My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1953: Deborah Kerr in "From Here to Eternity"

From Here to Eternity impressed the Academy enough to receive 13 Oscar nominations and with its 8 Oscar wins it became the first movie to tie Gone with the Wind’s long-standing record. On top of that, it also belongs in the elite group of movies that got 5 acting nominations over all 4 acting categories. While Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed took home supporting honours, Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster lost Best Actor to William Holden while Deborah Kerr had to watch Audrey Hepburn claim the Best Actress statuette.

From Here to Eternity is a gripping story about the military and it’s command structure, about friendship and loyalty, set shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The first moments of the movie already show the military drill and make one thing clear very quickly – From Here to Eternity is a movie about men. It’s about their struggles, their decisions, their duties and their honour – and their women. The female characters in From Here to Eternity are of secondary importance in Montgomery Clift’s and Burt Lancaster’s storylines and they aren’t really characterised by their own doings and thoughts but mostly by how they stand in relation to the male characters. But the brilliant writing still gave both Donna Reed and Deborah Kerr enough material to craft very absorbing and interesting women, both strangely similar despite appearing so different.

Donna Reed’s Alma is kind, loving and gentle. She may work as a hostess and the script tries to give her some cynical edges but she possesses the classical heart of gold and it only takes a minute before she gives Prew the key to her house and makes him dinner. The role is a cliché but Donna Reed brings it to life with a wonderfully earthy, warm and captivating performance. Deborah Kerr’s Karen is a complete different – she is the icy, apparently man-eating wife of an Army Captain who atomises cold eroticism behind a stern façade. But what these two women have in common is their dissatisfaction with their life and their desire to start anew, somewhere else. Considering the secondary importance of both female roles, the classification of Deborah Kerr as a leading actress is maybe debateable. Both women seem to have a similar amount of screen time until they share the screen for the movie’s final moments and it seems that Deborah Kerr’s status in Hollywood got her the star treatment over Donna Reed. But somehow the category placement also makes sense. Even though Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster are equally important to the movie, it seems to be a little more interested in the relationship between Karen and Warden than in Prew’s relationship to Alma. At the same time, Karen takes a more active part in her storyline. While Alma is mostly a reacting character who adjusts herself to Prew, Karen tries to do the opposite and adjust Warden to herself. So, Deborah Kerr is a borderline case between supporting and leading while Donna Reed is the true supporting lady in From Here to Eternity. This way, the leading category seems to make (some) sense for Deborah Kerr but even that doesn’t change the fact that she in no way either carries the movie or leads in a certain direction like most other leading nominees do.

As mentioned before, From Here to Eternity is built on a wonderful, intelligent screenplay that gives every actor the chance to shine and presents them with carefully constructed characters. This sets Deborah Kerr clearly apart from the other Best Actress nominees of 1953 – she has the advantage of a great script while Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Ava Gardener and Maggie McNamara suffered from thin writing that mostly offered them equally thin and one-dimensional characters. But what seems to be a clear advantage for Deborah Kerr also resulted in a disadvantage – the other nominees seemed to know the weakness of their materials and fought hard to improve their performances and add the necessary charm, personality and screen presence to make their movies work. That way, they very often surprised the viewer with their acting choices and, despite the limited material, created a certain interest about them that was necessary to carry the story and the movie. Deborah Kerr, on the other hand, had wonderful material and an intriguing character to work with but it seems that in her performance, she relied too much on the strength of this material and let the writing dominate her performance. That is to say, Deborah Kerr didn’t do anything surprising with her character but played her just as expected. Of course, I won’t blame an actress for playing a part as written, but Deborah Kerr played Karen a little too safely considering it’s such a juicy part and a little too much by-the-numbers. This resulted in the strange fact that the character of Karen is more interesting than Deborah Kerr’s actual performance. It seems that she didn’t really create Karen but instead let Karen control her performance. One mostly remembers Karen because of what she does and how she acts – so basically because of the writing. Besides that, Deborah Kerr suffers from the fact that her character is, when all is said and done and even though she can be considered ‘leading’, rather negligible. She may have the best writing of the five nominees but she suffers more than any other nominee from her small influence when it comes to the context of the film. Karen Holmes is a very intriguing presence whenever she is onscreen – but From Here to Eternity drops her too often and the other players offer such rich and brilliant performances that she is almost immediately forgotten whenever she leaves the screen. Even though her performance is just as memorable in its own way like those of her co-stars, Deborah Kerr’s character makes it hard for her to fight against oblivion because Karen seems more like an intruder in From Here to Eternity than a part of the story’s flow. The character of Karen lives in her own world that barely connects with the universe that From Here to Eternity created and that way Karen too easily becomes a character that threatens to interrupt the story than serve it.

But it is a true testament to Deborah Kerr’s talent as an actress that she was still able to prevent these negative effects as much as possible and instead create Karen as a woman who is as common as mysterious and as repellent as appealing. That way she gave a performance that is easily forgotten in the context of the story but once From Here to Eternity is over, her Karen quickly finds her way back into the viewer’s mind. There is something about her subliminal charisma, her coldness and anger that grabs the viewers’ memory and never lets it go.

What works best about this performance is Deborah Kerr’s honesty in portraying the unlikable sides of Karen Holmes. She didn’t try to find any excuses for the behaviour, the bitterness and the constant demanding of this icy woman. Even when she is telling her tragic story at the beach, she does it with a certain spite and anger that never tries to gain the audience’s sympathy. The same way she orders Lancaster to come to her and listen to this story, she seems to dare the viewers to deny her their full attention. Deborah Kerr obviously knows that this is her big moment and that the script will never again give her that much focus or her the possibility to deepen the character like this. So she tries her best to create this moment as a true showcase for herself and the character. She combines the anger of the past with a certain sadness and regret, but not in a way that makes her appear softer but rather with an underlying hate and appalling indifference that makes it impossible to judge her correctly in this moment. Her immediate willingness to open her soul to this man who should have only been a one-night-stand shows that she maybe even exploits her own tragedy to get him on her side, her bitterness seems to be both real and an act to get Warden’s attention. There is a constant awareness in Karen, a calculating expedience that makes it hard to become really close to her.

Deborah Kerr’s biggest plus is that it’s never noticeable that she plays against type. She does the icy, dislikeable sides of Karen with apparent ease and, like Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, she seems to enjoy playing the ‘bad girl’. She doesn’t play a bored diva but rather a woman who waited for a long time for the right man to get away from her husband. Behind all the coldness lies an impatient character who can’t wait to get away and live life according to her own will. Only sometimes she plays her role a little too ‘obvious’. The smile with which she presents her husband the news of her decision for a divorce feels too forced and villain-like and it becomes never really clear if Deborah Kerr is trying to show that Karen is a woman who isn’t as cold as cynical as she appears to be or if Deborah Kerr’s own charming personality came into the way and forced her to leave the territory of subtlety for some more ‘obvious’ moments. That way her work sometimes feels too mechanical – that’s why her tragic back story and her unknown future aren’t as interesting as they could have been. Deborah Kerr plays Karen with so much disinterest for everything around her that it’s sometimes hard to keep up the interest in her. That’s why it occasionally appears as if Deborah Kerr was always undecided if she should keep up the façade of bitterness and anger or soften Karen to make her more accessible to the audience. While these moments, when a quiet desperation becomes visible behind her hardened face, are wonderful in itself (her highlight comes in her wordless facial work when she is visiting a nightclub with Warden and simply leans on his shoulders, enjoying the closeness and the sudden feeling of happiness), they often feel disconnected to her overall characterization which is just as much the fault of the script that, while giving her a lot, often doesn’t give her enough.

Deborah Kerr’s co-nominees in 1953 had the disadvantage of having underdeveloped, often uninteresting but at least central characters – Deborah Kerr’s Karen is also underdeveloped and not even central to the plot but she is still the most fascinating character among the group. But as mentioned, this is owed more to the writing than to the acting. The script is both advantage and disadvantage for Deborah Kerr. Even though it’s strong writing, the character appears rather thin because it is mostly defined by things and events that are not shown and that way made it hard for Deborah Kerr to fully embrace the part.

It’s a strong and detailed performance of an even stronger character that is able to fascinate whenever she appears but loses too much in the context of the story which gets


Malcolm said...

Kerr was really good, but not excellent. Maybe a 3 for me.

She doesn't do anything remarkable, I guess, but still made a fascinating character. She knows that her time is very small, but she never takes advantage of that. She is kind of supporting for me, since she and Reed only have the same importance to the story. But there is this attack that the director uses that when you see her, she holds you like a leading actress. Still, when you finish watching FHTE, she is the one that I may least remember, except for the beach kissing scene.

Fritz, if you're going to pick the best actor that year, would it be Lancaster or Montgomery? Or somebody else?

Fritz said...

Oh, my pick is Montgomery Clift and it's not even close! He was amazing!