Thursday, September 5, 2013

Separate Tables: A Tale of Two Couples

The sign for the Hotel Beauregard in Bournemouth, England, states simply:
Three minutes from the sea
Fine Cuisine
Separate Tables

While it sounds like a quaint little establishment, it's a rather lively place occupied by a bevy of assorted characters:  a domineering mother and her meek, sheltered daughter; a pompous retired Army major; a young couple in love; a volatile writer; the self-sufficient hotel owner; and others. Two events set into motion the intertwining storylines that comprise the film's plot. 

David Niven and Deborah Kerr.
First, we learn that Major Pollock (David Niven) was arrested for "behaving immorally" in a movie theater. The Major tries to hide this shameful incident from the other hotel guests, but a local newspaper article brings it to the attention of Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper). She already harbors resentment toward the Major since he has befriended her daughter Sibyl (Deborah Kerr). Thus, she relishes the opportunity to disgrace such "an awfully common little man" and tries to convince other guests to push for the eviction of Major Pollock (who turns out to be an unretired lieutenant who made up all his military exploits).

Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster.
The second storyline revolves around the arrival of glamorous ex-fashion model Anne Shankland (Rita Hayworth). The real purpose of her visit is vague until it's revealed she was once married to moody author John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster). He has secretly proposed to the hotel manager (Wendy Hiller), but Anne's appearance makes it clear that she and John are still attracted to one another--even though he spent five years in prison for physically abusing her.

If Separate Tables (1958) sounds episodic, that's because it was based on a Terence Rattigan play in which each plot was presented as a stand-alone act. Act I, Table at the Window, told the story of Anne and John--though John was a former Labor politician instead of a hard-drinking writer. Act II, Table Number Seven, focused on the Major's story and his relationship with Sibyl. When the play was originally produced in 1954, Margaret Leighton (The Winslow Boy) and Eric Portman (a Powell & Pressberger regular) played double roles: Leighton played Anne in Act I and Sibyl in Act II; Portman took on the roles of John and Major Pollock. In a 1983 television production directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), Julie Christie and Alan Bates played the four roles.

Niven no longer as "the Major."
Delbert Mann's film adaptation of Separate Tables casts four fine actors in the key roles--but with mixed results. David Niven and Deborah Kerr effortlessly capture the fragile relationship between the Major and Sibyl, two damaged souls who keep their emotions in check--even as they try to express them to one another. For much of the film, Niven plays Pollock playing the role of the loud braggart, who has recounted his made-up military exploits so many times that he almost believes them. Yet, that requires no great acting. It's during a climatic scene--when Pollock finally lets down his guard in front of Sibyl--that Niven shows the true depth of a performance that earned him a Best Actor Oscar. Of course, it helps when you're playing your big scene opposite the marvelous Deborah Kerr, who received an Oscar nomination as Sibyl.

Dame Wendy Hiller.
Unfortunately, as tortured former lovers John and Anne--the showier roles--Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth struggle. Hayworth certainly looks the part of a former fashion model, but she still seems miscast as half of this hate-love couple. The script, adapted by Rattigan and John Gay, deserves some of the blame. Personally, I never became invested in either John or Anne and therefore had no interest in whether they reunited or stay parted. I kept thinking that John was better off staying with Pat, the intelligent, grounded hotel owner (but then again, it seems as though Pat could do way better than John!). Incidentally, Wendy Hiller won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Pat; she's very good, but appears in only a few scenes.

Separate Tables is a skillfully-directed, well-acted film that holds interest--though its critical accolades (including seven Oscar nominations) now seem overrated. Frankly, I think it would have been a stronger film had it dispensed with Table at the Window and expanded Table Number Seven with David Niven and Deborah Kerr. Of course, I suppose that would have made it a different film altogether. 


  1. Interesting character studies in this film. A agree with your view on Kerr/Niven, and Lancaster/Hayworth.

  2. Rick, I enjoyed "Separate Tables" more on my first viewing than I did on subsequent ones. Like you, I think the strongest performances are given by Wendy Hiller, Deborah Kerr, and David Niven. I also think Gladys Cooper is quite effective. The meal sitting at the individual, separate tables is interesting as the hotel residents are mostly all apparently long term ones who of course know one another. That seems rather sad to me. This was a thought provoking entry that I really enjoyed reading. Well done!

  3. Although you have reservations, you've made me really want to see this film, Rick - will hope to do so soon. What a great cast, and of course a great writer in Rattigan.

  4. This is favorite of mine, along with "The Chalk Garden" and "End of an Affair" in the category of stagey films. I thought Lancaster did rather well here but must agree with you and say that Hayworth didn't quite mix in ( not that she was meant to ). Great review - as usual - and what really caught my attention was your mention of a 1983 televised that I got to check out!

  5. I agree that the Lancaster/Hayworth story could have been shunted aside so the film could focus on the Niven/Kerr story. This is my fave David Niven performance; he is heartbreaking here.

  6. I love your statement about the Major: "the loud braggart, who has recounted his made-up military exploits so many times that he almost believes them." David Niven's role is the antithesis of The Phantom in The Pink Panther. I wrote a short post on Separate Tables called "What it Means to be Judgmental." If you would like to read it, here is the link:

  7. I must agree with toto2: short though it may be, Wendy Hiller's performance is possibly the best one in the entire film: playing a woman in love with a man and all too aware that he may be her last chance at love (she is somewhat plain and no longer young), Hiller moves through the film like a breeze; her acting is so effortless that she makes it look like anyone could do what she did here (and as someone who spent nearly twenty years as an actor in regional theatre, I can tell you that "easy" is perhaps the one thing it is NOT).