Michael Powell might have decided against casting Deborah Kerr in The Spy in Black (1939) and cut her fleeting performance as a cigarette girl from the wartime drama Contraband (1940), but he more than atoned for this with the charming roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Black Narcissus (1947) that convinced MGM to bring her to Hollywood. In the press release boosting her bow in The Hucksters (1947), the studio averred that the name Kerr rhymed with star and she spent the next two decades living up to the billing.
Born Deborah Kerr Trimmer in the Scottish resort of Helensburgh, Kerr abandoned a promising career with the Sadler's Wells ballet to make her professional acting debut in an open-air production of Much Ado About Nothing in 1939 and worked extensively in rep before Gabriel Pascal recruited her for his 1941 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara.
While Pascal loaned out his 'Botticelli Blonde' for flagwavers like Harold French's The Day Will Dawn (1942), MGM prevented Kerr from appearing in Powell's A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going and Gone to Earth. Consequently, after completing assignments like Frank Launder's I See a Dark Stranger (1946), Kerr seized the opportunity to relocate to California and earned the first of her six Academy Award nominations for George Cukor's Edward, My Son (1949).
However, she became internationally renowned after scooping a second Oscar nod for rolling in the surf with Burt Lancaster in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953). Further citations came for Walter Lang's The King and I (1956), John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957), Delbert Mann's Separate Tables (1958) and Zinnemann's The Sundowners (1960). Yet, while Kerr never won a major award, even failing to convert her Emmy nomination for the Barbara Bradford Taylor mini-series A Woman of Substance (1984), she brought a cool dignity, sensual intensity and under-appreciated versatility to such diverse projects as Compton Bennett's King Solomon's Mines (1950), Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis? (1951), Edward Dmytryk's The End of the Affair (1954), Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy (1956) and Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958).
Her best-loved film of this period, however, is Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember (1957), which teamed her in a timeless romance with Cary Grant (they reunited in Stanley Donen's teasing class study, The Grass Is Greener (1960)). Another fine performance followed in The Innocents, Jack Clayton's 1961 version of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, and Kerr sportingly sent up her prim image in the multi-director James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and Fielder Cook's gentle sex comedy, Prudence and the Pill (1968).
But the fortysomething Kerr slipped out of vogue in the 1960s and her dislike of the new levels of sex and violence meant that, following her nude scene with Lancaster in John Frankenheimer's The Gypsy Moths (1969), she remained away from movie cameras for 16 years until she returned for what turned out to be her swan song in Mary McMurray's The Assam Garden (1985).