Saturday, May 15, 2010

Actress Files: Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr, The Sundowners
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1960 Best Actress Oscar to Elizabeth Taylor for BUtterfield 8)

Why I Waited: Somehow I'd accumulated the impression that I'd be watching Deborah Kerr farming, no doubt nobly, across two hours of postcard photography.

The Performance: Zinnemann's done it again! After so recently turning me around in my view of both his own work and the hidden potentials in his leading lady, The Sundowners has warmed me, with no intended pun, on yet another actress whom Oscar loves to nominate, for reasons I often find flummoxing. In this case, we're talking about six-time loser but belated (and very moving) Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Deborah Kerr, earning the last of her competitive nominations in this tale of two married itinerant laborers in rural Australia in the 1920s. One of them, Kerr's Ida Carmody, is nearing the end of her patience with nomadic movements and eternally deferred security, whereas her husband, Robert Mitchum's Paddy Carmody, not only prefers this way of living but palpably believes that his soul is staked in rooflessness and roads. They have a young son, Sean (Michael Anderson, Jr.), whose incipient cravings for a home and a stable community have only exacerbated Ida's weariness of their routine. Violating the usual law of Hollywood parents as exaggerated opposites, Paddy is not immune to his boy's pleas, even if he finds it hard to relent to them, especially in the long term. Adding even further to the scenario's welcome complexity, Ida and Paddy are clearly as besotted with each other as they've ever been, and though Ida as an individual, a protector, and a mother espouses stabler living and practical planning, she really does hate—as wife, lover, and friend—to see the wick burning down inside of Paddy whenever the family stops moving. As Kerr plays her, she sometimes looks saddest, if only for a moment, at the moments he volunteers to gratify their wishes, because she knows these concessions come at a real price to him.

I should admit to harboring a weakness for family stories that establish an orienting empathy with children, the ones in the movie and the ones who might be watching, but that simultaneously manage to characterize the parents with subtlety, candor, and a freestanding emotional life, far surpassing their roles as fathers and mothers. No wonder I felt fond toward The Yearling a couple weeks ago and fell hook, line, and sinker for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn back in the winter. Martin Ritt's Sounder marks a somewhat later gold standard in this regard, and Jim Sheridan's In America, whatever its dubious flourishes, presents a strong recent example of a film that did impressively well by all four family members, evoking their points of view and navigating key shifts between juvenile and adult vantage points while preserving an overall, rounded consistency. The Sundowners belongs in this tradition, for which I'm sure you can supply your own exemplars; there's even a Sundowners scene where Dad recklessly bets the family's entire nest-egg on a seemingly arbitrary object, which lays groundwork for In America's carnival-booth sequence. If the boy in The Sundowners has, among the three protagonists, palpably exerted the weakest hold on the way Zinnemann and his collaborators have devised and shaped the material, that's only a comparative assessment. When he's onscreen, there's nothing distracted or incomplete in his depiction, and I can imagine watching The Sundowners at somewhere near to Sean's own age and feeling more or less that the film was intended for me.

Regardless, the glory of the film lies in the bond between the senior Carmodys, one that deepens powerfully even when its fragilities are most overtly exposed. And even as far as that goes, Robert Mitchum, a consummately generous actor whom I'm appreciating more all the time, seems only too happy to cede the spotlight to Kerr. For their previous outing, in John Huston's two-character island adventure Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Mitchum's potent physicality, his stalwart but liguor-breathed decency, and his complicated blend of respect, attraction, and strained toleration with regard to Kerr's habit-wearing nun felt to me like the core of the drama. It says more about the Academy's taste in performance styles than it does about their respective achievements in the two films that Kerr was nominated for both and Mitchum for neither. But The Sundowners, for all its sympathetic inquiry into so many characters, feels like a gift to Kerr, and nowhere more than in the early sequence when Ida and Paddy repair into their tent for a lamplit toilette and bedtime chat. Paddy's too tired to wash, but Kerr, suntanned, loose-locked, and luminously blonde, is bathing and rinsing herself from a pan of warm water. The intimate, sunset-colored close-up on her face extending to just a bit of bare shoulder. Mitchum lounges in their campbed, uxoriously admiring: "You know something, Ida, you're built the way a woman ought to be built." "You just find it out?" Ida sasses back, in her playfully tart way. "Glad to know you appreciate me," she allows at the end of this short dialogue, a little more openly pleased. "Come on over here," Mitchum offers in a low deadpan, "and I'll appreciate you."

Kerr has more sexual draw here than I've ever seen her have, partially because so many of her roles that invite any eroticism at all do so in an explicitly hysterical vein: the nun in Black Narcissus, the aroused and stifling governess in The Innocents, the mother-smothered neurotic in Separate Tables, for whom the tiniest twinge of attraction to David Niven, even just a soupçon of compassion or pity, is enough to freak out the character and harass the actress into an excruciating pitch of overacting. I recently returned to Kerr's chronic adulteress in From Here to Eternity, which I'd long imagined was one of my favorite of her performances, only to find myself wondering what I ever saw in it; Donna Reed gets a lot of guff for being the world's most unconvincingly censored prostitute in that movie, but if anything her transcoded, slow-burning libido resonates more than Kerr's shrill, flat rendition of more openly sexual appetites. In The Sundowners, by contrast, she and Mitchum wear their bodies with loose, rangy strength, enjoying their own and sneaking sly, relishing looks at each other's. The larger point here is that Ida and Paddy have bodies instead of homes; they are their hearths, their working tools, their links to the living earth, and, in many scenes, their primary means of expressing themselves, in advance or even in place of spoken confessions.

Mitchum, of course, rooted several of his performances in that substantial, top-heavy physique of his, but for Kerr this disposition feels more unusual and, in my view, it's freeing of the whole performance. The Sundowners shares a director with From Here to Eternity, and when Ida asks Paddy if he's only just noticing her eased, off-handed gorgeousness, she might as well be asking Zinnemann. Take away that famous roll in the Eternity surf and the huge hoop dresses in The King and I and I tend to think of Kerr as a close-up actress. I don't know if directors and cinematographers were accommodating her preferred style or if, conversely, their own camera choices prompted her to give so many performances that seem grounded in vocal mannerisms and fraught facial expressions, at the price of such stiff embodiment. Certainly The Sundowners asks a lot of her physical performance, whether she's riding horses or steering a wagon or determinedly stirring up a stewpot of dinner for a whole ranch's worth of hungry joes. (Hey, you try it.) But what I really remember about the performance and why I'm dwelling so long on this point is the way Kerr's Ida just seems limber and responsive to space, simultaneously relaxed and ready to spring into spry, confident action. She enjoys the odd dance, leans against fenceposts with the wiry familiarity of the range-rider, and offers a whole silent palette of postures to register comfort and discomfort. She allows her body to brace or pause when Paddy is about to wheedle or pout, or to resist or seduce or disappoint her, rather than consigning her face to carry the full weight of communicating reactions. Often her body and her face send totally different messages, evoking the familiar, moment-to-moment ambivalences of being partnered to someone who frustrates and delights you, and she does this without looking as though she's theatrically over-thinking her gestures. In fact, very unusually for her in my experience, she doesn't seem to be self-conscious at all about giving a performance, as though Ida's tongue-in-groove relation to her work—even as she dreams of an adjusted way of life—has inspired her interpreter to an unprecedentedly relaxed approach to her work.

There's more to say in praise of Kerr's performance, even if The Sundowners sometimes goads her into presenting an archetypal mom instead of a fine-grained character, and not all of Kerr's retinue of brittle hallmarks have been rubbed away: the ramrod backbone of her suffering, the harsh vowels and flaring eyes of her righteous annoyance. And yet, even these identifying marks feel in character for Ida, not just for Kerr, and she's capable of throwing curveballs. During a key passage near the end of The Sundowners when you're expecting a big bout of stern and tearful reprimand, utter catnip to the Kerr of Eternity or Tables, Ida bespeaks a more winded version of anger: curt and wounded, but more baffled than inflamed after an intimate, sudden assault on her dearest dream. She shows a similar, welcome bent toward understatement in a showy moment that could easily tip into mawkish short-cuts, when she spies a vision of a lavender-clad lady floating by in a passenger train, while Ida herself stands on the platform, sweat-stained in the Outback dust. She doesn't play the obvious note of envy, and she manages not to imply that all women, including Ida, wish for themselves this pampered, cosmetic existence. The script does force her into a melodramatic tear a few shots later, but the steady hold of her stare in the moment just distills how little Ida sees of this moneyed, metropolitan world, how thin her capacities for any form of response. Clearly Kerr benefits from a script that quietly but nimbly flouts our expectations for the Carmodys, but the actress breathes additional life and spirit into those moments. In my favorite among them, Sean comes whingeing to her about Paddy's intractable wanderlust, which repeatedly aggrieves both mother and child. It isn't long, though, before Ida is telling the kid where to park it, not because she's a submissive wife but because she's a dogged equal and defensive best friend to her husband. "Don’t ever ask me to choose between you and your Dad," she counters with fiery flint, "'cause I’ll choose him every time."

Ida's occasional rigidity, which is usually what I want to erode a little in Kerr's performances, gets nicely incorporated in The Sundowners as, among other things, a formidable tease, a role she plays for her husband which, yes, is an avowed coping mechanism but also serves as a kind of game by which they taunt, recognize, and enjoy each other. She pretends to be put out (and she is, a little) with her husband's restlessness, his optimism, his randiness, and his adolescent whims, but there's often a smile just underneath Ida's firm exterior, waiting to be cracked. When Mitchum does crack it, Kerr smiles with real, crinkly pleasure, in a way that feels close to a rediscovery of this actress. For all the many notes she offers in this performance, and for all that she seems to welcome the companionship of a large, ever-shifting ensemble, she finds a fundamental warmth in Ida that's quite an impressive contrast with her usual chill. In a movie where the likes of Peter Ustinov and Glynis Johns circle the skies, eager to steal scenes the way falcons swoop down to swipe rabbits and fish, it's a feat just to hold one's own on the screen, but Kerr does more than that. Especially when they're together, she and Mitchum are the unmistakable soul of a movie that could easily have been made for the coffee-table or the homily book. He's very, very good when he's alone, as well, but she—she's lustrous.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 24 to Go

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Blogger Calum Reed said...

I really didn't know what to expect from The Sundowners, but it ended up being a really valuable watch. The family dynamic is very convincing, and I like how it sprouts issues as it goes along, but doesn't feel too hung up on them. As a family they just get on with things.

Along with Black Narcissus it's my favourite Kerr performance, and yes, she is actually rather sexy here. It's kind of her Duel in the Sun, switching up her usual matronly ways like Jones spurned her wholesome image. I think you're dead right about her being more of a best friend than a wife or mother, which contributes to the family's overall lack of status and how that inevitably generates conflict.

I adore High Noon, so I've generally got a lot of time for Zinnemann. From Here To Eternity also, though I agree that certainly isn't Kerr's finest hour.

7:22 AM, May 15, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

Enjoyable and insightful once again. And once again, I haven't seen (or even heard of) he movie.

I'm glad you came to agree with me about both hers and Reed's performance in From Here to Eternity. It was the first time I saw Kerr in a film and knowing she had 6 nominations I though "Her? Why?" but after watching Black Narcissus I changed my mind (even if the Academy didn't care about that performance).

And by the way, I was very pleased by the type of sexuality she displays as a nun. Dominatrices are cool :p

8:02 AM, May 15, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

So glad you liked this one; it's my favorite Kerr performance, and such a pleasure of a movie.

8:42 AM, May 15, 2010  

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