Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Anna on the beach (1921-2007)

You might recall that a couple of weeks ago an actor named Deborah Kerr died. If you are very young, the name may be only vaguely familiar or even not familiar at all. After all, she last appeared on big and small screens around two decades ago. And, even if you recall seeing her in her really big movies, you might find the memory of her eclipsed by more flamboyant or publicity-prone contemporaries. You might even be confused over how to pronounce her surname. (She said it “car,” like the vehicle.)

On the other hand, for someone who had such a major impact in the roles she played, it is surprising to realize that she only appeared in only about 50 movies during her 45-year career. For major stars of her generation, it is not unusual for them to have appeared in hundreds of films, reaching back to the old crank-‘em-out studio days. But, as I say, her roles tended to have substantive impact. And they crossed various genres.

Indeed, what movie(s) you remember her for may well depend on how your taste in movies runs. If you are into lavish musicals, you will immediately think of the 1956 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, in which she played (in a role meant for Maureen O’Hara) opposite Yul Brynner, singing (well, lip-syncing to Mari Nixon’s vocals) songs like “Getting to Know You” (which, for a while, was a standard for televised beauty pageants). If your taste runs more to epic romance, you of course remember her falling into the Hawaiian surf with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity (in a role originally meant for Joan Crawford), with the white foamy waves surging and spurting up all around them like, well, like, you know what. If you like your romances more weepy, then you might be one of those who perennially settle into the couch with a box of tissues to wallow in her star-crossed romance with Cary Grant in the 1957 version of An Affair to Remember. And if you are more into classic spooky movies, then you will most likely think of Kerr in the definitive screen adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. (Kerr would later play a much more effective governess, to Hayley Mills, in 1964’s The Chalk Garden.) The Innocents was a study in Victorian Age sexual repression and, if there was one theme that Kerr seemed to specialize in her choice of roles (that iconic From Here to Eternity scene notwithstanding), it seems that she was the first lady of corseted passion.

Arguably, her on-screen apex of sexual frustration was in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 classic, Black Narcissus. She played the leader of a group of nuns living in isolation in the Himalayas. Their religious vows become hard to keep, not the least because of a government agent who runs around in the shortest pair of trousers I think I have ever seen on a man. In its subtext of sexual repression heightened by dizzying heights, the movie presages Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Kerr would play another nun, isolated in a man’s company, ten years later in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. In that movie, directed by John Huston, she and a marine, played by Robert Mitchum, become shipwrecked on a desert island. She would re-team with Mitchum three years later as an Australian sheep-droving family in Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners. Kerr found herself in the midst of sexual frustration again in another Huston film, The Night of the Iguana, but this time she was a soothing influence for tortured defrocked-minister-turned-tour-guide Richard Burton.

In her career, Deborah Kerr became the epitome of the prim and proper Englishwoman, which is a bit ironic, since she was born in Scotland. She worked both sides of the Atlantic, becoming familiar to both US and UK audiences. Three of her most memorable early roles were all in the same movie. In Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, she played three different love interests in the course of the title character’s 40-year military career. Her British reserve was no defense against temptation in such movies as The End of the Affair and Tea and Sympathy. Her British persona had a more fanciful quality in adventures like King Solomon’s Mines and The Prisoner of Zenda.

Despite a movie persona that seemed rooted in the Victorian Age, Kerr did show a more with-it, swinging side in the 1960s, when she took the title role in Prudence and the Pill, which has the distinction of being the first comedy about a then fairly recent birth control method. She was part of the sprawling cast of the original Casino Royale (as Agent Mimi aka Lady Fiona McTarry), and she even mixed with the Rat Pack, getting divorced from Frank Sinatra (accidentally in Mexico) and then marrying his best friend Dean Martin in Marriage on the Rocks.

Her last big role was in the TV mini-series A Woman of Substance and its sequel, Hold the Dream. Our last look at her was in 1994 at the Academy Awards, when she appeared, frail with Parkinson’s disease, to accept an honorary Oscar and a standing ovation. She had tied with Thelma Ritter for the most Oscar nominations (six) without winning.

Pal Joey (1918-2007)

Speaking of the Rat Pack…

Back in the early 1970s, when I had a few hours’ layover between trains in Marseille, I did what I often did to fill such gaps. I slipped into a cinema to pass the time. The movie I wandered into was something called Texas nous voilà, and darned if it didn’t turn out to have Dean Martin speaking French. It was, actually, a dubbed version of the 1966 western/comedy Texas Across the River, and I suppose it qualifies as a quasi-Rat Pack project. Co-starring with Martin was France’s big box office draw of the era, Alain Delon. I did my best to sort of take the thing seriously, but then Martin’s Native American sidekick came into view. Where had I seen that taciturn mug before? Oh right, it’s Joey Bishop. From that point on, it was impossible to see the thing as anything but a big comedy sketch with a Hollywood budget.

Obviously, Bishop will not be remembered for his film career, although he did appear in movies such as The Deep Six, The Naked and the Dead, Onionhead, Johnny Cool, A Guide for the Married Man, Who’s Minding the Mint?, The Delta Force, Betsy’s Wedding, Mad Dog Time, and he even had a cameo in Valley of the Dolls. But he is probably best remembered, movie-wise, for a couple (well, maybe two and a half, if you count Texas nous voilà) of flicks he made with his Rat Pack buddies: Sergeants 3 and, more memorably, the original Ocean’s Eleven.

Indeed, from the gist of the press accounts of Bishop’s passing, one would nearly expect that his gravestone has been inscribed with “The Last of the Rat Pack.” That seems to be his claim to fame. He was the one of the gang (along with Peter Lawford) you had to think hard to remember, after naming Sinatra, Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. His deadpan face made him a natural as a standup comic but not someone we would remember forever—except for his association with his more famous friends.

His lasting substantive contribution to the culture will be his two television shows in the mid-to-late-1960s. Both were called The Joey Bishop Show. The first was a sitcom about a TV late-night talk show host. The second really was a late-night talk show. The sitcom featured such future stars as Bill Bixby and Marlo Thomas. The talk show went head-to-head with the Johnny Carson behemoth, and its fate was sealed from the first night, although it did last for three seasons. (Bishop would later serve as a regular guest host for Carson on The Tonight Show.) His sidekick on that program may qualify as his most long-running contribution to TV chat. Yes, Bishop is the one who gave us Regis Philbin.

-S.L., 1 November 2007

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