When we think of From Here to Eternity, which turns 70 this year, there’s always one scene we go back to. The famous beach time embrace where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr lock lips in the sand while soaked up from the waves. A scene that has long been parodied and imitated, it has become emblematic of both the film’s iconic status and, just as importantly, Kerr’s career.
Both before and after the release of From Here to Eternity, Kerr has served as an amalgam for on-screen human desire. Take, for example, her performance as Sister Clodagh in the Oscar-winning psychodrama Black Narcissus. Even if there’s no physical intimacy involved between Clodagh and the dashing Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the carnality that Clodagh feels and tries suppressing lives in Kerr’s expressive eyes.
Kerr similarly showed her penchant for the intrepid in I See a Dark Stranger which came out in the United States the very same year. As Bridie Quilty, a gritty Irishwoman conspiring with the Germans against the British, Kerr’s performance syncs in with film’s espionage spy thriller and light rom-com elements and made it more evident that she could play anything. The New York Film Critics Circle clearly saw it as well as they awarded Kerr with their Best Actress prize in 1947 for both I See a Dark Stranger and Black Narcissus.
Hollywood would also take note as she signed her contract with MGM Studios around the time Black Narcissus was filmed. It was a move that led to greater industry stardom and her landing her first Oscar nomination for the 1949 domestic drama Edward, My Son. However, Kerr was still mostly pigeonholed into a string of proper English ladies that she herself referred to as “tiara roles.” Wishing to challenge herself as an actress, Kerr jumped at the chance to star in From Here to Eternity by Fred Zinnemann as adulterous army wife Karen Holmes.
The film may mostly be about the army men stationed in Hawaii. So much so that it’s as much about the subtextual tension between First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) as it is about their relationships with the women in their lives. Yet, Deborah Kerr still magnetizes and stands tall among her male co-stars as Karen Holmes. Kerr’s intro scene alone allows her to exercise Karen’s air of confidence. The way she struts towards Milton and gazes at him shows her instant command of the burgeoning dynamic between the two of them.
Their connection reaches its zenith during, of course, the aforementioned beachtime kiss. After they caress while thrusting in the sand, Karen’s deep exhale makes it feel like she was brought back to life after being stuck in limbo. At least for a moment, Karen feels free from the constraints of her marriage and even gets to take a break from engaging in casual verbal emasculation when at home with her neglectful husband.
While Milton does question Karen about her promiscuous reputation as well as her troubled marriage, Kerr’s feisty, nonchalant line delivery allows Karen to play against audience sympathy. Karen may be shattered by what she’s been through and what people may say about her. Yet, she stubbornly refuses to let those things overcome her. Thanks to her fling with Milton, Karen has found the solstice she’s long craved and a possible chance to start over.
Fragile yet tempestuous with a sensual mystique, Kerr’s Karen Holmes is a pitch-perfect reminder of her seamless transcendence as a performer that earned her a second Best Actress nomination. Between her “against-type” narrative and the film being a Best Picture winner, a win might’ve been in the cards except Audrey Hepburn’s “star-is-born” coronation for Roman Holiday proved to be more enticing. Like with the other five times that she was Oscar-nominated, Kerr’s loss proved to be a case of bad timing and having similarly strong competition. People might use her fragmented screen time as a factor to her loss as well as an argument for a placement in Best Supporting Actress where her co-star Donna Reed won. Yet, I’d say both her screen presence and ability to bring more interiority to Karen than what was likely on the page warranted a Lead placement.
Nevertheless, since the film’s release, she’d manage to tap into the same venturesome side of her acting prowess she showed before her Hollywood breakthrough. For example, the same year she performed with gusto and verve in the musical The King & I as Anna Leonowens, she played the female lead in the film adaptation of the controversial play Tea and Sympathy. Additionally, there’s her sphinxlike interpretation of the lovestruck Terry McKay in the 1957 romance An Affair to Remember and 1961’s The Innocents where she portrays Miss Giddens, the film’s terrified yet terrifying anchor.
Additionally, her decades of dynamic work would eventually culminate in the form of an Honorary Oscar presented by fellow multi-nominee Glenn Close at the 66th Academy Awards. Besides forcing its presenter to experience a potential prophecy, the award was meant to honor “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.”
Indeed, AMPAS. Indeed.
Mysterious, sexy, romantic, joyous, there was hardly any role or emotion that Deborah Kerr couldn’t pull off. Furthermore, all of those aforementioned emotions shine through in what is one of her most signature roles to date if not THE most. We all may remember her whirlwind of desperation as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus. But her Karen Holmes, and that famed seaside kiss, hold their own firm place in eternal cinema history.
From Here to Eternity was released by Columbia Pictures on August 5, 1953. It is currently available to stream on Max.