Saturday, October 20, 2007

Passings: Deborah Kerr, Star of The Innocents

Deborah Kerr, one of the greatest movie actresses of the last century, died earlier this week, and with a storied career that spanned five decades and key roles in scores of classic films, I could write a book about her. This being Horrorpalooza, of course, I'd like to pay tribute to her contribution to one of the greatest horror movies of the sixties.

The Innocents got some serious face time during last year's Horrorpalooza, but revisiting this masterpiece just puts this legendary thespian's brilliance--and her willingness to take risks--into even sharper focus. All genre-related bias aside, The Innocents was one of Deborah Kerr's most important projects.

It's widely acknowledged that Kerr's against-type portrayal of the tumultuous, adulterous Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity turbo-charged her career and made her bankable in Hollywood again, but after that triumph she was back to playing strong, decent women who were the unquestionable moral compasses of their surroundings...until The Innocents.

Miss Giddons, the very moral, very religious governess at the center of that film, is at first glance an archetypical Kerr heroine--strong, upright, compassionate, and persistent--but she takes on a decidedly imperfect hue as The Innocents plays out. Because the movie refuses to take an obvious stand on the reality of the ghostly happenings that transpire, it opens up the very real possibility that we're not seeing a battle to save the souls of two demonically-tortured children: We're seeing a religious woman, an inhabitant of a very cloistered existance, losing it at the expense of at least one child's life.

The genius of Kerr's work is in her subtlety: the crescendo of emotions to which she builds could be interpreted as yet another upright Kerr heroine gearing up for a spiritual showdown, or it could be the fanatical dark side of one of those heroines bubbling up from beneath the surface. And with all due credit to Jack Clayton's ace direction and the taut script, much of this nuance exists because of Deborah Kerr's work in front of the camera. In her customarily un-showy way, this great actress wasn't just giving another terrific performance: she was subverting (and completely de-constructing) her onscreen persona more definitively here than she ever had before, or ever would again.

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