Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bidding Adieu to Two Irreplaceable Talents

This week brought the passing of two formidable performers I’ve enjoyed watching and hearing throughout my life.

Deborah Kerr built an extraordinary list of film credits over an illustrious career, showcasing her remarkably adroit thespian skills throughout the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s via a wide array of memorable screen characterizations. Best known today for rolling in the movie’s most famous surf with Burt Lancaster and for dancing to a fare-thee-well with Yul Brynner, in addition to her career peaks in From Here to Eternity and The King and I Ms. Kerr’s considerable talents shined in many other starring roles. With equal effectiveness, she could play a mousy, emotionally unstable young woman (Separate Tables, wherein she has an incredible breakdown scene that, for me, surpasses anything else in the movie), a down-to-earth Australian wife and mother (The Sundowners), a nun possessing turbulent emotions under calm, proper exteriors (in both Black Narcissus and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a compassionate "older woman" (as Laura Reynolds in 1956’s Tea and Sympathy, a role that also brought her great acclaim on Broadway), and an unbalanced- or is she?- governess (The Innocents, an unforgettable adaptation of Henry James’ "The Turn of the Screw," featuring Kerr in possibly the best performance of her career). Throughout her lengthy career, Kerr maintained her high level of performing excellence in inspiring fashion- if one looks up "professional actress" in the dictionary, there’s a good chance a picture of Kerr will accompany the definition.

Kerr fit the "Proper English Lady" roles she frequently played to a "T"; however, amid the conventions of the production code prevalent during her heyday, the beautiful Scotland native also managed to vividly convey a good deal of sensuality in many of her films. Kerr’s most famous vehicle for showcasing her sex appeal is, of course, Eternity, but as Black Narcissus’s Sister Clodagh, check out the way Kerr calmly but intently gazes at the hunky free spirit played by David Farrar, or listen to the erotic subtext she pulls off in not-so ladylike Anna’s one word response (a passionate "Yes") to Brynner’s suggestion they dance much closer in The King and I. And, um, let’s just say Kerr matched up very, very well with awesomely virile Robert Mitchum in Allison and The Sundowners. Kerr’s heroines nearly always found a way to stay in touch with their sexuality and this trait, along with her astute acting ability, helps lend a contemporary feel to most of her major roles. Try to think of another movie queen from 1940-1970 whose work has stood the test of time better, and you’ll be forgiven for drawing a blank.

Ms. Kerr picked up New York Film Critics Awards on three occasions (for 1947’s I See a Dark Stranger and Narcissus, 1957’s Allison, and 1960’s Sundowners), and a Golden Globe for The King and I (she won another Globe as 1958’s "World Film Favorite- Female"), but the six-time Oscar nominee never managed to take home a competitive Academy Award (Kerr received a well-deserved honorary award in 1994). The Oscar slight is a bigger mystery than anything her Miss Giddens witnesses in The Innocents, as Ms. Kerr proved time and again throughout her estimable career that talent like hers is as golden as it is rare.

I’ve been a fan of Teresa Brewer’s ever since discovering my mom’s old 78 of Brewer’s signature hit, 1950’s "Music!, Music!, Music!" as a child, feeling an immediate connection with the bubbly, down-to-earth young woman who charmingly demanded we "Put another nickel in!" Ms. Brewer’s distinctive vocal style placed her among the foremost recording artists of the 1950’s. Only 19 when she hit the big time with "Music!," Brewer had started developing her immense vocal abilities on radio at the age of two(!), and therefore was a polished professional when she achieved major success. Brewer’s skill as a singer was evident by her adaptability to many musical styles and genres: she could manage pop, country, and jazz with equal aplomb. Listening to her two biggest records, "Music!" and 1952’s "Till I Waltz Again With You" illustrate Brewer’s remarkable range. Shifting from the cheery, baby-doll voice she employs on "Music!," Brewer projects a mature, considerably passionate vocal delivery style for the ultra-romantic "Waltz." It’s hard to believe you’re listening to the same vocalist, let alone one who recorded the songs a scant two years apart.

Brewer would manage to effectively mix the up-tempo tunes with more subdued love songs, scoring hits into the Rock & Roll era with such records as "Ricochet," "Jilted," "A Tear Fell," "A Sweet Old-Fashioned Girl," and covers of "Let Me Go, Lover,’ and "You Send Me." After her recording career dropped off, Ms. Brewer continued to find success as a live performer for the next several decades, when she wasn't spending (self-imposed) time away from the spotlight as a wife and mother. Gifted with one of the most vibrant, memorable voices in popular music, Teresa Brewer had a knack for finding "the nicest part of any melody," and putting it over with originality, verve, and skill.


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