Conversations with Deborah
There are some great remakes in your career…
There aren’t that many. In a way, An Affair to Remember was one…
… The King and I was a musical version for Anna and the King of Siam…
And “An Affair…” was of “Love Affair” with Irene Dunne and Cary [Grant].
What we would like to know is when the studio made a film based on another, did the actors and crew members watch the previous one to emulate it, or to not emulate it. Or to fix some mistakes…
When we did “An Affair…” we chose to deal with is as if it were a completely new film. We based on the script rather than on the finished film.
Interesting that on both films, you were replacing Irene Dunne. And we could not find anything in common between both performances. We were wondering if you had used her performance to model yours.
I got into Terry McKay without having seen what had been done before. I did what I thought the character was like.
We would like to know about your learning. How did you prepare for performing?
My aunt, Phyllis Smale was a very good actress, although she only performed in Bristol, a small town in the east of England. She worked in the theatre and had a small dance school. All I am I owe to her. Without her I would have never been a competent actress. That’s the truth.
It feels as if you act by instincts. So far from what we call “the method”. You seem to submerge in the character and react within it as if it was yourself.
Well, that’s how it was. I really enjoyed acting. You mentioned “The Method” and I remember a film called “Separate Tables” where Gladys Cooper was in too, and she told me once that a journalist had asked her about her views on “The Method” and she had told him “Young man, I have no method. One just flows with it.” That’s how I worked too. I let go and lived through the scenes. Simple as that.
You always seem to act with your whole body, as if you were doing it with your skin. In a scene you take an object and you seem to forget you’re acting, that there is a camera. You get into the character’s skin and forget it all.
Yes, that is true. You expressed it very well. But I won’t tell you how I did it cause that is my secret. [Deborah laughs]
And you’ve played such a vast range of characters and managed not to be constricted by them. Have you turned down many projects?
Not really. But about being constricted, I’ve played several teachers and governesses and I always wondered why they offered me so many roles like those.
It was also often that you played an unmarried woman. And among teachers and governesses you also played nuns. But you were never truly constricted to those parts cause the teacher from “The Innocents” has nothing to do with the one from “The Chalk Garden”. You managed to make them quite different. Also played very compassionate women like the one in “Bonjour Tristesse” and very refined ladies like your character in “The Grass is Green”. You managed not to play two parts that were alike.
You said it quite right. There is nothing I can add to that.
But was that hard to achieve or were you just lucky to be able to hand pick those roles?
Truth is I was lucky to be offered many of those films with very well written characters. Later on I was offered very tempting contracts in films I didn’t like at all.
Were you ever suspended like other actresses were during your years at MGM?
Never. I always did the film the studio asked me to do.
[Peter viertel] Well, you tried not to do “Beloved Infidel”…
That’s right. I tried to get out of that one.
It’s a strange film. It feels weird to see you as Sheila Graham.
Yes, it was hard. It was quite an impossible task. I only liked a couple of the scenes I had with Gregory Peck. It was a film much in the liking of Twenty Century Fox but actually a lot of people liked it.
Not to go too far, among us there is one who liked it quite a lot.
My, he has to be great fan!
[Miguel Marías] Well, you see… I tend to forget it’s about Scott Fitzgerald and Sheila Graham and I just see a love story between you and Gregory Peck. Besides, it’s a smart direction by Herny King who is quite forgotten lately. When you walk into a room for the first time it can be quite routinely but he made it relevant for you to take in the enviroment… And you are quite true to your character. Perhaps you though a great deal about Sheila Graham.
[Laughing] Alright, but you said so, not me!
But you portrayed her as an impossible woman.
I think she came out as a very likable person. The best scene is the death of Scott. It’s quite an emotive scene.
How did Leo McCarey work on set?
In which way?
We want to know if he liked improvisation much. Some actors he worked with said it was hard to keep up with the script cause he liked to change it and add things quite often. We wonder if he still did that in 1957.
I think he did. But I do not remember now who wrote the script.
It was Delmer Daves and McCarey.
[Peter] Cary Grant got quite involved and practically directed his own scenes. He was a man with a great talent in many aspects.
Cary was very meticulous. I remember when we were shooting the arrival of the boat to New York docks, they were shooting a panoramic view and suddenly Cary yelled “Cut! Cut! Please change that woman with the red luggage cause my eyes tend to go to that color.” He was wonderful and I learned a lot from him. He was a master in many ways.
[Peter] I remember that during “The Grass is Green” I was trying to write a small scene where he is fishing amidst the mess of a shooting. So we called in Cary and he came right away. He took a look at the scene and he said “You are doing it all wrong. It has to be like this” And he acted the whole thing, improvising it, and then he came back and said “Write what I did.” He was a true genius for comedy. Do you like “An Affair to Remember”?
[All the journalists] Absolutely!
[Peter] I think it’s the best film ever made. And as time goes by, I think the film improves. I must have seen it twenty five times at least!
Were the rehearsals long with Mankiewicz during Julius Caesar?
They lasted several weeks because Mankiewicz was also very meticulous. I got along with him quite nicely. Because of Greer Garson being a red-head, I had to change my hair colour. I wore a wig that was Ava Gardner’s. But it was a shooting where we had fun.
Interesting considering the film was in black and white.
Anyway, Mankiewicz wanted to avoid any similarities in the hair color.
[Garci] I like you better in color.
I also like myself better in color.
[Juan Tébar] You’re also great in black and white. In “The Innocents” and “The Night of the Iguana” you are fantastic.
Is it true about the guns John Houston gave the actresses in that film?
[Peter] They were tiny pistols with the name of the actress on them.
You’re one of the actresses whose voice being dubbed is a great loss for the viewers.
I dream of the day when subtitles or dubbing the dialogues with strange intonations won’t be necessary. [Deborah imitates the voice she gets in other languages] That is not me, it’s not my voice at all.
When you started as an actress, were the films your goal or having a dancing and theatre background you had other things in mind?
The first thing I wanted to be was Margot Fonteyn. I wanted to be a great ballerina, but as you can see, I am too tall for ballet dancing. Female dancers have to be smaller cause male dancers must lift them in the air. I became too tall and besides, I was not that good. So I chose acting instead.
But those years in dance lessons show, especially in “The King and I”.
Thank you very much. That’s a compliment that really touches me. Those dancing numbers were pretty but exhausting and Yul Brynner only wore a feather, so they didn’t have to give him oxygen! He would say, “Come one Deborah, one more time”. It was that film that made me not feel too bad about not being Margot Fonteyn, though truth be told, I have been offered many wonderful roles that gave me a happy life as an actress.
It’s amazing to look back in your career cause there are so many really good films and no big flops.
Yes, I haven’t had much to worry about…
There are films such as “Black Narcissus” or “An Affair…” that were not considered as good in their time as more prestigious ones like “Separate Tables” or “From Here to Eternity”. But, isn’t it amazing to see that the years brought new viewers who now claim them as important as the others were back in the day?
Are you talking about my films or films in general?
We meant your films. Some that had many Oscars then and others that some are shocked now didn’t obtain even a nomination.
[Peter] Have you seen “Marriage on the Rocks”? … You shouldn’t have.
[Miguel Marías] I personally do like “The Gypsy Moths” quite a lot…
[To be continued]