As the proper Victorian schoolteacher Anna Leonowens in The King and I (1956) Scottish-born actress Deborah Kerr (1921–2007) polka’ed in a satin ball gown in the Siam heat, maintaining a resplendent, unruffled persona that remained fresh while her dancing partner, the king, looked positively frittered. Known for her cool nature, elegant visage, and a preference for female characters with great intelligence, Kerr always seemed naturally at ease on screen.
Kerr first turned heads in Major Barbara (1941) as Jenny Hill, a young woman as dedicated to the mission of the Salvation Army as the titular Major, before going on to work with iconic British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Black Narcissus (1947). The 1950s brought Kerr her most celebrated roles, as the jaded military wife Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity (1953) and the proper Anna in The King and I. From Here to Eternity also hinted at Kerr’s versatility; a 1953 Variety review noted the role’s unanticipated sexuality: “Miss Kerr’s role and delivery of it is a far cry from the sweet, pure things she previously portrayed and may bring about a casting switch for her.”
This series, mainly drawn from MoMA’s collection, offers a glimpse into a career that included multiple Academy Award nominations, BAFTA distinctions, and a special Oscar for her extraordinary work as a leading lady.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.