The British Film Institute has recently launched an appeal to vote for a forgotten British film (until March 11), that would be restored and made available to the public.
Among the three choices is Deborah’s last role on the big screen, The Assam Garden. I feel it is my duty to defend my choice and give you a few arguments to vote for it too, some of them serious, and some just for the fun of it.
1. It is an intimate, slow-paced, atmospheric film that puts the viewer in an introspective mood, as we join Deborah Kerr’s character in a journey of self discovery. The long shots, with the camera following her all through the vast gardens, are beautiful from a cinematic point of view, and perfectly in tone with the character’s journey.
2. It is a beautiful story of an unlikely friendship, that evolves from a cold encounter to a deep human connection. It’s very relevant to the multicultural world we live in today, when we are used to closing doors to people who appear to be different from us. Sometimes, when we take the time to discover them, we may create strong bonds.
3. Deborah’s acting
As usual in her career, Deborah is so good at creating a complex character: this time tough in appearance, but full of underlying sensibilities and vulnerabilities. The switch between the two is perfect in Deborah’s subtle interpretation.
I think it was the kind of role that she waited for, many times in her career: a multi-dimensional role that gave her the opportunity to create a full character.
“Every woman I play on the screen has to stand up to one test: Is the woman a real person, a believable person… whether she is good, bad, or a mixture of both, as most women are, anyway. Can you believe that she has a head, a heart and body?”
“I must portray someone whom I can describe on the screen. In other words, I have to live the part.” (Deborah Kerr)
And this role provided her the chance to show us once more how good she was at acting, with words and silences.
“The hardest kind of acting is giving character to a quiet sort of person.“
“I always like to cut out words if I possibly can. Why do I have to say anything? You know, just look at someone and it says it.”
“I’ve always rather liked scenes where nobody’s talking for a change. They’re always more powerful, I think.” (Deborah Kerr)
4. This is the opportunity to see a Deborah like you’ve never seen her before.
You know the nice lady image you’ve been accustomed to? Well, forget it. She shows an unpleasant, bitter, cynical side that’s totally delightful. Because we’re so not used to seeing her as a grumpy old lady, aggressive towards “innocent” children and nice neighbours.
Deborah herself was enchanted when she had a chance to play against type in her career.
“Why do what’s expected of you? Why play it safe?”
It appealed to her primary calling for acting: the game of pretending to be someone you’re not, hidden behind costumes and make-up and armed with only your talent of envisioning imaginary characters.
“When this came along, it offered me the chance to play a totally different character from the usual roles I get offered. I play a 70-year-old acid-tongued, intolerant woman, and I loved it.”
“Everyone says, ‘Deborah Kerr, she can’t be nasty’… Well, maybe I can. Good heavens, it’s an actress’s job to be able to be nasty if necessary.” (Deborah Kerr)
5. She pleasantly surprised the film’s younger team and crew with her determination and usual professionalism but also with her presence, and they found her a joy to work with.
Producer Nigel Stafford-Clark: “I could hardly believe that she would take on such a demanding part and one that put years on her, rather than glamorizes her.”
Director Mary McMurray: “I always thought she’d be good in it, not because of those rather ‘English rose’ pieces she tends to be associated with, but because of her grittiness.”
6. I think this was a fitting way of ending a prodigious career in cinema. Even more so that it came after a 16 year absence from the big screen, because the roles she was offered were not worthy and she was at a “difficult” age for an actress. But she anticipated the joy she would have when she’d be the right age to play character roles:
“As a performer, the passing of the years won’t worry me, because they’ll mean I’m all the more right for character roles. Believe me, I’ll have a merry time when I’m of age and will be playing one of the witches in Macbeth, without having to dip into the makeup box. Those witches are good, showy parts. ”
“That was the attraction [of The Assam Garden]. For years I have been looking for this sort of part which has a real character to play. It is the bridge I have to cross. I am at a certain age where the parts can’t be the same as they used to be and I am not completely ready yet just to play old ladies.” (Deborah Kerr)
It was also a low time in her career, when she decided to close the door to the theatre stage after a disappointing last play and negative reviews. It was a comforting situation that The Assam Garden was embraced with enthusiasm and she felt the warmth and love of the public, as she writes in this letter to a friend.
7. She really did a lot of work in the garden, and she enjoyed it all, despite the hard effort. She’s digging and watering and carrying heavy things and planting and cutting and a lot of other operations I don’t even know the name of.
Deborah: “It was a joy working on that movie. I adored it. I wanted it to go on forever.”
Interviewer: Hard work in the garden, it looked?
Deborah: “Oh my God, the garden and the weather and the rain and the mud and the hose pipes and the ruddy bananas.”
8. Did I mention Deborah’s looks? I mean the hair, the hats, the baggy jeans and boots that no one in Hollywood, the likes of Edith Head and Sydney Guillaroff has ever had the chance to put on her.
“I always wanted to look not in the least like me or the character I’ve played so many times. People always expect me to be the same – pretty – pretty, charming, and gentle… That is the awful reign that’s put on you if you have a certain look. The audience doesn’t want you in old gum boots and sloppy hair and an old scarf, slopping around the garden.” (Deborah Kerr)
When referring to her retiring plans, Deborah once joked that:
“I’d like to do as much as possible while my face and figure hold up, then I’d like to buy a place outside Florence where I’ll paint. Then one day people will come by, and one will say, ‘Do you see that elderly lady with the floppy hat? She used to be a good-looking movie star.’ And the friend will probably say, ‘What are movies?'”
I think this is the closest image of her as a possible Florentine eccentric painter in floppy hats.
What I do hope is that we still know what movies are and especially good movies, and we vote for their restoration and in case this film doesn’t win the vote of the public, I really hope the British Film Institute has the good judgement of restoring it for the sake of good cinema and good acting.
Bonus reason no 9: Because she’s the cutest grumpy old lady gardener you’ll ever have the chance to see.