My current Top 5

My current Top 5

1/03/2010

Best Actress 1956: Deborah Kerr in "The King and I"

In the classic musical The King and I, Deborah Kerr stars as Anna Leonowens, an English widow who moves with her son to Siam to become the teacher for the many children of King Mongkut, played by Yul Brynner.

The King and I is not really a movie about acting. It’s a joyful musical that lives from its memorable tunes and impressive Art Direction and Costume Design. But Deborah Kerr gives much more edges, shades and nuances to her character than the structure of the movie needs.

She shows a woman who wants to be braver than she really is. In her early scenes we see her insecurity about this new country and her new position, but she does her best to not let her doubts be visibly and instead tries to appear as a self-confident and strong woman. Anna has her own ideals and beliefs and refuses to give in. She is an educated woman with Western ideals and morals and sees herself confronted with royal arrogance and ignorance. Deborah Kerr is able to play her part with a lot of charm and confidence and becomes a symbol for British elegance, style and grace. She shows that Anna is a woman who dedicated her life to bring enlightenment to the children of the King – and the King himself.

Especially her chemistry with Yul Brynner is the key to the success of the movie. Her very grown-up portrayal contrasts nicely with his childlike character. Deborah Kerr demonstrates that Anna isn’t willing to accept all the orders of the King and instead tries to bring logical and rational arguments but since he is the King, she has to accept more than once. Deborah Kerr’s ability to show a lot of humor behind her English façade during her confrontation scenes with Yul Brynner makes their scenes together so special. She shows that Anna is actually just as stubborn as the King himself – they both like to be right but Anna has to accept that he is the King and, when in doubt, always right. But Anna is a smart and witty woman who knows how to slowly influence him. She is always trying to maintain her dignity and refuses to become a servant to the king. She is not afraid to argue and say her opinion but Deborah Kerr fills all these moments with charm, dedication, confidence, wit and wisdom. She becomes mentor and advisor for the King and helps him to impress Western representatives. She never does that because she has to but simply out of respect and understanding – she may not always agree with the King but she admires his efforts to modernize his country. It’s certainly charming to see how they start to like each other without ever making it appear romantic.

In the role of Anna, Deborah Kerr becomes not only a teacher but also a mentor for the King and a mother for his children and Tuptim, the unhappy slave. A lot of actresses might have wasted the scene when Anna sees the children for the first time and decides to stay in the palace but Deborah made it very moving because she showed her character’s inner struggle. We see how moved she is by the children and that way she shows us that Anna is a woman who lives to teach.

Anna helps Tuptim and her lover to meet secretly – she defies the traditions and orders of the King because she believes that her own morals are superior but this “clash of the cultures” is always done in a very family-friendly way that avoids a serious discussion.

As I said, her performance is much more complex than the thin plot demands. In the scenes about her husband or her scenes with Edward, she brings a lot of depth and three-dimensionality to Anna. She is very impressive in the scenes when she speaks up to the King and complains about his behavior and reminds him of his promise to give her a house outside of the palace. Deborah Kerr is one of those great subtle actresses who can make storms and thunder without raising their voice. She’s also very impressive in the scene when she is pleading for Tuptim and accuses the King of being barbarian – but even though she is appaled by the fact that Tuptim will be beaten for her crime, Anna refuses to leave and wants to watch the King do it. Deborah is very strong in this scene without changing the character and accuses the King only with her eyes. This scene perfectly sumps up all of Anna’s qualities: she is fighting for her beliefs, strong, moral, passionate but she also breaks down after that and shows that a lot of her strength is a façade that hides a very conflicted person inside.

Deborah Kerr is dramatic when she needs to be but never overdoes it. She understands the light nature of the part and the movie and fits her acting to it.

She is hardly seen during “Something wonderful” but with a few shots she shows her character’s struggle and conflicts and makes the change from wanting to leave to deciding to stay believable.

Deborah Kerr is our guide in this movie – we feel about the King just as she does so she is our way to relate to his character. We don’t connect with him personally but we instead, we get in touch with him through her. Yul Brynner’s performances can only succeed thanks to the character of Anna and it’s not easy for an actress to carry this task but Deborah Kerr does it beautifully.

The fact that Deborah Kerr doesn’t sing her own songs doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind dubbing as long as the acting doesn’t make it obvious and Deborah Kerr surely enlightens the screen whenever she appears on the screen.

Overall, she took this paper-thin part and brought a lot or humor, drama and dignity to the part that a lot of other actresses might have missed.

For this, she gets

16 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

I'm still pretty iffy on this one. She was a great actress, but I seriously can't think of a year where I would have voted for her.

Tom said...

I would have voted for her for Best Supporting Actress for From Here to Eternity, not Donna Reed! :)

joe burns said...

I haven't seen this film in a long time, so I can't remember much of this performance.

Fritz said...

Mmh, I love both ladies from "From Here to Eternity", so it would be hard for me to decide between them...

@Joe: Well, that's a good reason to see it again! :-)

Sage Slowdive said...

Fritz, what did you think of Yul Brynner?

If you ask me, that has to be one of the worst wins.

Fritz said...

Yes, I agree...I mean, he was good, but somehow...his performance was so weird, that's the only word I can think of. It's very cartoonish and even though it worked well in the context of the film, it wasn't Oscar-worthy.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I liked Deborah in this, good rating. I'd have probably voted for her in From Here to Eternity, maybe even Separate Tables [though I need to rewatch it] or here. Maybe.

Sage Slowdive said...

Yeah, that was my problem. I think I read on IMDB he was the least subtle actor in history lol.

I would have voted for Kirk Douglas, for his best performance.

Fritz said...

I think I would have vote for Douglas, too...

Sage Slowdive said...

I have to ask you what did you think of Anthony Quinn's Lust For Life win? That's one of the worst too, if you ask me.

Fritz said...

I actually think that Quinn was great. And I really don't know how the myth started that he only had 7 minutes of screen time. He was in the movie for over 20 minutes!

Sage Slowdive said...

I know! On the Filmsite's website they have him listed for the shortest winner, even though he has more screentime then Ben Johnson and Jack Palance, which are the shortest, I think.

Tom said...

Jason Robards in "Julia" has to be one of the shortest wins.

Sage Slowdive said...

Uh, no. He probably has a good 15 minutes on screen. It seems like the old or "career" winners are the ones who have the shortest performances.

Anonymous said...

I would have been delighted if Deborah had won the Oscar for "The King and I'. It's a glorious performance - warm,subtle,feisty. But she truly deserved the Oscar for her stunning performance in "The Sundowners",as the yearning Aussie drover's wife. She herself thought she should have won that year (and she was a very modest lady).I'm an Aussie, and the film and the performances from Deborah and Bob Mitchum are so realistic- it's a film -meandering, laconic, so Australian- way ahead of its time. Deborah wasn't even nominated for two of her greatest performances - as the itinerant artist Hannah in "The Night of the Iguana" (her handling of the Tennessee Williams monologues is magnificent), and especially as the tormented Miss Giddens in "The Innocents". This is one of the screen's great performances.So, I completely disagree with Sage Slowdive's comment. Deborah's performances remain surprisingly contemporary -look at the early British films("The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", "Black Narcissus", "I See a Dark Stranger", "Vacation from Marriage"). I think she is possibly the most underrated of all the great film stars, and it sadens me to think that it was only when she died that people began remembering, and realising what a brilliant actress she was - and how beautifully her performances had endured. Her films won over 70 Oscar nominations! She won the New York Critics best Actress award 3 times. Six oscar nominations. Loved her since I was a little kid; always will.

Baby Clyde said...

I would have voted for her in 1960 (Although I love Liz and I haven't seen Melina).

She deffo should have been nommed in '61 for The Innocents.

Does anyone know why she wasn't?