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Honorary Oscars: Deborah Kerr

One of the big reasons for the Academy to give out these honorary awards is so that they’re “on the record.” Any film fan who makes the effort to look this sort of thing up will get these specific names listed for them. Maybe this will be a person’s introduction to one of the wonderful honorees, or maybe it will be a reminder for a cinephile to dive a little deeper into their filmography.

There are tons of movies to see out there, especially if you’re trying to keep up with the best of every year as they come. I saw close to one new movie per week this year, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for rewatches or the classics when you have a non-movie related full time job. This is just to say, that looking over Deborah Kerr’s resume didn’t just remind me of the movies of hers I’d already seen, but pointed me toward a few I feel like I should go check out. And that’s part of what these awards are for to begin with.

Perhaps Kerr’s most notorious distinction is that she holds the record for the most Oscar nominations in the Best Actress category without ever taking home the little gold man. Glenn Close has one more nomination overall, but three of hers have been in the supporting category. Meanwhile both Thelma Ritter and Amy Adams have been nominated almost exclusively for Best Supporting Actress. Because of this distinction I’m going to break from my established pattern and offer up each of Kerr’s six nominated performances while leaving out turns that have stood the test of time without getting a nod (Her performance in The Innocents is a least as deserving as anything else she’s done as far as I’m concerned).

So, let’s get going…

Kerr was already an established presence on the English stage and had made several appearances in British films before finally coming to the attention of American audiences with her role as a troubled nun in Black Narcissus (1947). The film grabbed two below the line Oscar nominations and won Kerr the Best Actress prize from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Two years later, Kerr would get her very first Best Actress nomination from the Academy for her performance alongside Spencer Tracy in the melodrama Edward, My Son. She plays the wife of a rich man whose vagaries and indulgence of his son lead to tragedy. There wasn’t much record of the film on YouTube, but you’ll see Kerr pop up at about 1:55 in this trailer for it.

She seems to be playing a pretty standard part as the long suffering wife to a driven and thoughtless man, but a quick scan of the movie’s plot indicates that she might have a good drunk scene or a convincing emotional breakdown. Sometimes that’s all it takes to impress the voters. She ended up coming in behind Olivia de Havilland’s performance in the much more heavily honored The Heiress.

Her contract with MGM placed her in several high profile movies over the following years, including in King Solomon’s Mines (1950), and the big box office success Quo Vadis (1951), a Roman epic that was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. She also appeared in what amounted to a very close to shot-for-shot color remake of The Prisoner of Zenda. Audiences didn’t seem to mind, making the movie a mild hit.

1953 brought what is probably Kerr’s signature performance in the smash critical and box office hit From Here to Eternity. Kerr played the unhappy wife of an army captain, having an affair with one of her husband’s men, as played by Burt Lancaster. Their love scene on the beach is one of the more famous images in the history of American cinema, and has been parodied over and over.

From Here to Eternity was nominated a whopping thirteen times (just one short of the record-holder All about Eve), winning eight times including for Best Picture and Best Director. Kerr lost again, this time to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, who clearly had more screen time and was the “it” girl of the moment. From Here to Eternity has remained in the public consciousness in the intervening years, being named to the AFI top 100 American Films list in 1998.

She got a chance to show off a bit of her versatility in 1956’s filming of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King & I. Well, at least she did a little dancing. Like many other stars of the era, she had her singing voice dubbed in by Marni Nixon. I’ve always found the effect to be a little unnatural and distracting, and I’d prefer if Anna’s singing featured a smoother approach without the vibrato Nixon provided. If the scene is about her being caught unawares and starting to let down her guard, why not a less formal vocal approach?