Critic’s Notebook: To Eternity,” The New Yorker, Nov. 12, 2007
Deborah Kerr was born 100 years ago today in Helensburgh, Scotland. The “openly sexual” characters that Denby had in mind were undoubtedly the compassionate (and neglected) football coach’s wife in Tea and Sympathy and the bitter (and horribly hurt) officer’s wife in From Here to Eternity.
Kerr’s versatility and range enabled her to elevate even decidedly pedestrian material to something like a touch of class. With stronger scripts, such as From Here to Eternity and the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” The Innocents, she played a central part in the making of classics.
Long after her film heyday, I saw her in a 1980s TV remake of Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. I chuckled at the starchiness she injected into the barrister’s nurse played in the original by Elsa Lanchester. I kept hoping, in vain, to see more of her.
The next time I saw her was far sadder: in 1994, when Hollywood finally got around to awarding her the Oscar she should have won decades before (and even this time, it was a consolation prize—an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award). My heart sank at the sight of the nervous, aging woman onstage far from the vibrant actress of my memory.
Fortunately, we have those films to remind us of her subtlety, elegance—and a deeper, luminous quality present in the accompanying photo, explained, not long before her death in 2007, by her second husband, writer Peter Viertel:
“The camera goes right through the skin. The camera brings out what you are, and in her case, there was always a kind of a humanity that she had in all of the things that she played . . . I think she made movies that have never worn off their splendor.”