Thursday, August 22, 2019

Some Separate Thoughts about “Separate Tables”

When I was a kid, I loved watching the Oscar broadcast, even when I was too young to have seen all the big films of the year. That’s why I remember David Niven (whom I’d loved as the veddy British Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days) looking very pleased indeed when picking up his Oscar for Separate Tables. That 1958 film would have been far too serious for someone of my tender years—but I’ve long since overcome that hurdle. Watching Separate Tables recently, I was impressed by its theatricality, by its marvelous ensemble acting, and by the grown-up way it looks at human behavior. (No superheroes and supervillains here.) At the same time, I was struck by the ways its view of male/female relationships diverges from the attitudes of the #MeToo era.

Part of why Separate Tables originally intrigued me was its mysterious title: where were these tables, and why were they separate? The title refers to a residence hotel whose long-term occupants take all their meals in a common dining room, but are assigned their own permanent seats at individual tables. The arrangement—so very formal—seems distinctively British to me. Americans, I suspect, would just sit anywhere, changing their seats at whim. But the rigidity of expectations and social manners is, in a way, what Separate Tables is all about. 

It started out as a hit play by British author Terence Rattigan. Opening in London in 1954, it was actually two one-act playlets, both set in the same modest hotel in Bournemouth, on the English coast. “Table by the Window” detailed the awkward encounter of a disgraced British politician with his ex-wife. “Table Number Seven” explored the relationship of a repressed spinster and an older man posing as Major Pollock, a decorated war hero. Artfully, the film version (directed by Delbert Mann) combines the two stories, which both unfold during a few tense days amid the ebb-and-flow of life in the hotel’s public and private rooms. Burt Lancaster’s production company, known for taking artistic chances, assembled a cast of British stage and screen stalwarts, but also made room for two Hollywood stars, Lancaster himself and the still-beautiful Rita Hayworth. They play the divorced couple, now convincingly transformed into Americans abroad, whose tragedy is that, despite a still-flaming passion, they bring out the worst in one another. Niven is marvelous as the well-meaning but deeply flawed little man who pretends to be heroic, and Deborah Kerr proves almost unrecognizable as a drab young woman still under her mother’s thumb. Others in the ensemble include Wendy Hiller (she too won an Oscar) as the brisk hotel manager who is forced to keep her own needs under wraps. [The film’s seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, also rightly saluted Charles Lang’s moody black-and-white cinematography and David Raksin’s evocative score.]

Lancaster and Hayworth are convincing in their mutual lust, and in the powerful emotional connection that sometimes tips over into violence. But it’s shocking to see Lancaster strike Hayworth, causing her to tumble down a staircase. After this powerfully-staged scene, a modern viewer would find it unthinkable that these two would end up together. There’s also (spoiler alert) the discovery that David Niven’s character has fled his home town after an arrest prompted by a physical assault on a woman in a darkened movie house. Most of his fellow boarders easily forgive this behavior, which in any case seems totally out of character for him. In an early draft, Major Pollock’s misdeed was a homosexual advance, which seems—to a modern sensibility—vastly more convincing.  

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