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Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Separate Tables -1983

Feb 08, 2017



    With major motion pictures looking more like overproduced TV shows: Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fastand Furious: God Only Knows How Many. And binge-watch television programming providing the most satisfyingviewing around: Sherlock, Downton Abbey, In TreatmentI suspect its only a matter of time before I completelyjettison the cinephile conceit of this blog and concentrate exclusively on network television and cable TV. As its awidely-held belief that todays Golden Age is taking place not on movie screens but on the HD flatscreens in ourliving rooms (a great article on the topic can be found here at Joes View); Ill seize upon the current zeitgeist as anopportunity to highlight a 1983 cable-TV adaptation of a play which takes advantage of the intimacy-enhancingattributes of the diminished-screen medium to produce a work a great deal truer to its source material than theOscar-winning 1958 motion picture adaptation. Terence Rattigans two-act play, Separate Tables debuted on Broadway in 1956 after having enjoyed a successfulrun in Londons West End since 1954. Four years later, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, and DeborahKerr starred in a significantly reworked film version that garnered seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture)with awards going to Niven and co-star, Wendy Hiller.


  • Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster in the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables

    Though aware of the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables by reputation, I only just this month got around toactually seeing it. Alas, in spite of its pedigree, cast, awards, and overall fine performances (excluding the jarringlyineffectual duo of Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth. He, doing all of his acting with his teeth; she, going forsuperficial but merely coming off as artificial), I was underwhelmed. A handsome production to be sure, butstrangely inert.But to be fair, I suppose the true source of my dissatisfaction with the Lancaster movie lies in my having beenexposed, just two weeks prior, to the vastly superior 1983 HBO television adaptation of Separate Tables directed byJohn Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust, Sunday, Bloody Sunday) and starringbe still my heartJulie Christie and Alan Bates. Heretofore unknown by me (how was THAT possible?), this film is simply anextraordinary acting showcase for all concerned, and comes off as something of a minor theatrical miracle: thefilmed play that satisfies as a film. It's such a feast of stunning performances and heart-wrenching emotion (far morefaithful to Rattigan's play) that the rather cool film version can't help but pale in comparison.

    Julie Christie as Anne Shankland


  • Julie Christie as Sibyl Railton-Bell

    Alan Bates as John Malcolm Ramsden


  • Alan Bates as Major David Angus Pollock

    Separate Tables was filmed in Bristol, England following the $24 million dollar mega-flop of Schlesinger's HonkyTonk Freeway (1981), a movie that signaled the end of John Schlesinger's glory days as the go-to expatriate directorof big-budget hits. At first glance, the excellence of Separate Tables as a TV-film would appear to signal a kind ofcareer resurgence for John Schlesinger, but instead it represented the last glimmer of brilliance in a steadyprofessional decline for the director that extended from his last hit feature filmthe 1976 thriller, Marathon Mantohis death in 2003.Theres no guessing what lay behind the mediocrity of most of Schlesinger's post-1983 films, but something aboutreturning to his homeland, working with a nearly all-British cast, and being reunited with two actors whose careershe's largely responsible for having ignited (Julie Christie: Darling - 1965, Alan Bates: A Kind of Loving - 1962), bringsout the Schlesinger of old. Always a gifted actor's director with an eye for the broken spirit behind the artifice ofcalm, Separate Tables is top-form John Schlesinger and a triumph on every level. I was hoping for a good movie,but I wasn't expecting a TV-film I hadn't even known existed before this year would turn out to be one of the finestfilms of John Schlesingers very distinguished career.

    Irene Worth as Mrs. Maud Railton-Bell


  • The entirety of Separate Tables occurs within the dining room and lounge of The Beauregard Hotel, a modestresidence hotel in the resort town of Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. Concerning itself with the livesand interactions of the hotels sundry inhabitants - most of them elderly, nearly all of them alone - Act I: Table by theWindow takes place in December, 1954; Act II: Table Number Seven occurs some 18 months later. As is thecustom with most theatrical productions of Separate Tables, the lead roles in Acts I & II, while different characters,are played by the same actors. Thus, not only are we blessed with the reteaming of frequent movie co-stars JulieChristie and Alan Bates (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Go-Between, Return of the Soldier), but we're grantedthe exceptionally rare treat of seeing these awe-inspiring actors in dual roles. (This device was abandoned in thefilm version, which cast different actors in each role and compresses the events of a year and a half into oneoverwrought couple of days.)

    Claire Bloom as Miss Cooper

    In Table by the Window, Julie Christie (looking quite the stunner in an elaborate 50s hairdo that succeeds whereseveral of her high-profile period dramas of the '60s hadn't: getting Christie to abandon her trademark bangs) playsan aging fashion model accidentally reunited with ex-husband Alan Bates, a disgraced Labor politician drowninghis regrets in drink and a one-sided love affair with the hotels compassionate proprietress Claire Bloom. TableNumber Seven has Christie as a childlike, repressed spinster dominated by her mother (the splendid Irene Worth)and infatuated with a posturing military Major (Bates) harboring a dark secret.


  • All of these characters share the common, pitiable trait of fighting to maintain a sense of dignity while struggling tocope with regret, loss, disillusionment, age, fear, and most acutely, loneliness. Within the crippling confines of staid,British social conventionssuch as the doggedly adhered-to tradition of hotel guests dining at separate tables inspite of sometimes years-long associationsSeparate Tables provides a most moving dramatization of thecontradictious nature (frail, yet resilient) of the human soul.

    WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILMIm showing my age when I say I feel the same about good acting as young audiences today feel about noise,explosions, stunts, and special effects: I dont need much else. Separate Tables is pretty much a filmed play.Theres essentially one big set, no superfluous opening up of the sort engaged in by the 1958 film, and if theresany kind of cinematic dexterity on display at all, its Schlesingers ability to come up with so many interesting anglesin such cramped quarters (although a pesky boom mic shadow makes an appearance in one scene). But with a castas talented as the one assembled for this TV movie, all you can wish for is that the director keep the filmmakinggimmicks to a minimum and just let the actors do their stuff. And, happily, that is just what Schlesinger does. The


  • performances in Separate Tables are the main attraction, and let me tell you, there's not a IMAX CGI experiencethat can match the thrill of