As some of you may know, I have been on a mission for a while now. My goal is to see and review every single film that has been nominated for best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Of course, with the 1928 nominee, The Patriot, being a lost film, that may seem like an impossible mission. No matter! For me, nothing is impossible. What Lisa wants, Lisa gets.) For that reason, I spent part of last night watching the 1958 best picture nominee, Separate Tables, on TCM.
Separate Tables is one of the more forgotten of the best picture nominees but then again, the 50s were not the greatest decade as far as the Academy was concerned. Consider some of the other films released in 1958: Big Deal on Madonna Street, High School Confidential, Indiscreet, The Last Hurrah, Machine-Gun Kelly, The Fly, The Blob, The Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Some Came Running, Thunder Road, A Touch Of Evil, and Vertigo! The thing they all have in common is that none of them were nominated for best picture but Separate Tables was.
That’s not to say that Separate Tables was, in any way, a bad film. Actually, it’s a pretty good film and I’m glad that I watched it. It’s not bad at all. However, it is … what’s the right term to use here? Stately perhaps? Maybe stagey. Separate Tables is based on two one-act plays and, though it’s obvious that some effort was made to open up the material, it still feels undeniably stage-bound. Separate Tables was directed by Delbert Mann, who had previously won an Oscar for his lively direction of Marty. With Separate Tables, his direction is far less lively. Watching it, you get the feeling that he was not only straight-jacketed by the theatrical origins of the material but also by the fact that the film was clearly made to win Academy Awards.
So, ignore the direction and pay attention to the performances. Separate Tables works best as a tribute to good acting. The film follows the lives of several guests at an English seaside hotel. Some people are just staying for a few days. Some people live at the hotel. John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) is a moody writer, a recovering alcoholic who is planning on asking the hotel’s manager, the level-headed Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller), to marry him. Of course, then his ex-wife, Anne (Rita Hayworth), shows up. As quickly becomes obvious, John and Anne may hate each other but they also love each other. Neither one is particularly sympathetic but, in their scenes together, Lancaster and Hayworth do create a fascinating portrait of mutual self-destruction. Ultimately, you’re left with the impression that both of them are so self-destructive that they belong together, if just to keep from drawing anyone else into their messed up orbit.
And then there’s Major Pollock (David Niven). David Niven won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Major Pollock and he does give an excellent performance. Major Pollock is one of those roles that often seems to attract comedic actors looking for a chance to prove their dramatic abilities. When he first appears, he seems to be a bit of a joke but then, as the film progresses, we learn that he’s actually struggling with his own demons. In the case of Major Pollock, those demons are more hinted at than defined. As we learn at the start of the film, Pollock was convicted of “harassing” several “young women” at a movie theater. Separate Tables does not make clear how young or, for that matter, the exact details of the harassment. Some residents of the hotel want Major Pollock to be kicked out of the hotel. Some residents say that it is none of their business and that everyone deserves a second chance. John Malcolm is in the latter group, though he’s more concerned with his ex-wife than with the scandalous Major (who, to no one’s great surprise, isn’t actually a major and whose war stories have all largely been lies). Also seeking to defend Major Pollock is the shy Sibyl (Deborah Kerr, playing against type). Sibyl’s mother (Gladys Cooper) is among those most determined to exile Pollock.
And really, the only reason this plotline works is because of the performances of Niven and Kerr. As written, it’s way too vague about the exact details of what it was that Pollock did. We’re just told that he was caught “behaving immorally.” (According to Wikipedia, Pollock was originally written as being gay but, apparently, that was considered to be too controversial for 1958, hence the mention that Pollock’s crime involved “young women.”) But Niven gives such a soulful and wounded performance that, much like Sibyl, you want to believe the best about him. You want to give him a second chance, even though you know he’s going to let you down. As Major Pollock, David Niven uses his trademark charm to paint a portrait of a man who is painfully aware that he has little to offer beyond charm.
At the same time, I was surprised by how little screen time Niven actually had in Separate Tables. The majority of the film is taken up with Lancaster and Hayworth. Niven definitely deserved some consideration for best supporting actor but best actor? Not in the year that saw Orson Welles in Touch of Evil and James Stewart in Vertigo.
Separate Tables is not a great film, at least not in the way that we might wish that a film nominated for best picture would be. It’s way too stagey and vague. But, with all that in mind, it’s still wonderfully acted and always watchable. It may not be great but it is very, very good.
Separate Tables was nominated for best picture but lost to Gigi.