like her.

    So true. Kerr really knew how to tap deep down into a part of herself and pull out some very dark stuff. Separate Tables is another Kerr film that I really like and forgot to mention, so thanks for bringing it up!

    Last but not least, if The Innocents doesn’t make the final list of “31 Flicks that give you the willies,” I’ll blow a gasket!

  3. Very sad to see her go.

    Innocents is definitely the creepiest ghost movie of all time. You mention its effectiveness even on a “bright sunny afternoon”, that’s because many of the film’s most chilling scenes are set on a bright sunny afternoon…when you’re supposed to be safe and you don’t expect terrifying apparitions that won’t go away (even when you look twice).

  4. Very true William! That’s really one of the reasons why the film is so effective. Clayton’s brilliant direction and Francis’ stunning cinematography were able to make a sunny afternoon seem totally nightmarish and terrifying.

  5. Very sorry to hear this. She was a classy lady and great actress. Along with THE INNOCENTS, I love her work in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA and EYE OF THE DEVIL. She has an amazing scene with Sharon Tate in EYE OF THE DEVIL that is among my favorites of the sixties. She always brought something special to all of her roles…

  6. Thanks for posting a lovely appreciation so quickly; I was startled to realize how many of her films I’d seen when I looked at her filmography (surely a sign that I under-appreciated her!). I’ll agree with one of your comments, too: you really do need to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I almost never tell people they need to see a film – but this one is awfully special.


  7. Thanks for posting such a wonderful blog about Deborah Kerr. She was such a beloved and talented actress. She made so many great films, whether it was The Innocents, An Affair to Remember, From Here To Eternity, The King and I, Casino Royale, etc. She will be sorely missed.

  8. Jeremy – Eye of the Devil is a terrific British thriller that deserves to be more widely seen. It’s got a great cast and Kerr seems to be having fun with her role in it. It’s nice to know I’m not the only person who likes that film. I’ve only seen it once myself and I wish it was available on DVD.

    Gareth – Thanks for the Colonel Blimp rec! I really have no excuse for not seeing it since I love Powell’s films. Hopefully I’ll gt to it soon.

    Keith – It’s pretty amazing what a varied career she had! From dramas, to romances and musicals, as well as great thrillers, Kerr made a lot of terrific films. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I haven’t seen too many of Kerr’s movies, but I love The Innocents and From Here to Eternity. I saw the former for the first time just last year (when it was released on DVD) and was also struck by its use of daytime “nightmares.” I’ve always loved the cold blast of horror in the middle of summer–cool you pointed that out. The class and taste of an actress like Kerr is sorely missed today.

  10. I’m glad she left such a legacy of wonderful performances, and even tho I loved Black Narcissus, The Innocents, and Colonel Blimp, I can’t let her passing happen without mentioning The Sundowners and Perfect Strangers, favorites of mine, two small movies that show her innate grace even as a frump or a hard-working wife and mother – I found her terribly attractive as a young man, she was so believably female to me. I could never figure out why some were so shocked she could carry off love on the beach, as I always felt she conveyed wild sex just underneath the surface, and infinitely more attractive to my tastes. I’d have killed for tea with her.

  11. Thanks for the comments about Deborah guys and for sharing your thoughts about her films! It’s nice to see how fondly she’s remembered by people who liked her work.

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